BEIRUT: In the corner of the Seaside Arena exhibition hall that is housing the Beirut Design Fair this week, a skeletal scaffold rises from the floor.
At the top of the structure, reached by two winding staircases, is a platform.
Through a door – with a lock switched to “engaged” – is a deck chair that looks out over the hall. Lie back in the chair and from two empty plastic water bottles, repurposed as speakers, comes the sound of breaking waves.
“Saint Balech” is the brainchild of interior architect Donna Maria Feghali, founder of the cultural platform Retrieving Beirut, and artist Charbel Samuel Aoun, who were invited by the fair’s organizers to create the installation.
The combative piece, Feghali said, is intended as a rebuke of the lack of design in the development of the modern city of Beirut. “Saint Balech,” or “Saint Free,” she explained, used to be a colloquial term for the city’s public beaches that have become increasingly inaccessible. “We’re really tackling ... the lack of urban planning on the coastline of the city,” Feghali told The Daily Star. “We live in a country where you have the sea everywhere but you never get to see the sea.”
The stairs, she explained, represent how it is now necessary to reach a high vantage point to see the Mediterranean, while also symbolizing the effort that needs to be made to access the coast at all.
According to Feghali, cutting off Beirutis from the sea has not only eliminated a key aspect of the city’s “golden age,” but is also making it more difficult for the city’s residents to care about one of its major issues – pollution – to which the repurposed plastic bottles are a sardonic allusion.
“How do you [expect] them to care about what their country is giving them as nature if this part is not even shared with them?” she asked.
Galal Mahmoud, founder of the architecture and design firm GM Architects, who designed the fair’s scenography, is trying to encourage a more positive way of thinking about the city’s future. “I’m at an age when I lived partially through the golden age of Beirut,” he told The Daily Star.
“This nostalgia for me is good, but at the same time, we should start looking towards the future because design is about the future, it’s about being young, it’s about being creative, and we should stop always dwelling on how good it was back then and how bad it is today.”
The scenography, he explained, also deals with the chaos of Beirut’s urban landscape and looks to link the bygone golden age with the present and the future. “We looked at the architecture of that period, we’ve looked at the colors of the streets of Beirut and we’ve looked at how the urban evolution of Beirut evolved through time, where – while it seems at times very chaotic – if you walk in Beirut ... you feel like you’re going to get lost but you never get lost.”
The result was a seemingly random network of walls, windows and passageways. “It’s a play of walls that creates a maze, and that maze has a function to walk you around the city while discovering the creativity of Beirut that’s looking into the future,” Mahmoud said.
This vision for the future, inspired by the past, is essential for Beirut’s next generation of designers, said Hala Moubarak, the fair’s co-founder and creative and design director. This vision, she told The Daily Star, was also the drive behind the show’s A+ Award. The award’s tagline is “start mining your nostalgic memories” and is intended to give seven design students the opportunity to create a working prototype of a design, overseen by two local architects.
“Maybe the object of tomorrow is actually the object of yesterday,” Moubarak suggested.
While contestants for the award have been asked to draw on Lebanon’s cultural heritage, she is also looking to address the country’s lack of capacity to reproduce design on an industrial scale. All the entries are therefore required to have the potential to be mass-produced.
This does not mean the country’s artisans would become obsolete. “We need our craftsmen,” Moubarak said. “We still need limited edition pieces, but we [also] need beautiful pieces, affordable pieces, for everyone.”