Lebanon’s architectural landscape reinvented at Venice biennale

The project of the Lebanese pavilion is a cartographic inventory of the remaining spaces allowing to reconsider Beirut as a territorial city benevolent, welcoming and caring for its hinterland.
Sunday 09/12/2018
Curator Hala Younes (3rd-L) at the inauguration of the Lebanese pavilion. (La Biennale di Venezia)
A message of hope. Curator Hala Younes (3rd-L) at the inauguration of the Lebanese pavilion. (La Biennale di Venezia)

BEIRUT - While stressing the chaotic urbanisation that has taken over large green spaces and the mountains, Lebanese architects at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition — La Biennale di Venezia — conveyed a message of hope by spotlighting the potential of the country’s many undeveloped spaces.

The project of the Lebanese pavilion, titled “The Place That Remains,” is a cartographic inventory of the remaining spaces allowing to reconsider Beirut as a territorial city benevolent, welcoming and caring for its hinterland, said pavilion curator Hala Younes.

“A lot (of space) has been lost but a lot remains. We have to build on what remains not in the sense of constructing, but how we can preserve it and reuse it in order to create a liveable environment,” Younes said.

“The main problem in Lebanon is that the land is not valued for anything else than real estate development. It is being used without proper planning of where to build, where to plant and what to preserve. The idea is to say that our land should produce something else than real estate income. It should produce food and a better environment,” she said.

Lebanon’s first participation in the biennale marked the centennial of the Great Famine of World War I that depopulated Mount Lebanon. Then, the single-crop farming of mulberry in addition to locust devastation and war blockades caused one of the great tragedies of the country’s history.

“The past silk-worm rearing that had taken place at the expense of food agriculture has been replaced by the real estate market,” Younes said. “It is important to produce food as well as a meaningful and poetic environment, something where we would like to live.”

For the Venice exhibition, a section of Lebanon — territory from Beirut to Zahleh in the Bekaa Valley — was surveyed and taken as a model example.

“We chose the water basin of Beirut River as a sample of the territory to support the idea that a territory is something vital and alive,” Younes said, adding that it constitutes the natural extension of Beirut.

She said Beirut is not a city that stops at the suburbs but an area that extends on the mountains around it. “You can even say that Beirut extends on the whole coast and that Lebanon is one city. We are among the most densely populated countries and the city is everywhere. It is the new condition of Lebanon.”

This “territorial city” is mixed with nature and has many empty areas that are not used in the traditional ways for agriculture or pasture but can be considered for other uses that would serve the inhabitants, Younes maintained.

“When the whole area becomes a city, the forest is valued as an urban park. It is another scale of urbanism. We need to change the scale of the city and the use of the land,” she added.

The main installation at the pavilion was a cartographic inventory consisting of six maps projected on a wooden 3D topographic model.

One map shows the network of water in the selected section of the territory as a common good that needs to be preserved. Another displays the geology of the terrain as a guideline on how the land is occupied. A third shows the extensions of the city and how it is spreading everywhere and becoming completely mixed with nature.

The fourth map shows the road network, while the fifth map highlights the forest areas and agriculture land and the sixth map identifies lands that have no specific use.

“The unused land is not a building nor a road or a forest or agriculture land. It is the place that we call ‘the place that remains.’ There are a lot of them,” Younes said. “They can become gardens, playgrounds or places where the social links can happen. By highlighting these unused and empty spaces we aim to say and think that there is a horizon for hope.”

The pavilion included the work of six Lebanese photographers who were invited to interpret the exhibition’s theme through a series of 30 photos illustrating a specific point of view.

Comparative aerial photographs taken in 1956 and 2008 from 35 towns and villages along Beirut River valley were also featured. They showed the evolution of the landscape and built environment in the hinterland of Beirut over five decades.

“This territory we call ‘the place that remains’ is our last monument,” Younes said. “We must preserve it as we do with old houses. It is the horizon we still have to draw, to preserve in order to deserve a meaningful territory.”

The pavilion will be shown in Beirut in the spring.