Have You Done Anything to Prevent a Building From Being Killed?

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The building under construction across my balcony has now reached my floor level. The exaggerated plantation I have installed to buffer its generous dust and noise contamination cannot save me from it anymore. Reality is not the most entertaining and/or cooperative game people have to play, so even from within the exaggerated denial I have installed to buffer me from the inevitable, I did see this coming. I’m not special, we all see this coming by now: The looming point in time where it would take a strenuous field trip to see the sky from Beirut.

The way construction happens with average residential projects in Beirut these days is that it would take around 15 to 20 days between casting two floor levels. That’s too fast, too furious, but who cares, we have a full sky to conceal, so we better do this as fast as possible. This being said, I will be sharing my coffee with construction workers across my balcony for around 10 more days before they block me from the sun, the sky, and the beautiful mountains I used to brag that I could miraculously see from my apartment in Beirut. Mountains seen from an apartment in Beirut are nothing to be taken lightly.

I would like to request a moment of silence for the inevitable, unfortunate death of my field of vision, but it feels futile. What is the value of moments of silence in this day and age? Our silence is a stage for the death of our city. In our silence, symphonies of construction sites are changing everything as we do nothing about it. Our troubled relationships with Beirut, and subsequently with ourselves, are based on pure aesthetics. We mourn old buildings. We despise new irrelevant buildings. We get lost in fading streets.

I have always been interested in this relationship with the city. It is interesting that people still have it in them to love buildings and to hate them. When emotional involvement on a communal scale is pretty scarce these days, the fact that people care – in any way or form – could be a good thing. There is something pretty dysfunctional about this dynamic though. Whether you love, hate, agree or disagree with buildings being built and buildings being killed, your ability to influence construction activity is close to zero. It is a blunt exclamation that you have no say in what your city is becoming.

Then comes the negative feedback, Pavlov and such, as we feel helpless regarding our city, over and over again, we become trained to be nonchalant. Nonchalance is hell. Nonchalance is the kiln of the numb society. We’re very close, but are we there yet? My academic formation, as an architect, renders me biased. I might be too obsessed with space. I am insulted when my mountain is ripped away from me, and outraged when I am asked to accept the momentum of contemporary Beirut as a matter of fact. I may be biased, and I cannot be the meter that measures the dynamics of the relationship between people and their city, so I decided to ask them.

Last Friday, I hit the streets of Beirut with my accomplice, Joan Baz (also known as Dr. Baz), one of a rare breed of squatters in Beirut who found a way to peacefully refurbish an old Lebanese house and inhabit it. Armed with 36 questions about public and private space, trees, music, and hobbies, along with the alibi that this is research for a university project because no one seemed to answer otherwise, we tried to understand partial glimpses of Beirut through a random selection of strangers.

Upon a humble survey of around seventeen people, and with no intention of creating major theoretical breakthroughs, our interviewees were a delightful mix of helplessness and confusion: Construction sites were everyone’s nightmare. The seafront, especially the Manara (Lighthouse) area and the Raouché (Pigeon Rocks) were frequent answers to “Where do you go when you feel suffocated?” People agreed that we need more trees. Only one chose the refurbished downtown Beirut, Solidere, as his favorite place in the city. To that, we were helpless and confused.

“Have you done anything to prevent a building from being built?”

“Have you done anything to prevent a building from being killed?”

The answers to whether anyone did anything to prevent the construction and demolition of buildings were predictable in the sense that no one did, and unpredictable in the fact that everyone was far from being nonchalant. The strangers we talked to had the typical cynicism required for the pseudo-sanity of a Lebanese citizen, adopting a blasé tone when speaking about the commercialization of their city. The undertone, however, contained a healthy amount of agitation that is necessary for change.

A revolution, in any form, is not an endeavor that sprouts from comfort. Agitation is good, but it’s not even the first step for reform; it is the benchmark for the first step toward the need to change the current situation. The question of whether any next step is near regarding the construction and demolition of Beirut is blurred by supposed priorities such as politics. Our agitation is currently dissolved in distraction. Involuntarily, we keep everything pending. Our city is fleeting as we solve our urban agitation with curtains wrapping our balconies, mummifying our buildings, allowing us to pretend that the world ends at the tips of our individual households. Well, it doesn’t.


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