[The Jadaliyya Cities team talked to Hala Younes, curator of the project The Place Remains at the Lebanese Pavilion at the the Sixteenth International Architecture Exhibition in Venice in 2018.]
Jadaliyya (J.): Hala, you are a Lebanese architect and planner, and you curated the project “The Place That Remains” at the Lebanese Pavilion at the Sixteenth International Architecture Exhibition in Venice. Could you explain how the invitation to take part to the Biennale happened?
Hala Younes (H. Y.): First of all, I can say that I define myself as an architect and an educator, not specifically as a planner although I hold a degree in geography, and this is maybe what tied my interest in the broader scales of the city. The participation of Lebanon in the Biennale was not through invitation, rather it was an initiative. Lebanon had never participated before, so it was really a personal initiative based on the idea that with the amount of architects we are graduating every year, our country cannot stay far from the international debate on architecture. I tried to gather institutions, universities, and individuals interested in the project, and we proposed the initiative to the Ministry of Culture who is supposed to be the patron of such a participation. I presented the project with the Lebanese University, the Lebanese American University, the Lebanese Landscape Association, and the Arab Centre for Architecture, and as the project developed other institutions joined, like the Saint Joseph University and the Directorate of Geographic Affairs of the Lebanese Army who gave a major contribution.
J.: What are the main claims that your project is making?
H. Y.: What was really problematic at the beginning was this very predictable question or critique stating that we are not showing architecture. That is what we are supposed to do in an architecture Biennale—in fact we are not showing urban design; we are not showing planning; we are showing something that is even beyond geography. The idea is to question the basis of the practice of architecture and the way architects project themselves in the space they are building. Hence the idea is to make the territory visible, to question our perception of the territory, our representation of the territory, and our understanding of the way we think we can intervene in it. I believe architects can transform a territory into a meaningful place instead of just designing objects built on parcels. So in order to create a meaningful territory we have to be able to convey an understanding—and maybe it is my background—a geographic understanding of this space.
J.: How did the project answer the overarching theme proposed by the curator for the Biennale—that is the notion of “freespace?”
H.Y.: In fact, the idea of the project arose before the curators released their statement. However, it syncs perfectly with it in the sense that “The Place That Remains” can be understood as a space that is not built and that is still free and open for multiple uses. It is not exactly the meaning that was understood by the artistic directors of the Biennale, because for them, “freespace” was the space that architecture can create and offer freely, while the focus of our pavilion was more on the space that is not understood as architectural, that is unbuilt. One of the things that the pavilion is claiming is that those open spaces are also the responsibility of architects, and the realm of architecture does not stop at the envelope of buildings but it extends to all the open spaces, to all the unbuilt spaces. So it is unbuilt, but it is our responsibility as well. In fact “The Place That Remains” is the name of my final year studio at the Lebanese American University where I ask students to focus their attention on the qualities of the unbuilt spaces in order to design a meaningful building.
J.: Why did you select the Nahr Beirut area, and what does it mean for you as an architect? And what do you think its meaning is for the Lebanese people?
H. Y.: The idea was to talk about a territory that is well known in Lebanon. Nahr Beirut Valley is situated in the vicinity of the capital. It is one of the spaces where we could have the largest audience; it is also a territory that has been intensively studied, where information is available, and where many projects have been prepared by the administration although not implemented yet. One of our claims is that the reason urban policies are not implemented, for example, the territorial charter that the Région Ile-de-France promoted (see infra for more explanations on this) for this area, is not only bad governance, but it is also because people do not see their interests, do not understand the territorial challenges, and do not understand how they can benefit from such projects in their daily lives. So the pavilion wanted to fill the gap between the policies and their implementation on the ground, through a tool that would convey the questions to the broader public so that people would be able to understand that Nahr Beirut is not only the dark liquid ending in the dump of Burj Hammoud, it is rather a huge hydrologic network that is linking a lot of places from Hammana to Tarshish to the sea. My intention was to show the ecological and human continuities involved and to say that this territory has to be understood as a unit. So why to take a watershed as a unit? Also, because I wanted to focus on the importance of water as a symbol of the common good. The pavilion features six maps, one of them showing the watershed and the continuities of water as opposed to the administrative divisions.
Figure 1: Southwest view of Jabal Kneisse. Cartographic installation, Hala Younes. Photo: Samuele Cherubini
J.: For the people who are not Lebanese and do not know the place that we are talking about, can you explain why Nahr Beirut is a place that remains and how does it remain?
H.: We chose Nahr Beirut because what is happening in the hinterland, away from the coast and from Beirut, is less known than the urban sprawl between Tripoli and Saida. The coast is saturated. The new horizon of our city is not the sea but might be the hinterland. This area is the natural and historical extension of Beirut because around the Nahr Beirut, on the ridgeline, you had all the traditional summer resorts. Meanwhile, the core of the valley is relatively spared and this has multiple reasons. One is the presence of the Syrian army until 2005 in the region, another is related to the history of the settlements in the area. In fact, in most parts, the valleys are really deep canyons; the bottom of the valley is not inhabited. What is inhabited is not exactly the ridges, the traditional settlements stood at midlevel on the projecting edge at the places where we had water and sources springing. This is why the second map featured in the pavilion is a geological map of the watershed showing this particular relation; geography helps us understand the settlements in relation with a certain geology without any determinism. Therefore, the second map is claiming that the territory is a monument. It is somehow our “last monument,” literally not only because it is very, very “old”; a monument is something that is old and that is coming from the past, so geology is linking the territory to a very long historical dimension, but also because geomorphological shapes are what will remain. They are really difficult to move and to change.
Figure 2: Lebanese Pavilion, 16th International Architecture Exhibition–La Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Gilbert Hage
J.: When we think of the monument, usually it is also referring to the idea of memory. How do you articulate this idea of the territory and specifically that territory with the memory of the country, of the people who are living there?
H.Y.: We can also articulate it—even if it is not trendy now because it is an old-fashioned way of seeing Lebanon—with the way the territory has been described since antiquity: as a place of abundance, as a place that is comfortable, a place that is good to live in. So there is a shared understanding that our territory is very beautiful and precious. Claiming this and advocating for this quality of the territory is something that should be done because this hinterland of Beirut is really the place we still have to live in, as Lebanon is becoming a territorial city; the mountains are witnessing dramatic changes; the traditional categories used to describe the landscape are now blurred. A new reality is emerging, and this new reality, the city of tomorrow, needs to be described, very humbly, as a geographer can do by identifying the new categories of landscapes.
J.: The pavilion is built as a dialogue between mapping and photography. Can you explain the way you conceived this dialogue, and how did you select the photographers who came in this dialogue with the maps?
H. Y.: My intention was to make the territory visible, so I asked myself what are the tools that are traditionally used to make a territory visible? We have landscape photography; we have cartography; we have aerial surveys, and we have this tool—that I like a lot—which is the relief map (that is a map that is three-dimensional). The pavilion is trying to use all those formats in order to propose a comprehensive understanding of the space. It is not saying that cartography is objective, and photography is subjective—no, because also in cartography you select what you want, and it is as subjective as any landscape photography can be. The relief map is a great pedagogical tool to convey geographic knowledge because you really see the position of the settlements in relation to the topography and also to water and forest and lots of other things, but in fact it used to be a military tool and the monopole of the army because it conveys strategic information. In our case the Directorate of Geographic Affairs in the Lebanese army gave us the numerical model of the terrain as if they were telling us “we did our job, and you civilian, you have to do yours and save what remains in this territory.”
So we launched a call for photography, by inviting photographers to comment on the idea of “The Place That Remains,” and the four topics of the conference that was held at LAU in March, as a preparatory step of the pavilion: the contemporary landscape transformations, the landscape heritage and its related cultural values, the usage and legislative framework of communal lands, and finally the design of the unbuilt spaces within the built lots. The photographers answered to the call, by proposing an idea that was developed later. All of them had to work in the specific territory of Nahr Beirut catchment area. Gibert Hage chose to show the monumental geomorphology of the place and the unbuildable vertical territory, the cliffs and faults that are “what would remain.” He also proposed a series of portraits of inhabitant from Hammana and Ras el Metn, commenting on their relation to nature in their motherland. Ieva Saudergaité Douaihi proposed an ironic reportage on the conflictual relation of leisure amenities with landscape. Gregory Buchakjian depicted the territory as a collection of fragments through a road trip on the ridgelines. Houda Kassatly documented the interstitial gardens, their signs and symbols, and the way they mediate the relation to nature and territory. Talal Khoury followed the journey of the river from its multiple and rich sources to its sad and unique end in Bourj Hammoud as a metaphor of the Lebanese citizenship condition. Finally, Catherine Cattaruzza followed the vanishing traces of the abandoned agricultural landscape that are recounting the rural history of the place.
Figure 3: The “National Park and Reserve” of Nahr Beirut, Ieva Saudargaité Douaihi.
J.: Let us move to the reception of the project. The first question I would like to ask is will the Lebanese see the model and all the pavilion in Beirut or in Lebanon, and how do you think this project could have an impact on the local scene?
H. Y.: Yes, of course the intention is not to show it in Venice only. Venice was a way to get the Lebanese architects involved in this issue, so that they stop thinking that what is happening in their country is happening on another planet. The problems we have in Lebanon, the territorial question we have in Lebanon, are part of something that is shared amongst a lot of people and those people can also help us and think with us on the way we should deal with those questions. But, of course, the idea is to bring it back to Beirut. So we took contacts with the municipality of Beirut, and the municipality of Hammana, and the union of municipalities of the High Metn. The idea is to show the exhibition in multiple areas in this watershed, but also in other parts of Lebanon in order to raise awareness about the potential of our land. For example, one of the maps is showing the road network and the density of this road network and it is assuming also this road network is the ultimate public space that we have. In fact it is a very important public space because this road network is super dense. If you mix the road network and the watercourse network you have a very, very dense network of public places and spaces and this is something that can be used everywhere to really promote a porous territory, to promote a kind of territory that can be appropriated by the people. So, of course, the idea is to show it in Lebanon to make people curious about the space they live in and to appropriate what they have.
J.: By focusing on a space that is very close to the city one wonders if the project is not overlooking the links between this specific site and other spaces where the Lebanese people are living. In that way, are you not overlooking the fact that placemaking always involves several scales, that this place is not only a very local place but also a space that has lots of links with other parts in Lebanon, and also outside Lebanon (let us think of the Lebanese diaspora or the migrants coming to Lebanon)? So how do you think the relationships between “this space that remains” and the other spaces, and how does this transform the way we think of the space that remains?
H.Y.: In fact, we are in front of a new reality. Beirut, of course, is not anymore the metropolitan region of Beirut; it is a territorial city, and this is why the model that we are showing is going from Beirut to Zahleh. In order to acknowledge this new reality we have to show it. So, the project at the pavilion is very humble; it is just showing things. We show that this portion of the territory is one continuous “diffuse city”—as described by Francesco Indovina and Bernardo Secchi—involving a very diverse population sharing the same space with different agendas and different ways of life. The idea of “The Place That Remains” not only involves multiple scales but also the historical dimension. When comparing the aerial photography of 1956 to what is happening today, we see the dramatic difference in the way we use space, and the huge agricultural abandonment. What is also showing in those photographs of 1956 is that this agricultural abandonment is very old. In 1956, fifty years ago, you already see a lot of abandoned terraces, and this might be related to the great famine of World War One and the demographic upheavals of the immigration. Our aim is just to do an inventory of what is there—of this new urban reality and territorial dimension. We are in a new scale of the city; it is what we call the city of tomorrow and in that city, the space that remains, as we are describing it in the last maps, are in fact the spaces that are traditionally white on the maps. The spaces that for the moment have no specific use: they are not built, not roads, not agriculture even; they are things that are undefined, but those places that remain—the whites of the maps—are really huge. The purpose is not to build them but to imagine the constellation of possibilities that they are offering, at multiple scales, in our new reality.
Figure 4: The Territory is the Scale of the City of Tomorrow; Nature is its Fabric. Credit: GIS from the Directorate of Geographic Affairs, Lebanese Army.
J.: By calling it “The Place That Remains” you introduce a binary between the built territory that is taken as the main reference and the unbuilt territory, something that should be preserved. But this binary is maybe hiding the fact that “the place that remains” is something that is already appropriated by the people of the city, a place they practice. I wonder if this very strong dichotomy should not be challenged.
H.Y.: What you are saying is true, the project challenges our understanding of the category of landscape as we traditionally describe it and what is “a place that remains.” The idea of challenging the “unbuilt” in the Lebanese territory came to me at some point when I was teaching a course of landscape analysis at the Lebanese University in Deir-el Qamar. When asking the students to describe the landscape of the valley in front of the Architecture School, they had only two categories: "built” and “unbuilt" lands. They had no other categories! So what you are saying maybe is right at some point for planners, for scholars, but not for the broad public not even for architecture students in their third and fourth year. The generations of professionals we are raising look at the landscape through those two categories and do not see anything else. So the pavilion is challenging the second category to show that this “unbuilt” is something much more than just unbuilt parcels—which is why the subtitle the project is “recounting the unbuilt territory.” So the unbuilt is a constellation of things, and our concern is not about preservation but about making it visible and showing those categories of uses. With the cotemporary transformation of landscape, the different categories of land use are getting dissolved: forest, orchards, terraces, gardens, and settlements are blurred, so people do not know exactly what they have in front of them. Since all those categories are evolving, the challenge is to create an inventory, to find the words and the categories to describe the states of the unbuilt. The unbuilt, whatever use it has, holds the possibility of creating public spaces. What Bernardo Secchi calls “the space between things,” in addition to roads and watercourse networks, is a reservoir of public spaces.
Figure 5: Southwest view of Jabal Kneisse. Cartographic installation, Hala Younes. Photo: Samuele Cherubini.
J.: A video of the inauguration showed architect Jad Tabet, the head of the Order of Engineers and Architects, strongly calling the state’s representatives to help the engineers and architects to defend “the space that remains,” pointing to the complicity of the political parties of the country in the lack of the regulation of urbanization. So who is entitled to define the way the space that remains should be used and what are the tools to do so?
H. J.: Everybody is entitled, and it is the responsibility of everybody. This is also the project of the exhibition. In the end we are saying that in “other times and places” it is the responsibility of the public authorities, but in our “now and here” it is the responsibility of every educator and architects. We have to stop saying that the politicians are not following us etc.,—although I agree with what Jad was saying—but the project of the pavilion is a project of large public awareness. We have to bring this knowledge, we have to bring this awareness to a level where the value of the “place that remains” becomes unquestionable. The problem is when it is questionable because it should become something that is unquestionable—like: we do not build on Anfeh’s heritage landscape! Whatever profit it can bring to the church and whatever working opportunities it can create, it is just out of the question! So, awareness, and awareness, and pedagogy, this is the program.
J.: So no legal tools? Or no professional tools to help change the practices, but awareness and pedagogy?
H.Y.: The project is not showing tools because the tools are there: for example the territorial charter. The territorial charter is a project that was introduced by the French planners from the Région Ile-de-France in 2014 for Beirut river valley; their idea was to put together the efforts of the different municipalities of the Higher Metn region to implement a harmonious development of the area. Although multiple local authorities endorsed it, nothing was implemented. So my idea was not to do something that was already done but to fill the gaps, and the gaps, as I understand them in my analysis, are in the perception and the representation of the territory by its inhabitants. We have lost this geographic understanding because it is something that was traditionally related to the practice of agriculture, but now that it is lost we no longer know from where water comes—what was vital for irrigation is just a commodity that we can buy, so we have absolutely to bring back this geographic knowledge.
Thanks to Naay Idriss who transcribed this interview for Jadaliyya. The author and the Jadaliyya team have edited it slightly.