Developed by students of the American University of Beirut and coordinated by Rana Haddad and Joanne Hayeck, “Silence” is an attempt to provoke a revolution of the eyes and of usage in the specific urban dimension of the Lebanese capital.
As Rana Haddad explains, “In Beirut, life goes on from one day to the next without anyone knowing what will happen tomorrow.” This perception of an uncertain and unpredictable future has given a transitory nature to the project. An element of sharing is given by a continuous exploration of the concept of boundaries. The Italian philosopher Remo Bodei recently wrote a book on this subject, in which he says, “There is an urgent need for us to think about the idea of limits. We have lost our full awareness of boundaries so that we can better define the extent of our freedom and better calibrate the range of our desires.”
Precisely by thinking about the idea of limits – not intended as constrictions but as authentic possibilities to construct and thus to design, Silence takes a look at Beirut with the aim of proposing new ways to share urban life. In its material and immaterial dimensions, the form of the city is steeped in economic, religious, ethnic and political relations that make Beirut a paradigmatic example of a contemporary urban space in which it is possible to experience a condition that is exciting and distressing at the same time.
Four installations in different spots of the city give shape to an exploration device of metropolitan sound space by activating a complex pedagogical system whose goal is to involve students and their reference communities in a broad way. The four Silence sites of convergence and analysis are Gefinor Plaza, Rue Spears (a noisy and congested road close to the Ministry of Culture and the National Library), a highway bridge with a pedestrian sidewalk close to City Mall, and the Horsh Beirut Park.
“In Between” is a wood-and-metal walkway that lifts up off the pavement of Gefinor Plaza to cast itself into a thick cornice of greenery made of branches and leaves that offer an isolated and solitary “tree house” above the city. Despite the fact that in the dynamics of the place, the plaza represents a space where traffic is suspended, noise dominates and cancels the beneficial effects of a break. The ramp cutting over the plaza leads visitors to pause momentarily and think about a new space, a kind of nest made of leaves that deaden sounds and allow the wind to blow through. It is a buffer zone of urban decompression where we can lie down and erase the outside. It is a halfway condition, suspended between the silence of nature and daily activity.
“Tazahor Mashrou” originates in the observation of a modernist building slated for demolition by the Ministry. Designed by the architects George Rais and Theo Kanaan in 1950, it is located on an extremely busy artery. The refusal to issue permission to develop part of the project inside the building led to the idea of writing a text in Arabic under the portico, telling the citizenry of a critical aspect of the urban space. Playing on a multitude of meanings given to the Lebanese interpretations of the words tazahor and mashrou, a series of small bits of information are sprinkled throughout this part of the city. Tazahor can mean a demonstration of protest, claim, or revelation. Mashrou can mean project, apparition, scheme, or regulation. Their use here is an invitation to reflect upon what these words mean in practice. Thus the project is an attempt to improve, involve and call into question the urban dimension by reacting to the diffuse passiveness of Beirut's inhabitants.
“The Silence project is a pedagogical instrument for the city's inhabitants as well as the designers,” continues Haddad, “It underlines the importance of what is subtle and transitory, and puts into play socio-political issues.” The project aims to train the eye and activate points of urban observation.
“Sma la farjik” (Listen to observe) is the installation on the pedestrian bridge, a location chosen by the students for being particularly noisy and uncomfortable. This urban element crosses the highway without giving adequate access to certain reach a bus stop that is fundamental for getting around the city. Users of the bridge expressed all their annoyance to the students who were there to understand how to develop a project that would be an answer to the needs of the community that crosses the bridge. The quasi-uselessness of the bridge and the paradoxical negation of its function led them to imagine a box in which each passer-by could insert his head for two or three minutes. It offers momentary isolation from the surrounding noise, like ostriches bury their heads in the sand. Message on the outside and inside of the box read: “There is hope,” “There is no escape” and “Your voice can be heard”.
Twenty-two wooden boxes aligned along the pedestrian bridge invite passers-by to stop and listen, to modify the way they use this seemingly useless portion of the city.
The last installation broaches the subject of boundaries in a direct way. Located in one of the city's most controversial points, the Horsh Beirut Park that was bombed and burned in 1982 during one of the many wars that have raged here. Until recently, access to the area was forbidden, but now it can be visited on Saturdays, while a certain part of the park is open every day. A metal fence separates the two parts.
The Silence project connects the two parts by means of a recreational element: a swing hanging directly from the fence. It is an invitation to people on both sides to play together.
How can we redefine a boundary? How can we overcome it? With a smile. Naturally, children were the first to jump onto the swing and clarify how no limit is insurmountable. The title given to the installation is emblematic: “The Silence of the Radio”. Clearly, playfulness that tears down walls was something that worried officials, who requested the dismantling of the swing after two weeks, stating it was too dangerous.
These are examples of a social way of looking at design by marrying the development of an eye for the city with the search for new spaces for action by contemporary projects.
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