Houda Kassatly: The City House and the Country House

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The photos make us feel as if we are watching a dying aesthetic turn into memories, while we are too powerless to stop it. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Hussein Bin Hamza

Published Monday, March 12, 2012

A Lebanese photographer and anthropologist documents architectural demise in Beirut and Syrian villages through a photography exhibit and a book.

In her exhibit Fastes et Dévastations (Splendor and Devastation), hosted by Galerie Alice Mogabgab from February 21 to March 17, Houda Kassatly displays a part of her photographic project about the demise of old Beirut’s houses.

The exhibit includes 28 photographs in which the Lebanese photographer locates the architectural beauty that provided the inhabitants of these homes with a kind of intimacy and poetics that is absent today.

Contemporary architecture is more concerned with using space for real estate speculation than pleasing those residing in them.

It is as if her exhibit is a eulogy in the funeral of an architectural style that is on the verge of extinction. As if we are before a paradise that we are gradually losing.

The loss, however, does not delay our getting used to smaller homes, lower ceilings, and less intimate spaces.

The photos make us feel as if we are watching a dying aesthetic turn into memories, while we are too powerless to stop it.

As such, the exhibit can be added to our continuous nagging about a Beirut that does not hesitate to wipe out its heritage and build a new and strange landscape on the ruins of the old.

The exhibit is an aesthetic and anthropological research project. The author of De Pierres et de Couleurs (Of Stones and of Colors) had studied anthropology before taking up photography. But her photographic oeuvre did not stray away from her academic specialization.

What we see in the exhibit is the visual expression of this accumulation of academic specialization combined with an artistic hobby.

The pictures serve Kassatly’s basic project that started almost two decades ago, whereby she has documented the memory of Beirut’s neighborhoods and streets, whose architecture was mostly wiped out by the civil war.

The years of post-war reconstruction and real estate boom that tried to imitate the cities of the Gulf disfigured what was left of the old fabric of the city especially in downtown and surrounding areas of Beirut.

Kassatly does not need to use a lot of effort to adjust the color, light, and shadow in her pictures. There is photographic generosity in the architecture that she immortalizes – an architecture that seems reconciled with its environment, its climate, and the behavior of its inhabitants.

Nevertheless, it is forced to step aside before the monstrosity of the new buildings dressed in mirrors and tinted glass.

As such, what we see are photographs of previous lives that faded with the departure of the generations that lived them.

The exhibit has a clear oppositional mood to the way the soul of the city has been devoured through promoting cloned architecture.

It is true there is nostalgia and a tribute to things long gone, but it does not fall into the trap of passivity and sentimentality.

The game of shadow and light summarizes most of the pictures, and their impact on the viewer is condensed by combining the aesthetic of the place and the angle of the photograph, with a relentless transformation to rubble and ruins.

We can almost imagine the lives of those who lived there – on a run-down sofa, beside a sink in an abandoned kitchen, or next to a window whose drapes have collapsed on it.

We can almost smell the paint peeling off the wall and we can imagine the nights and days alternating on the glass that decorates the arches sitting above the walls that separate the bedrooms from the living room.

The life that was here is over, but the pictures remain to bear witness.
Kassatly’s Of Earth and of Light: Northern Syria’s Dome Houses, co-authored with German researcher Karin Peutt, follows the trail of old houses beyond the big city bustle of Beirut.

The book, published in French and Arabic, is a summary of a trip to Syrian regions and villages that have preserved an architectural style that relies on clay in building houses and the spaces attached to them.

This simple and primitive technique is 5,000 years old, but its use has subsided over time with the rise of modern urban architecture, leaving only a handful of expert builders of this inherited style of construction.

Thus, the book becomes “a tribute to those builders who did not claim greatness and did not earn architectural degrees, but they knew how to build modest homes that existed in harmony with their surroundings and without inflicting damage.”

The idea of this architectural harmony with the environment is the essence of the book that celebrates this style of human habitation and conceals within its folds a veiled yet fierce critique of contemporary architectural styles.

However, the two authors are not calling for a complete renunciation of the architecture we have been inhabiting and they do not expect their book to popularize the architecture they celebrate.

Perhaps we don’t want to leave our houses but we cannot ignore the tender beauty emanating from the pictures taken of old homes and their internal architectural details.

It is as if what we are seeing is part of an old architectural reserve. We are surprised that the houses are actually occupied and that their inhabitants lead normal lives.

We see pictures of living rooms, guest rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, pantries, and stables. There are snapshots of patios, doors, fences, windows, plant pots, and earthen inscriptions. The authors have even captured images of the clay workshops where bricks are manufactured.

We read how the dome provides mild coolness in the summer, and warmth in the winter. The houses with their clay color enter into a gentle dialogue with the blue sky and we feel that their inhabitants are in direct communion with the elements of the universe.

As in the author’s other works, there is a blend of photographic obsession and anthropological research in the book. Kassatly’s camera traveled to 222 Syrian villages and returned with tens of pictures accompanied by architectural and anthropological descriptions of their subjects.

The book therefore is a historical reference, in addition to being a stunning album of photographs.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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