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Architecture

CoverScales of Revolt: Within and Beyond the Arab Spring was an exploratory essay that I wrote for the volume FREE: Architecture on the Loose edited by E. Sean Bailey and Erandi de Silva. The essay I wrote attempted to link the Arab uprisings (or Arab Spring, I prefer uprisings) to contemporary academic debates on geographical scale.

The essay focuses on the self-immolation of Muhammed Bouazizi that sparked the Arab uprisings and – given that the Arab uprisings influence on movements such as Occupy Wall Street – global revolt and how this event can be framed as a productive entry point to think about issues of geographical scale. Specifically, the idea that there is a nested hierarchy of scale that goes from the body, to the nation and the finally to the global (like a Russian doll) is problematic when confronted by an event like Bouazizi’s protest suicide. Simply, how could a self-immolation that occurred at the scale of the body produce such a scale of revolt? But this question led to a more complicated one of how the body is not an isolated unit and it is what happens between bodies that can be most important. Can scale cope with the in-betweeness of social life? I don’t think it is a question I fully answered, and this may be my own limits, but it could also be due to the limits of geographical scale. Can we really foreground conclusions over what is big and what is small?

Scale is a critical concept in the architectural profession and one that some have started to think about seriously. Rem Koolhaas of course published S,M,L, XL and has an intelligent approach to questions of scale.

In addition to my essay, FREE contains a great collection of essays and interviews, here is the blurb:

Introducing ‘FREE’

There is implicit conflict in the word ‘free’. While culturally we celebrate the infinite opportunities afforded by the ‘freedom to’, the term also alludes to emancipation, a break from a captive state, or a ‘freedom from’. ‘Free’ is, at its core, an architectural concept. Architecture is a discipline directly engaged with shaping enclosure, of erecting and toppling barriers or—more explicitly—of extending and limiting ‘freedoms’.

Spatial interventions have reorganized much of the material and immaterial world. These actions are evident in the revolutionary public protests of the Arab Spring, the rehabilitation and adoption of land in Detroit and the invention and immanence of digital space. These types of reconfigurations offer a means of breaking with the past to establish new paradigms of operation and actualization. On the other hand, a lack of intervention can also prove to be equally liberating by allowing existing conditions to flourish, whether in nature or an alternate wilderness.

The book has recently received a great review by Domus:

“Free? What do you mean I’m free? I don’t feel free; if anything I feel the opposite.” This condition, what we could call the ‘abyss of freedom’ [1] is responded to in a variety of ways. Authors such as Bernd Upmeyer, Deen Sharp and Corbin Keech individually approach this as a task of making order out of chaos, largely by way of diagnosis and prescription of a well-reasoned theoretical framework.

Ici-et-ailleurs (here and elsewhere) is the title of the new exhibition at the New Museum in New York on art from and about the Arab world that I have been to see twice now. The title of the exhibition is taken from the fascinating French documentary of the same title (see video above) by Jean-Pierre Gorin, Jean-Luc Goddard and Anne-Marie Melville.

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Qalandia 2087 by Wafa Hourani

The documentary made in 1976 is about Palestinian revolutionaries and focuses on the problematic between the image and politics. An issue of course more relevant than ever at the moment and what better place for it than here, New York. There is a lot a material in this exhibition and I am going to focus on one small part, of one small part, of the exhibition, specifically the use of mirrors in Qalandia 2087.

I was really interested in the use of “architectural” models as art pieces in the exhibition (I am thinking a lot about the socio-spatial uses of such models at the moment) and specifically Qalandia 2087 by Wafa Hourani, the third part of a series called the Future Cities (see images of the artwork here).

Hourani has produced an architectural model of a utopian vision of Qalandia one hundred years after the first intifada. Online (here) I found an interesting timeline of Qalandia 2087 by Hourani that I did not see at the exhibition and that seems important to understand the piece. In 1948, following the Nakba, Qalandia became home to thousands of refugees. The name Qalandia comes from a nearby airport of the same name. The Qalandia refugee camp that formed became a pivotal space, located between north Jerusalem and south Ramallah. According to Hourani’s timeline, the year 2087 is when the Mirror Party sign a historic agreement with the new Israeli government and the Palestinians are given the right of return and the 1967 lands back.

Mirrors are important to the piece, and from the information on Hourani’s timeline, have been placed on the Israeli Wall by the Mirror Party “to create the illusion of more space, and seeing their reflection everywhere, begin to wonder how they got in there” and (of course) the mirror has made it into the Guinness Book of Records for the largest mirror in the world. In 2087 when the historic agreement is signed the Wall is not taken down but the cement is taken down and a mirror is fixed to the other side.

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Qalandia 2087 by Wafa Hourani

The insertion of mirrors and use of mirrors in this piece reminds me of two pieces and provides interesting connectors to Hourani’s piece and speak to two possible understandings of how this future city ended up with two of the largest mirrors in the world facing opposite each other.

The first is Mumford’s Technics and Civilization where Mumford highlights the introduction of the mirror (glass coated with a silver amalgam) in the sixteenth century and the transformative impact this had on society: “Self-consciousness, introspection, mirror conversation developed with the new object itself: this preoccupation with one’s image comes at the threshold of the mature personality when young Narcissus gazes long and deep into the face of the pool – and the sense of the separate personality, a perception of the objective attributes of one’s identity, grows out of this communion.” This passage resonates with Hourani’s model that is a vision that provides a critique of Palestinian social life, as much as, the Israeli occupation. Later Mumford delivers this: “Indeed, when one is completely whole and at one with the world one does not need the mirror: it is in the period of psychic disintegration that the individual personality turns to the lonely image to see what is in fact is there and what he can hold on to; and it was in the period of cultural disintegration that men began to hold the mirror up to outer nature.”

The other piece of writing that this use of mirrors reminded me of is Eyal Weizman’s chapter in Hollow Land on Checkpoints: The Split Sovereign and the One-Way Mirror. And surprise suprise the chapter features… Qalandia checkpoint! “The upgrade of the Qalandia terminal crossing, which connects (or rather disconnects) Jerusalem from Ramallah, was completed, according to the principles of the Spiegel plan, at the end of 2005. The new system includes a labyrinth of iron fences that channels passengers en route to Jerusalem via a series of turnstiles… The inspection booths are encased in bulletproof glass. The glass is so thick that it tends to reflect the outside light rather than letting it through, thereby obscuring the security personnel inside, and effectively functioning as a one-way mirror”.

I have been very happy of late to see that Lebanese civil society is mobilising to save Lebanon’s built environment. While it is a little late (according to the Lebanese Culture Minister of the 1,200 old mansions and buildings inventoried in 1995 a mere 400 survive) there is an increasing awareness of the importance of architecture to Lebanese identity. Even the government has decided to step in on the act creating a hotline for people to call in and report historic buildings due for demolition. There has at last been an active response to the realisation that Beirut (in particular) has basically sold its historical urban fabric to  greedy urbacidal developers who subsequently destroy anything on their new plot of land and erect a 20/30/50 (depending on what they can get away with) tower. Hopefully the debate over Beirut’s – and Lebanon’s – built environment will increase before it is all squandered.

One added aspect that always frustrates me among civil society activists on this issue is that those buildings considered worth saving are always restricted to those of the Ottoman era. I have written extensively on Beirut’s rich built environment and the city has made an extensive, indigenous and important contribution to the Modern Movement. This is also rapidly being destroyed and I hope civil society activists will also expand their calls to preserve these buildings as well.

Here is an article I wrote for the Guardian a while back on the battle for Beirut’s buildings:

The built environment of Beirut is rapidly changing, and this transformation is destroying much of the city’s rich architectural fabric. Surrounded by the new towering Beirut is the unique and heavily scarred structure of the Egg.

Built by the Lebanese architect Joseph-Philippe Karam in 1965, and dubbed “the Egg” due to its curved form, it is the only surviving building in the downtown area from Lebanon’s vibrant avant-garde movement. Much of the rest of this heritage was destroyed during the civil war (1975-1990), a legacy marked on the outer skin of the Egg.

The Egg, after surviving the war, may not survive the recovery. Beirut’s booming real estate market is resulting in the removal of Beirut’s unique built heritage to make way for the ubiquitous skyscraper. The threat of the Egg being destroyed sparked a wave of emotion among many Lebanese increasingly distressed at the continued demolition of their architectural heritage. There has been substantial online activism andmedia attention to stop Abu Dhabi Investment House, the owners of the site, destroying the Egg. The activists are also vexed by the fact that it is a company from the Gulf that will decide whether the structure will be removed or not. Comments such as “Our identity and culture as Lebanese is not for sale for Gulf millionaires,” capture the frustration.

The Egg is at the centre of a battle over the future of Beirut and the type of city it should become. Beirut has a wonderful and prolific architectural heritage, as does Lebanon as a whole. Although the city has been plagued by successive urban planning failures, a quality urban fabric of Ottoman and French colonial-style buildings did establish itself. As an independent Lebanon entered the 1950s a layer of significant modernist buildings was added. This continued into the 1960s and Beirut, by the end of that decade, had a internationally significant and unique body of modernist architecture. This rich heritage, built mainly by Lebanese master builders and architects, is being squandered.

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My latest piece for http://www.allvoices.com is on Lebanon’s built environment. The destruction of Lebanon’s built heritage is a very disturbing negative aspect of the very good business that is real estate development. Without an effective state the ability to enforce protection measures the continued destruction of Lebanon’s rich built environment will erode away to the chaotic city that is already emerging:

Lebanon has seen remarkable boom in real estate construction over the past two years. Construction sites dominate Beirut and the sound of drilling emanates from all parts of the city. Real estate investment is derived from a large part of the Lebanese economy which has achieved a growth rate of 7 percent in 2009 and looks to continue growing this year. While many have been enjoying the rich dividends from these real estate investments, the unplanned and unrestricted developments are causing many people to lament the state of the built environment in Beirut.

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There are lots of exciting things going on in the Middle East architecturally and not just in the attention magnet of Dubai. Sustainable architecture is spreading throughout the region and interesting projects are being developed. Not enough I admit and the uptake is painfully slow. But on a more positive note along with the the flatscreen TVs and other electronics the store opposite my place now has a advert for solar panels for water heating. It is a mystery to me why Lebanon, like in Greece, have not caught on to the fact that solar panels for heating water is very cost effective…but anyway it looks as if it is slowly starting to catch on! I have written a review of a few of these sustainable designs in the region for Real Magazine:

Architecture and politics are very much interconnected. Looking at Lebanon through it’s built environment illustrates the political system of the country and how much it is both shaped and shapes the people around it.

The most prominent architectural symbol in Lebanon is the reconstruction of Downtown Beirut. Solidere have remarkably and rapidly reconstructed the once ruined Downtown area of Beirut a defiant gesture against the destruction of the civil war. A mark of Lebanese resilience to what has happened to them during the civil war but also an illustration of what is still happening to them. Solidere is of course mired in scandal after scandal as to misappropriation of land and of course the major issue that many Lebanese (living in Lebanon) can neither afford to buy/rent/shop in their own central district. It is intriguing to walk around Downtown Beirut to find it is almost built for Gulf and European tourists and used as such. An articulation of Lebanese politics and politicians who practice, or maybe perfect, political realism par excellence.

Currently, Lebanon is experiencing a real estate bonanza; massive towers of glass and steel are rising everywhere and uncontrolled development is rampant. What the built environment tells you about Lebanon is that the private sector here is flourishing able to build large scale high quality developments but the floundering state leaves a sense of anarchy about the environment. The individual can flourish, the family can flourish but the national collective cannot.

The lack of planning laws is evident; huge buildings being built completely out of context from its surroundings and effectively destroying the urban fabric. Here the big man rules. If you happen to live in a four story building then enjoy the view, the sunlight and the air while you can because it could be taken away from you at any moment. The only way to be safe from the terror of construction is to be high and to be big.

The intellectual prowess of the Lebanese also shines through in the built environment but also the nihilism. Only Egypt can compete in the nearby states to Lebanon’s recent architectural heritage. The Egg is one such example of this substantial contribution; designed by Lebanese architect Joseph-Philippe Karam, who also trained in Lebanon, this unique example of Lebanese modernist architecture lays in tatters with the threat  destruction for another tower that tells of another side to Lebanon. Although many Lebanese want to save the Egg and see it as a battle of what they rightly call the Dubaification of Lebanon, Solidere effectively sold away to Abu Dhabi Investment House the chance for the Lebanese tohave a say in the preservation or destruction of the Egg.

This is yet another story of Lebanese politics tied into the built environment: Foreign Interference and Foreign Investment. The Habtoor Hotel in Sin el-Fil (just outside Beirut) and the Ain Mresseih area are just two of the most obvious visual expression of how Gulf capital is transforming Lebanon where the large amounts of foreign capital are enabling massive developments of steel and glass that are wiping away previous architecture mainly of Ottoman and French heritage. One foreign master’s legacy is wiped away by the next. While the Gulf masters build their mega-structures the Iranian masters also make their contribution to Lebanon’s built environment through financing the reconstruction in the Southern Suburbs.

The Gulf and Iranian investments into the Lebanese built environment reveal one very interesting fact that both build predominately in the Western style. The idea of reinventing an Islamic or Arab architectural language or even one that makes reference to such an idea has been done away with. However, my interview with Rifat Chadirji, for Bespoke magazine, tried to articulate that a vision for this fusion or more reflective architectural language has been created by the architectural movers and shakers it just needed developers with the will to implement such a style.

In the built environment the “West is Best” is being followed in Lebanon but not always ensuring that the “Best of the West”. Originality is certainly a force that drives the “West” and this is not something that is being strived for enough in the built environment and much the same can be said for the political sphere. Maybe one here or there. In Solidere an unofficial list of international architects, of which there are no Lebanese and only a small number of Arab architects, that are allowed to design buildings in the Solidere area gives an upsetting account of the lack of confidence of the sons and daughters of Lebanon. This has been described to me by one of Beirut’s most prominent architects as policy as a throw back to the darkest days of colonialism.

This is some of what I have found from the brick and mortar, the steel and glass of Beirut and its environs….