The return of the dispossessed


(Photo Sean Hemmerle)

You will have noticed that we’ve been updating our links since new year. While trawling our bookmarks we noticed a thread of links about apocalypse that we discussed in our last post but also about attempts to adapt to catastrophes/war/dystopias, providing visions of a future that is all too possible.

Beirut seems to be the test bed of cataclysmic adaptation. The most interesting Beirut link, because of its clear personal tone, is the unbuilt architecture blog, the source of this image

which did the blog rounds recently.

After destruction through war or any other inhumane deployment of technology, capital and energy, we are left with sites, minds and societies unbuilt. Leveled to the ground. Making room for denial, doubt and a divided society. Understandable but unacceptable. This condition needs those who dare to envision perspectives beyond the ruins…

Bullet holes adaptively reused as art or lighting? or their public space project?

Unbuilt do their public space project in Beirut’s dysfunctional public spaces but the lack of public space is common throughout the developed world, a physical reflection of the atomised social pathology. First world cities increasingly consist of private spaces pretending to be public where you are welcome only if you have money to spend,


(Photo helixblue)

places like Boca Raton, Florida where the only genuinely public spaces are the roads.

ArtAfterCrisis, ” a weblog reporting on the role of art in crisis areas” also visits Beirut. Author Chis Keulemans describes his mission to document creative adaptation

I am interested in the ability of artists and intellectuals to reinvent society after the peace has been signed or the dictator has been toppled. How does their work reflect the horrors of the past? How do they reclaim public space in their cities? Do they contribute to or criticize the new collective identity of their society? How do they communicate with the world outside?

Talking about Hassan Choubassi’s map

of the (fictional) Beirut Metro he says

Riëtte, my girlfriend and photographer, spent hours with Choubassi visiting several of the most prominent stops on his fictional Metro Map: places that were crossroads on the demarcation line between the Christian East and the Muslim West parts of town during the civil war of 1975 to 1990.

How do these places look today, and what were the stories behind them?

Adaptive reuse is the only possible way to live in a war torn city.

In the book Traces of Life (2003), the result of a research [Tony Chakar] did with colleague Naji Assi and their students of architecture into the maze of a poor laborer’s neighborhood called Rouwaysset, he describes how densely populated slums like these create their own urban space. ‘The relationship of a building in Rouwaysset with the surrounding buildings and spaces is a relationshiop of mutual and continually renewed violence – a violence that both defines the shape of these buildings and spaces and is defined by them.’

What strikes me is the use of the word violence. Building places for people to live, eat and make babies in is not usually associated with violence. And he is not talking about the violence that may come with the razing down of whole neighborhoods to create spaces of power (like in Ceausescu’s Bucharest) or commerce (like the Jakarta shopping malls), he uses the word to describe the day-to-day push and shove of new additions to existing infrastructure, the perpetual festering of concrete, glass and iron that goes on so stubbornly in Beirut, that it makes it seductive – here more than in many other cities – to compare it to a living organism. Layer upon layer, it grows into a never-ending palimpsest of histories.

Finally, there is a section about Beirut in Worldview,

a web-based project of the Architectural League of New York that invites architects from around the world to present reports on what is new and interesting in architecture and urbanism in their cities, with a particular focus on cities and regions that are not adequately reported on by the mainstream architectural press.

Elie Haddad edits the section on Beirut and he comments

Some historians have attributed the destruction of the city to a latent hatred for what Beirut had come to represent for many of those living on its margins, i.e. an exclusive concentration of economic and political powers that reduced the rest of the population to a condition of subservience. In one post-war documentary, a militiaman candidly recounted the feeling of satisfaction that he and his comrades felt as they entered one of the grand hotels, heretofore a symbol of those in power, and violently took their sweet revenge on the place and all that it symbolized.

Therein lies the warning that cities like Beirut pose, that the exploited and dispossessed will have their revenge. The most immediate and effective solution to global warming would be the immediate and complete destruction of western industrial consumerist society. The disastrous consequences of consumerist greed are now being visited unfairly on the vast majority of the planet’s population who never received any of its benefits. Who could blame them for the most violent retaliation, especially as the destruction of our industrial economies would put an immediate end to the source of all emissions?


(Photo Abdallah Kahil)

Anyone who believes that would be impossible has not learned the lessons of Vietnam, Afghanistan and now Iraq, that a low tech society can always ultimately defeat a high tech military. And a low tech society will be best adapted to survive the next few centuries of chaos.

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