One thinks of architecture as the design of buildings, which, of course, it is. But an often overlooked part of an architect’s job is considering the space between buildings, and the land on which structures are built, not just in terms of urban planning, but going beyond that to geography.
Lebanon was once a lush green land, with vast vegetation thanks to its many rivers and underground springs. Today, human settlements are eating away at nature, and the lack of regulation, poor enforcement of what does exist, and apathy toward the consequences means that Lebanon’s environment—and future—is slowly being destroyed.
Preserving what remains is the subject of the project that is being exhibited at the first-ever Lebanese national pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia for architecture (in the past, Lebanon has had national pavilions in the Biennale’s art expo). The prestigious annual international event is in its 16th edition, and will be running from May 24 to November 26 in Venice, Italy.
The theme of this year’s Biennale is “Freespace,” with Lebanon’s architectural project entitled, “The Place that Remains.” Lebanese architect and professor of architecture at the Lebanese American University, Hala Younes, is curating the pavillion, after taking the initiative to approach the Lebanese Ministry of Culture to propose Lebanon’s participation. She has worked with a team of architects, photographers, academics, and experts, alongside the Directorate of Geographic Affairs of the Lebanese Army, to create the work displayed in Lebanon’s exhibition.
Younes argues that the ideas explored in the architectural project should be of national priority. She explains, “Lebanon is being destroyed with needless roads, needless buildings, needless quarries, machines carving mountains. We don’t recognize the country anymore, we don’t have any place to relate to, and we’re really erasing all the assets that we have.” The exhibition aims to show not the actual architecture but what is beyond, or rather, beneath it, and thus raise awareness of the dangers eroding the country’s natural heritage and identify what still remains of Lebanon to stop further destruction. “Heritage is not just in buildings but also in landscapes,” she says.
The pavilion consists of various sections. In one part of the space there is a large-scale wooden 3D model of the watershed of the Beirut River (meaning not just the area immediately around the river but the entire valley and mountains on both sides). Archival aerial photos of the area from 1956 are projected on the model to show what Lebanon looked like back then. This is contrasted with recent photos of the same area, also taken from a bird’s eye view.
Another part of the space showcases the work of six photographers from Lebanon who were asked to capture the region, as well as historical photos gathered from different collections. The project also includes 25 scientific papers from experts studying various subjects including rural abandonment, the expansion of the contemporary city, landscape as heritage, public spaces, and construction law.
Though these kinds of environmental concerns are a worldwide problem, Younes says it’s acute in Lebanon partly because it is “a very dense country and [most of] the land is buildable.” The question of why Lebanon is being destroyed is not just an aesthetic or artistic one but also very much political. Younes says the subjects of architecture, building, and urban planning pose crucial political and sociological questions. “We have to address the condition of architecture. Not just design, but managing to have buildings related to their environment,” she explains, adding that this means we need to focus on that environment: “We need the ground because it’s the condition of our living.”
The Beirut River watershed was chosen because of the significance of water resources to the land. Additionally, it’s home to the Metn forest, which is easily accessible from Beirut and offers a break from city life in nature.
Her personal experience as a professor is what has her fearing for the future. “I see the references of my students and what’s in their minds. I have a very hard time getting students to really do a very thorough analysis of a site before building it. They are going to build tomorrow and it’s a culture that has to change,” she says.
That said, the geographic reality of Lebanon is not as bleak as it might seem. Younes, at least, is relatively hopeful: “Lebanon is a beautiful country. What we are trying to say is that although a lot of spaces have been ruined, we still have potential. A lot of spaces deserve to be protected so let’s not abandon those.”