Transforming the Face of Beirut
An interview with Beirut’s street artist Yazan Halwani about migration, Lebanon's vibrant culture, and his calligraffiti art.
Instead of relegating their thesis to gathering dust on a university library shelf, Hans and Felix set up re-beirut, an online platform generating impulses for integrating Syrian refugees in Beirut – and around the world.
Hans and I first met as architecture students. We reconnected in autumn 2013 after we had both left Stuttgart to complete a semester abroad. With that checked off the list, it was time to start working on our thesis. We got together to make dinner and brainstorm possible topics. Images of the refugee crisis in Lebanon had dominated the media for some time, and we had both followed the story closely. Stories of refugees who left Syria for Beirut where they were trying to carve out a space in which to live their lives in the Lebanese capital. The influx of refugees raised a number of questions:
How could the city of Beirut house all the refugees?
How could the city provide access to adequate sanitation?
And how could the refugees continue to live and express their own cultural identity while still engaging with Lebanese society?
That evening over dinner, we decided to each cover these pressing issues in our thesis. Excited to do some research on the ground, we booked our flights at the beginning of 2014 and landed in Beirut just a few weeks later.
Since 2011, Beirut has also felt the repercussions of the civil war in neighbouring Syria (…).
We emerged to discover a city enveloped by a pleasantly soft, warm haze. Beirut still bears the scars of the Lebanese Civil War that raged from 1975 to 1990. The cityscape is pockmarked by bombed out ruins, and the social fabric is still deeply rent. Beirut's other face is that of a pulsing metropolis on the Mediterranean coast with residential neighbourhoods that extend up into the bordering mountains. Since 2011, Beirut has also felt the repercussions of the civil war in neighbouring Syria, and Syrian refugees are an integral part of daily life on the streets of the Lebanese capital. Despite rising resentment, many Lebanese are well aware of their responsibility to the Syrian people, who took in scores of refugees during the Lebanese Civil War.
Refugees seek shelter under bridges, in abandoned buildings and among the rubble of collapsed ruins.
The living conditions for Syrians in Beirut are catastrophic and their situation is precarious. Refugees seek shelter under bridges, in abandoned buildings and among the rubble of collapsed ruins. There were Syrian refugees sheltering in an abandoned parking garage right next to our hostel. Under cover of darkness, children and a few adults visited the hostel every night to beg for something to eat, a slice of bread. We came to Beirut with the intention of quickly generating inexpensive ideas for housing refugees. Once there though, we realised that the scope of the problem was much larger and more complex than we could ever have imagined. And which raised a whole host of other questions:
Is it enough to meet refugees' primary need for shelter, for living space in a foreign country? What other needs are being overlooked?
How do the needs of refugees change over the course of their long exile?
And how can all the basic needs be efficiently and effectively met?
Obviously the very first thing refugees need is protection from the elements in the form of housing. But it is also important to create spaces in which refugees feel safe during the transition period at the very least. Additionally, sanitary facilities and fresh water must be available to cover basic hygienic needs. Then there are social needs to be met as well, which Hans and I understood first and foremost as the integration of refugees into the social fabric of Lebanon. Integration is important, as the permanent isolation of specific segments of society leads to additional, far-reaching problems.
…a desire for at least a small sense of the familiar in a new place.
Last but not least, there are cultural needs that must be satisfied as well. People forced from their homeland long for the familiar objects and rituals rooted in their culture of origin. This is coupled with a desire for at least a small sense of the familiar in a new place.
In our search for answers, we also began to question the traditional role of the planning architect and the efficacy of conventional solutions. As architecture students, we approach these issues from an architectural point of view. At the same time, we could clearly see that solutions had to extend well beyond this limited scope. What we saw and learned in Beirut inspired us to set up our re-beirut.net website as a space for sourcing ideas and bringing interdisciplinary project proposals together. Grouped into four categories, we offer impulses for possible solutions to meet the range of needs of urban refugees. Three are presented below:
How and where living space can be created is a ubiquitous problem. Beirut has a lot of abandoned buildings throughout the city, some in a serious state of disrepair and threatened by demolition, but they are highly concentrated in the eastern part of the city known as Gemmayzeh. So how can the city's cultural heritage be maintained while at the same time using these spaces to provide shelter for refugees?
… creating new living spaces in old buildings step by step.
We took the traditional caravanserai as our model and guiding principle. A caravanserai is a type of inn with an enclosed courtyard found along trade routes and which travelling caravans have used for centuries as temporary housing and market places. We tried to preserve as much functionality as possible in developing a strategy, an instruction manual of sorts for how old buildings could be restored by refugees. Our concept is less about providing suggestions for dealing with an actual building and its inventory and more about creating a space that kick-starts a process. The caravanserai for refugees is intended to serve as a catalyst for development aimed at creating new living spaces in old buildings step by step.
Many refugees have no access to clean drinking water, much less sanitary facilities. Dirty water and insufficient sanitary infrastructure to meet the most basic hygienic needs create ideal conditions for spreading disease. Those who fall ill are weakened, can no longer work, and thus find themselves trapped in a vicious downward spiral of poverty. The primary goal of providing people with opportunities for maintaining personal hygiene is to prevent the spread of disease. Additionally, hygiene is a key component of non-verbal communication and society takes a negative view of anyone who lacks the accepted level of personal hygiene. Our goal was therefore twofold: to counteract the exclusion of Syrian refugees, and prevent the spread of disease. We explored the type of facilities needed, where they were needed and, even more importantly, how many were needed.
…sufficient access to drinking water and sanitary facilities.
The “city hydrant” is a minimal unit we developed that could provide sufficient access to drinking water and sanitary facilities. A city hydrant consists of a toilet, a shower and a sink. They are to be placed throughout the city, and the number in any given area of Beirut determined by the number of refugees who live there.
The Syrian cultural trojan is a mobile kitchen. As human beings, we all share a need for food, an uniting principle. The mobile kitchen is designed to put Syrian refugees on par with Lebanese society, and serve as a refugee network as well. The cultural trojan encourages a shift in perspective from seeing refugees as takers to recognising the very positive contributions they can make. The kitchen-on-wheels is a space of encounter, a point of communication. The trojan moves around the city as a platform for exchange between the Syrian and Lebanese cultures.
The next question we tackled was how our suggestions could be useful and for whom. Simply developing projects and allowing the final drafts to yellow and age on some shelf in an ivory tower is ultimately of no use to anyone. So we asked ourselves how we could present our ideas to the wider public, draw the attention of people on location who could use the information, whether NGOs or Syrian refugees. It might even be better, we concluded, if we could open our ideas up to discussion, perhaps offer them as motivation for larger groups of experts and the public from all over the world.
…a gathering place for ideas digitally accessible to anyone.
This was the driving force behind our homepage, re-beiruit.net, a gathering place for ideas digitally accessible to anyone. We wanted to create an open forum on the topic of refugees, not just in Beirut, but all across the globe. A place where alternative ideas can emerge, come together and act as catalysts. As architects, we know there are many more points of access and possible solutions out there. Re-beiruit.net is designed as a platform to bring people together who are involved in some facet of the issue, a place to collect ideas, pragmatic ideas that can be realised in the real world.
Photos and graphics by Hans Henrik Fricke and Felix Steinhoff.