Daring to dream about Beirut’s ‘Dream Palace’

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A couple of weeks ago, I picked up ‘Inside the Dream Palace,’ a book by Sherill Tippins on the life and death of New York City’s Chelsea Hotel. I had never heard of the hotel, but the delicious back cover description promised a detailed narrative touching on sociology’s influence on architecture, architecture’s effect on people and people’s impact on their city. I have long been obsessed with the idea that architecture — in a broad interpretation that considers art and literature — will save Beirut; hence I find the story of utopian architecture, creating the possibility of a cooperative community, very relevant to this city.

Before delving into the relevance of the Chelsea project to Beirut, I would like to propose the hypothesis that we, the Lebanese people, are living in the past, in the structural sense. While some countries have zero carbon footprint car-sharing systems and enforce peculiar notions such as human rights, others live in neo-colonial limbo as destitute markets, struggling for electricity, with no access to clean food and water. Considering these benchmarks, it would be amusing to compare 2015 Beirut to 19th century New York City, which is where ‘Inside the Dream Palace’ begins — a city characterized by governmental and institutional corruption, failures that incited the birth of ‘The Chelsea cooperative.” On that note, maybe if we admit that we are inhabiting the past, instead of pretending to be a diverse, avant-garde society, we will be able to change our status quo.

‘The Chelsea” was designed by architect Philip Gengembre Hubert, and inspired by sociologist Charles Fourier’s Phalanstère concept. The Phalanstère was a type of building designed to house and serve a utopian community of between 500 and 2000 people, who would work for mutual benefit in pursuit of individual and collective emancipation. To Fourier, the traditional house is a place of exile and oppression. A productive society requires a different architecture, to his mind, one that connected work, leisure and social interaction.

In a Phalanstère, each individual does what they want to do in life, not what they have to do in order to live. For income, this communal residence rents out parts of its residential sections and sells the work of its artisans/artists or its farmers’ produce. Fourier was so convinced of this idea that he wrote that he “would not be surprised if a full fledged Phalanstère produced a Milton or a Moliere with every generation.”

Built on the belief that a society could only thrive through diversity, ‘The Chelsea” opened its doors in 1884, with apartments to fit a wide range of residents, ranging from 74 square meter studios to elaborate 300 square meter apartments to artist lofts — all beneath a rooftop garden. Currently an abandoned, historical landmark, this building enjoyed a vibrant life of ups and downs, producing a surreal diversity that drew in writers, thinkers, actors, film directors, artists and musicians such as Mark Twain, Allen Ginsberg, Jean-Paul Sartre, Stanley Kubrick, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Willem de Kooning and Robert Maplethorpe, to name but a few.

We tout our diversity in Lebanon, but most of us know very little about real coexistence. We are the most diverse country in the Middle East because we are surrounded by dictatorships, not because we are actually diverse. For a patch of land to host people from different religious backgrounds is not an accomplishment in itself. Another way of putting it is that, while we boast 18 sects, Lebanon is merely a haven for believers in God. It is difficult to exist outside the palette of religious sects and their civic implications. Lebanon is not a diverse country. It merely allows different ways to do the same thing: believe in God and fight over “him” occasionally.

If the Chelsea building was a socio-architectural intervention, presenting an alternative proposal to life in New York City, could a relevant counterpart be beneficial to Beirut? What would the equivalent be here? If diversity and cross-pollination are necessary components of social evolution, we currently don’t stand a chance.

In Lebanon, architecture is a rarely used tool in the service of bettering society, but, right now, it’s the most logical option. Rents are going up, and the youth of this city are being evicted by proxy. Most young Beirutis are doing jobs that they hate just to barely get by. Add that to the exponential scaling back of personal freedoms, with bans on public and private life, and staying here no longer seems a particularly appetizing prospect. The government is highly unlikely to invest in such reformative projects — if not constitutionally incapable of doing so — so the example of the Chelsea cooperative, a private project with motivated stakeholders, is a useful template.

Beirut’s cultural scene is already funded by private investment. Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, offers a free, annual art program at their space in Beirut. Next door, Beirut Art Center’s annual Exposure program gives space to upcoming artists to display their work. The Mansion, a 1930s Ottoman-style villa that was acquired almost rent-free for five years, is a multi-purpose collective space in Beirut’s Zoqaq el-Blat neighborhood that hosts cultural and artistic activities. The Monnot Theatre hosts young troupe’s performances, most recently Zoukak’s “He Who Saw Everything.”

It’s good to know that a lot of people are doing a lot of things to understand and represent our communal home, but it’s also good to wonder how, and find ways, to combine these forces to propel us forward as a society. As interesting as a lot of the above-mentioned initiatives are, they are out of touch with mainstream society. Like the Lebanese god-driven society, the art-driven forces are exclusive – perhaps unintentionally, in this case.

That limits the (r)evolutionary power of our cultural scene, and precisely that limitation makes the Chelsea cooperative so tempting as a model. Beirut is a broken place. Broken places require renovation. Until now, most renovation has consisted of patching up old buildings, rather than weaving the city together. Could a ‘Dream Palace’ change the course of Beirut? If we design for diversity and collective acceptance, would that birth a cooperative community or another abandoned structure? Fourier’s opinion of traditional housing as places of exile and oppression applies to Beirut two decades later. By occupying small homes that obscure the big city around them and make sharing impossible, Beirutis are living in involuntary exile and killing their city in the process.

By creating functional and relevant architecture, it’s possible to imagine a new communal architecture so invigorating that it produces a Salwa Raouda Choucair, a Sabah, a Omar Zaani, or a Joseph Philippe Karam with every generation.

Raafat Majzoub is an architect, author and artist living in Beirut

Comments

" Lebanon is not a diverse country. It merely allows different ways to do the same thing: believe in God and fight over “him” occasionally. . "

A rather miserly and myopic, perhaps even sickly characterization.

I understand that the tone of your blog here is one of whimsical musing but can you do it without generalizing on our account, please?

One can well generalize back and describe this post of yours as typical Lebanese self-hateful nagging emanating from a yuppy indigeneity formed by a history of corroboratively being colonized, fetishizing (and subliminally aesthetizing) yet another figment of the occidental imagination. Always this Lebanese proclivity to look down and belittle Lebanese, whether because of their sect and religion, or -as you transliterate the Lebanese disdain here- owing to a non-lack of a sect or religion.

We can trade in these generalizations...but, aside, what does this purported "non-diversity" (and to say that the contrary to "not serving God" would define "diversity" would only be a paralogism ) have to do with the fourrieresque artist communes?

Is the expression of discontent with our own a necessary adjunct to any other topic no matter how irrelevant? Ah well. We're a very catholic/shia country: in self-flagellation, we unite.

Carry on with the flagellation. Its so very original.

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