Perhaps at this very moment, one of Lebanon’s many abandoned spots and buildings - remnants of the war - is being taken over by protesters. Breaking down the barrier surrounding the iconic egg-shaped movie theatre in Beirut, a landmark of the city, graffitiing its walls, sleeping and holding sit-ins inside, the protesters are occupying this previously inaccessible space, making it into an extension of the streets; a place for them to mobilise.

Built in the 1960s, the Egg theatre was set up as a multi-use complex, but before it was ever finished, the onslaught of the civil war damaged the building and left it abandoned – and deemed forbidden from use – to this day. It is now being used as a space for the protesters to hold gatherings, talks and film screenings – becoming a hub for any and all recreational activities happening in parallel to the protests.

Something similar is also happening in Iraq, where a weeks-long protest movement is only intensifying, and one particular building is becoming a site of contestation between the protesters and the police – a fight that the protesters are winning. Occupying the formerly abandoned Turkish Restaurant in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, protestors took over the high-storied building, using it as an observation post to warn people on the street of security forces’ movement. More importantly, though, they occupy the building to keep the police from taking control of it and shooting protestors from its high (and less visible) vantage points.

The biggest difference between Lebanon and the rest of the countries in the region is that we’re the only ones who have had a 15-year war, apart from Syria now

Occupying a building, in this case, is as much a matter of survival as it is a chance to come together with others in a space that had been closed off from them, just as many other spaces in the country, but which in their occupation they reclaimed. And it comes as no surprise that in both Baghdad and in Lebanon, protestors have encroached upon these abandoned spaces. It’s a political act. A powerful and assertive reclamation of what has for years been kept from them, a right to live and exist in a space that, up until now, with ongoing economic and environmental crisis, has been almost uninhabitable.

The garbage crisis in Lebanon has only been gaining momentum since 2015. Photo courtesy of Bilal Hussein for AP.

The Collective for Architecture in Lebanon (CAL), formed earlier this year, is beginning to address some of the issues in Lebanon from a new perspective: through its territory. Embedded within the vision of the collective is a belief that Lebanon’s sociopolitical (and economic) issues all translate into, and can be read through, its landscape, and in the same vein, can be addressed through it.

“I think there are ways for architects and urban planners to get involved with the state, to push projects forward, whether they’re infrastructural projects, or projects on the scale of public space or housing schemes,” explains CAL’s co-founder, Shereen Doummar. “There’s a lack of communication in Lebanon between the universities, the public sector, the private sector and the general public [when it comes to urban planning and architecture…], so one of the collective’s goals is first to be a platform through which various institutions that are related to urbanism in Lebanon can connect.”

Iraq's Turkish Restaurant occupied by protesters during what is being termed as the "October revolution." Photo courtesy of Khalid Mohammed for AP.

Their first attempt at bridging communication between an abstracted and very distant state, with the private sector and the world of academia, was hosting a conference, titled ‘Omran’, in August that brought representatives of these different entities together. They later held an exhibition, where they gathered urban projects from universities in the region and abroad, that imagined the Lebanese territory — as well as others in the Middle East — in new ways. 

The projects were accompanied with photographs of the city now, as well as a documentation of the current available projects addressing the same issues and spaces. From them, the collective pointed out three looming issues facing Lebanon in specific in terms of its infrastructure and urban planning: a lack of free accessible secular spaces in the city; a lack in infrastructure and spaces of production, and a lack of accessible domestic spaces.

While most of us were raised knowing the culture of harat in Arab neighbourhoods – where a community lives around one street, which acts more as an extension of the home than a ‘public space’ – many of us have also never really experienced it

These projects tackled the three aforementioned problematics – but CAL’s reference to “public space” which is one of Lebanon’s most infamous issues, is different. Their understanding of what is lacking in Lebanon is not “public space” per se, but what they call “free accessible secular spaces.” “Beirut doesn’t have a history of public spaces because the Arab city was always introverted, and we simply don’t have that culture of public space, so we try to define the terminology in a more precise way,” she explains. “For us, a public space would really be a secular space and a space where you don’t need to consume anything, and accessible means that its accessible to everybody, not just to a select few.”

Photographs in CAL's exhibition, from 'L'autre Ville' by Ieva Saudargaite. Photo courtesy of Tara Sakhi.

While, yes, there is relatively no greenery or parks or spaces where residents can simply exist, without having to pay anything, another more visibly apparent lack is that of a specifically Lebanese public space, which is far from the same as the Western model of that - the image of green parks, for instance.

While most of us were raised knowing the culture of harat in Arab neighbourhoods – where a community lives around one street, which acts more as an extension of the home than a ‘public space’ – many of us have also never really experienced it, instead being brought up in isolated “compound” settings that imitate Western neighbourhoods but are not exactly like them either, or in streets with rows upon rows of high-rise buildings, all separate from one another, connected only through proximity.

A storm of real estate projects have come to replace most traditional spaces in Lebanon’s cities, boomed since the end of the civil war, resulting, infamously, in what was estimated then to be 50,000 empty luxury apartments in Beirut alone. These projects are not limited to Lebanon either, with many similar types of projects run by multinational companies, like Emaar Properties and Arenco Real Estate, for instance, that span across the Arab world. But, as Doummar points out, what makes things more complicated in Lebanon is its history.

The effects of the civil war on the urban side of things is first that there was massive population displacement, which also caused a lot of very rapid, violent urbanisation, especially on the coast and on the edges of the city.

“Obviously, public space in Europe is not the same type of public space that the Middle East or the Northern African region would need, or the people here would understand or accept. We’ve had that conversation about the type of smaller, more attached to a neighborhood and more enclosed public spaces that really would relate to the typology that was here historically.”

This perhaps might explain why, during the protests, in the middle of the streets of the country, people would pull up their shishas and their backgammon boards on the sidewalks and highways, recreating the everyday practices attributed to harat that had become embedded in their communities, but was suddenly taken away from them, both during the civil war and after. Those simple gestures are an outright reclamation of the cities that were steadily being taken away from their residents – becoming privatised, their illegal settlements legalised, and the actual spaces that residents need abandoned and destroyed.

The last public beach in Beirut, Ramlet Al-Baida, is also under threat from Solidere's construction and development plans.

“The biggest difference between Lebanon and the rest of the countries in the region is that we’re the only ones who have had a 15-year war, apart from Syria now, but we don’t know what the ramifications are,” says Doummar. “The effects of the civil war on the urban side of things is first that there was massive population displacement, which also caused a lot of very rapid, violent urbanisation, especially on the coast and on the edges of the city.”

...in the middle of the streets of the country, people would pull up their shishas and their backgammon boards on the sidewalks and highways, recreating the everyday practices attributed to harat that had become embedded in their communities, but was suddenly taken away from them

One of the biggest losses of the war during that period was the Souq of Beirut, what Doummar describes as “the cultural heart of the city,” where culture was produced, inseminated, and shared.” The Souqs were later ‘renovated’ by Solidere, the company that also erected buildings on the coastline of Beirut – illegally – and enclosed most of the spaces abandoned during war – including the Egg theatre – from the public. But the new souks are merely polished, modernised copies that go nowhere near reproducing that cultural effect; instead, they offer large franchise shops, fast food markets like Pizza Hut and Mcdonalds, and operate more like outdoor malls.

Souk el Nourieh in 1960s Beirut. Photograph titled 'Once Upon a Time, Beirut Souks,' and captured by Marc Nader.

Another notable change is the famous Horsh Beirut, the largest park and pine forest in the city, which was closed off from Lebanese residents for 24 years, with access only allowed to foreigners. It was reopened to the Lebanese in 2016, but even then, they were only permitted inside between 8 A.M. and 2 P.M – later than that, tests assessing their “foreignness” would ensue.

One of the most felt symptoms of war was this sense of exclusion; between sects, yes, with security divisions in the form of soldiers and blast barriers between different areas of the city, but also between the state and the people, and the people amongst themselves, with a rapid increase in private - incredibly expensive - spaces, and an increasing lack in public spaces.

There are so many different cultures and subcultures, communities and subcommunities that sometimes have a hard time identifying themselves with the idea of the nation as a whole, what it means to be Lebanese 

“There are so many different cultures and subcultures, communities and subcommunities that sometimes have a hard time identifying themselves with the idea of the nation as a whole, what it means to be Lebanese, what Beirut is and how it represents itself,” says Doummar. The collective’s focus during the conference was on “architectural territory, and the relationship between the state and its territorial planning.” That focus illuminated the ways in which the state has neglected the needed urban planning in Lebanon, the problems that exist in the current nation-state model appropriated in the country, and the way people – architects most notably but others as well – can circumvent that neglect and create alternatives.

“When you have so many different communities that do not share the same beliefs or the same histories or lifestyles living in the same place, it does create conflict and this is where the issue of the nation-state comes into play… the state as the kind of abstract structure that governs a territory is supposed to govern over a multitude of attitudes and it can behard to, in simple words, please all the communities,” she continues.

What Doummar is describing is not exactly an excuse for the state’s attitudes towards urban planning, but points towards a much more deeply rooted issue than just the members of the state, who remain at fault – it is the model of the state itself. That is what inspired CAL’s submission to 2020’s Venice Biennale for Architecture, a pavilion consisting of 128 chairs (the number of chairs representing the number of parliament members, and at the same time, signifying the chairs around a dinner table as a metaphor for dialogue and communication) strewn around each other loosely as a symbol of the need to decentralise the current government, to alter its configuration.

The chairs are part of CAL's proposed Lebanese pavillion for the 2020 Venice Biennale for Architecture.

Around the chairs are tables and LED screens that document and explain the current typologies of state institutions, as well as the current number of ‘public spaces’ – loosely understood – in the country. By integrating both the landscape of Lebanon with the physical typology of state institutions, the pavilion is asserting the political relevance of architecture and the way it can be used as a template for understanding state processes, and at the same time, disrupting them completely – as illustrated through the changeable configuration of the “chairs” making up the pavilion. It won the second place prize in the competition.

Without water, no nation can sustain itself

While there is an ongoing debate on architecture as an expression of identity, and the way “national identities” are embedded in the city's territories, this is not the focus of this collective. Instead, they rework the idea of “vivre ensemble,” (to live together) originally meant in the context of the nation-state as a narrative to “bring people together” behind the state’s agenda. In this formulation though, their emphasis is not on nationalistic identity, or on identity at all for that matter, but on basic human needs – neglected by the Lebanese state for years now.

“Without water, no nation can sustain itself [… and] I think today what people can get behind is issues that touch everybody, like for example, water infrastructure, climate change, renewable energy, convincing issues and narratives behind which an entire nation can get together and feel like they belong to one entity that is fighting for the same thing.”

The result of the conference they held is that they chose several projects that they will build upon and push forward – one related to the issue of public space and the other to infrastructure. These projects are treated later, by the collective, as potentially more general strategies that they can develop and outsource to different neighbourhoods, institutions and cities for them to use. “An architect is no longer this person who is waiting for a client to come and to ask him to do a project, but today the architect has a much larger responsibility; in a way, to become a sort of activist, stepping in the shoes of a politician and an economist but never really assuming that position,” explains Doummar.

While they are not involved in state projects or government work, their exhibition and conference were sponsored under the patronage of the municipality of Beirut. Upon engaging in debates during the conference about the state’s role in urban planning and their inability to provide infrastructure and services that people need, Doummar explains they felt the urge to move beyond those conversations and take actual, actionable steps. “It’s important for us to start to find alternative ways and strategies that in a way bypass governments… I think there is a will and there is a way, and you can start very small.”

Those small steps are not only taken through projects, nor through dialogues and debates in conferences, but even the people taking over the streets of the country now, smoking shisha and playing games – an act of protest that is so mundane, so basic, that it brilliantly showcases the drive behind which the movement had begun, a simple desire to live, and to live together.

Main image courtesy of La Dent De L'Oeil.