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Vision of another Lebanon presented at the Venice Architecture Biennale

Jun 17

Vision of another Lebanon presented at the Venice Architecture Biennale

In a long, wide corridor in a fort where arms were once stored, a three-dimensional map sits on a table. Every minute or so, the map changes colours. Green sections suddenly replace a web of white veins until the map flashes red and black lines creep across it.

“Each map asks questions and provides a horizon,” said Hala Younes, a Beirut architect and geographer who organised the Pavilion of Lebanon at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. The map – 184 by 720 centimetres – is a profile of a swath of Lebanon from the coast to the hills in the east. Overhead projectors provide the colour effects that reflect changes in land and water use over the decades.

The exhibition is called The Place That Remains, and it substitutes strong doses of geography for conventional architecture.

'This territory is our last monument'

The idea behind it, says Younes, who teaches architecture at Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut, “is that we’re one of the world’s most densely populated countries, and there’s not much space left. That’s why we call the pavilion The Place That Remains,” she said. “We think that the space in question is something very precious. This is an inventory, so we can use it to manage that space – an inventory of maps, photographs, and aerial images.”

That inventory documents the sprawl of Greater Beirut and the river basin east of the city that leads to it. Younes pointed to the enormous map, ringed with photographs. “We wanted to show that, for us, this territory is our last monument, and that this monument has a geological pedestal. This territory, known for its beauty since antiquity and the Bible, is what is most valuable to us,” she said, pointing to the map where the light was changing colour. “That’s why we brought this enormous territorial model to Venice.”

Lebanon is participating in the architecture biennale for the first time, without much of a budget, hence the limited space. The pavilion looked smaller than the space assigned to Kosovo, another small country, across the hall.

Help from an unlikely source

Younes said taking Lebanon’s first pavilion to the architecture bienniale was partly her initiative. “I brought a team together, and I thought, ‘We have 700 architecture graduates who get diplomas every year, and we have a country that’s in the process of ruining itself every day. We can’t afford not to be there. We have to say ‘there’s the horizon’.” The vast map began as a slab of plywood. An architect who is also a cabinetmaker designed the map and built it with a machine that sliced and dug the wood away to form coastline, hills, ridges, valleys and riverbeds.

“Architecture can’t just be the design of quaint objects,” said Younes. “The pavilion is asking what we can do with architecture. How can architecture have meaning, if it’s not the consideration of place, and its way of giving meaning to a place? Then what good is it? Without considering the landscape, then we’re just designing objects.”

Lebanon presents a challenge. The state does not own much of the country’s land, although various religious communities own land that is used by the public. Water is at least as scarce as land. Yet even as Beirut, the country’s capital, sprawls outward, landscapes that were once agricultural have been abandoned and lie vacant. Without animals grazing, pine forests have grown back in the sandy soil – a reforestation in a densely-populated landscape.

Younes and her team of about 15 architects received help from an unlikely source for their inventory, the Lebanese army. The aerial photographs on the walls were loaned to the project by the country’s military. General Moustapha Messelmani, director of Geographic Affairs of the Lebanese Army, was in Venice’s old arms depot for the pavilion’s opening.

The overhead pictures that came from the army document the evolution of the landscape. “We gave her everything that we could, so she could develop the layers of her project that shows images from before and after,” said Messelmani. “It’s more extensive than anything we expected.”

The projectors switched images. For a minute, several rectangles appeared on the illuminated topographical map. As visitors wondered what those shapes might mean, Younes pointed to aerial photographs on the walls which were those rectangles, enlarged for minute detail. “That’s the beauty of maps,” she said.

Lebanon as a shared land

In a country that was ravaged by war for more than four decades, the pavilion does not dwell on that history. Yet the landscape still reflects one aspect of the conflicts that tore Lebanon apart. During the Syrian occupation of 1976-2005, the Syrian army built bases in Lebanon. The Syrians also mined the valleys, Younes said, and many of the deadly devices planted there remain in the ground in spite of efforts to remove them.

“The unintended effect is that nothing was built in those areas, providing us with open space,” she said. “I even had a map of where the mines are, which we could have used, but I didn’t feel like talking about the war.” Along that line, the pavilion tries to redirect the discussion from Lebanon as a divided land to Lebanon as a shared land. “What we share is our geography. Water is the symbol of the common good,” said Younes.

A short film about water by the cinematographer Talal Khoury, presented on a split screen, gives little encouragement. The film follows the Beirut River’s journey from its source in the inland hills to its mouth in Beirut, “where the river eventually winds up as a sewer, unfortunately,” said Younes. “It symbolises our condition as Lebanese.”

Khoury, the filmmaker, picks up that analogy in the pavilion’s catalogue. “Following the river from its sources to the estuary would be like following a newborn child through adulthood and finally to its early death.” Water appears as projected veins on the topographical map.

A more encouraging message comes on another wall. A mural-sized photograph by Gilbert Hage observes a near-vertical cliff where a few built structures can be seen at different levels, separated by dense pines that cover most of the space. “We can see that it’s empty,” said Hage. “In a small country like Lebanon, every square centimetre matters. This is free space because it’s vertical. It’s a dream.”

A dream, or as Younes would put it, a monument. “The monument is no longer a church or a cathedral or a square,” she said, pointing once again at her model and its projections, “it’s a valley. That’s what becomes a landmark or a monument. That’s what enables a city to breathe and be more than urban sprawl.”