Exploring the 'Balustrades of Beirut'
In a gaping white gallery, black and white prints of patterns are evenly spaced along the walls: studies of the wrought-ironwork that typify the balconies of Beirut. Represented as architectural drawings, the clinical attention to clean lines throughout the exhibit is severe. As the designs are considered apart from the rust and decay, the beauty of their form can be appreciated anew.
The patterns, some art deco fabulous, others resembling crazed cardiac monitor graphs, and one even showing a nativity scene, boast a wealth of influences. Though rendered near sterile in the exhibition’s black and white frames, these patterns are a testimony to Beirut’s architectural heritage that is increasingly disappearing.
The show, “The Balustrades of Beirut,” is the work of Mazen Haidar, an architect specializing in conservation. After living and studying in Italy for over a decade, he returned to Beirut in 2010 and was horrified by how many of city’s historic buildings had been razed. “I felt traumatized by the lack of effective laws and also society’s apathy towards its cultural heritage being demolished.”
Haidar immediately became involved in several conservation projects, but one of his main aims, a conviction evident in his exhibition, is to promote the concept that Beirut’s architectural traditions are not confined to only one period.
“Lebanon tends to consider only one period as its true heritage, that of the 19th century [and] early 20th century. If something has been modified in any way, it is considered not pure anymore.”
Haidar aims to promulgate the understanding that the different layers of history have to be preserved, that this stratification in the city’s architecture itself has historic and aesthetic value.
For example, Haidar strongly believes that the traces of the war should be preserved. He feels that as Lebanese society is not yet detached from the past, it is therefore perhaps afraid of preserving the signs of the conflict. “Like the legend of the phoenix, wanting to forget everything.”
The balustrades project attempts to document Lebanese architectural practice particularly from the 1940s and 50s. Haidar chose to focus on the wrought-ironwork of balconies because he sees in them a distinctive architectural component of this city that has persisted through the eras.
“In the modernity period, you have pure forms with very geometrical lines, and at the same time this element that is totally independent, almost like a painting, a space where either the architect or the artisan feels free to do whatever he wants.”
The exhibition shows 40 of Haidar’s 400 patterns, collected from buildings across the city. He captures the patterns using direct surveys in which precise measurements are taken, or using the same techniques as in his architectural practice as a conservationist, taking photos and then flattening the images in order to take the dimensions and proportions.
Haidar admits struggling to find the “true authors behind the balustrades” as more often than not they were designed by wrought-iron artisans. Those from the modernity period have all passed away, leaving little documentation of their practices.
The craft is still practiced today, “but not with the same sensibility. It is much more forced, it is not poetic anymore and it is faking a particular period, that of the French mandate and pseudo-Lebanese houses.”
When asked why this particular period is solely considered to be genuine Lebanese heritage, Haidar answers, “It is typical in countries that have experienced war, you go back to a previous period, and a new layer is imposed on the city, from the time far away from the division.”
He adds, “In Lebanon the reason we went back to this period was also dictated by the policy and strategy of Solidere.”
The policy was to preserve a “so-considered homogenous area, Place de l’Etoile, while other spots, like Martyr’s Square, were entirely wiped out.”
Haidar explains how Martyr’s Square was truly a part of the Lebanese identity in how it reconciled different aspects of history in one place, from the Ottoman to the modern, but the decision was taken not to preserve it, as if in an attempt to erase the past.
“The Balustrades of Beirut” is then a record of a unique feature of Lebanese architectural design, that, if not preserved now, could well be lost to the ever-greedy giant of redevelopment.
"The Balustrades of Beirut” will be showing at the Art Factum gallery until 23 February. Mazen Haidar’s book on the subject is to be completed by the end of 2013.
By Rebecca Whiting