A Model Street


18 July 2018

Simply walking down the street can be a perilous task in Beirut.

Pavements are often an afterthought and where they do exist they are narrow, full of holes or have metal pipes sticking out of them. Electric cable boxes and parking meters are placed in the most awkward of places and cars or businesses often use up much of the available public space. Going down a pavement with a pram or in a wheelchair is a hair-raising experience that most don’t even attempt, and you can forget seeking shelter or retreat on a pleasant public bench in a green park as these are almost entirely absent too.

With public space so neglected in Beirut – and faith in what little governance there is surrounding such space being exceedingly low – it has become a radical and powerful act to reclaim it. With its seventh edition (aptly titled Design and the City), Beirut Design Week attempted to do just this last month with a series of collaborations, talks and participatory or experimental programmes and workshops dedicated to examining the city’s urban fabric. Through this programming, the week hoped to explore potential solutions to everyday issues that impact quality of life in the Lebanese capital.

One of the most comprehensive projects was a series of playful, serious and speculative interventions and proposals by students and designers on Beirut’s lively and commercial Jeanne d’Arc Street, the main artery of west Beirut’s Hamra neighbourhood and home to the American University of Beirut (AUB). Organised in collaboration with architect and preservationist Mona El Hallak and her AUB-hosted/funded Neighborhood Initiative, these projects ranged from a canopied red bench (cleverly entitled Red Reading Hood) that doubled up as a library with a solar-powered LED to a mobile botanical garden, and from lego brick patches filling in spots damaged by the civil war to self-watering plant systems that makes use of the city’s abundance of AC drain pipes.

Teaming up with organisations, designers and residents, El Hallak and AUB’s urban planning students didn’t stop there. They catalogued old native trees that are often destroyed to make way for new buildings, marked spots where you could hear birdsong, created colourful murals with tiles painted by local children, installed bike racks and cigarette butt receptacles (which will be recycled into surfboards) and collected data on the amount of pavement obstacles in the neighbourhood – a shocking 500 in a 5sqkm radius.

One immersive sound performance by local NGO ODDD, hosted in the crumbling triple-arched home of the former head of the Khalidy Maternity Hospital, was particularly moving. While the house is still standing (just about), the hospital, which many Beirutis have strong memories of, has been demolished to make way for a tower. As visitors wandered around the dilapidated grand stairs and terraces of this once elegant home, the experience soundtracked by recordings made in Beirut’s abandoned modernist Egg building (among other structures), you could see into the concrete carcass of the new tower – work has been halted for years due to the country’s economic crisis.

Less poetic, but potentially highly transformative, was Urban Hive, a simple scaffolding structure designed by multidisciplinary designer Nathalie Harb that was installed in a car park. Part ornamental garden, part shading structure for a car, Harb’s Urban Hive is proposed to be replicated across car parks and over several cars in one space. “This is just a pilot and a tool for questioning this possibility, understanding how it would work, talking to the community,” she explained. Car parks are often a sign of looming redevelopment in Beirut, frequently opening on razed lots awaiting construction. “By raising a platform above the cars we are not taking anything away from anyone,” explained Harb, “but rather providing shade for the car, respite from the pollution and something that has the potential to become a neighbourhood garden that people can personalise with chairs, birdhouses and swings.”

Co-founder and Beirut Design Week director Doreen Toutikian believes this type of urban experimentation and participatory design is the culmination of what the MENA Design Research Center, the not-for-profit behind the Design Week, has sought to achieve from the start. “Doing something out there in the public realm, in one of the busiest pedestrian streets in Beirut and in a very mixed environment where people of different classes, educational backgrounds and religious groups live and work together, is very different from putting on an exhibition,” she says. “When you do something in a gallery you don’t need permits from municipalities and official institutions, nor do you have to deal with the consequences of being in the midst of a very busy neighbourhood filled with people who might oppose your work. On the streets of Beirut the risks are high, but the impact can be much greater in comparison.”

The idea is that once the municipality sees how easy and affordable these solutions are to implement, they will adopt them in other districts. What currently exists as a social and educational urban experiment could become permanent. Jeanne D’Arc Street is a test case in other senses too. In 2017, after years of negotiation, AUB’s Neighborhood initiative and Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service was successful in persuading the municipality to rehabilitate the street in a largely resident-led consultation process – a first for Beirut. One lane of parking was removed from the street, access ramps and tactile tiling for the visually-impaired added, benches installed, trees planted and signage coordinated.

“This is the only street in Beirut other than downtown and the Corniche where you can walk from one street to another for half a kilometre without one pedestrian obstacle,” says El Hallak with some pride. People are starting to choose this street over others she continues, because it is so pleasant. Getting locals on board, she says, is the crux of this success. “A whole street showing people how things could be might inspire the community and local businesses to demand more from the municipalities,” agrees Toutikian, “but it might encourage them to come up with their own initiatives too.”

The change won’t happen overnight. El Hallak suggests that the timescale may be more in the region of decades, and she is sanguine about the levels of corruption in a city where heritage and citizen amenities have historically succumbed to finance. After the city’s downtown was almost entirely razed in the years following Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, it was largely redeveloped into a luxury enclave. This, El Hallak says, caused people to lose hope. “If your entire downtown can be taken over by a real estate developer what are people fighting for?” she says. Despite these challenges, however, she believes activism is picking up in the city. There is a growing movement of younger people who are staying put “because the economic situation is not necessarily better outside” and who desperately want to make quality of life in this city better. So far, Jeanne d’Arc Street provides one of the most productive sites of urban inquiry and experimentation in the city and the clearest and most pragmatic example of what can be achieved.