In cities across the globe, historic architecture is being razed and replaced by buildings of contemporary design  – whether stolid concrete monoliths or glass-clad upside-down icicles.
In Beirut, 15 years of civil war ravaged pockets of the urban fabric and saw only fitful redevelopment. In the two decades since the war’s end, however, reconstruction and development have swept aside most conservation efforts, moving at a pace that frightens some.
As the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage recently told The Daily Star, there were over 1,600 examples of Ottoman, Mandate and Modernist architecture in Beirut in 1990. By 2012, only 200 of these buildings remained.
Disturbed by the speed at which the city they remember is disappearing and the irrevocable nature of the changes taking place, five local photographers have teamed up to document “the reality of a city in flux.” They describe their project as an attempt to recapture what has already been lost and document those landmarks that still exist, but may not endure for much longer.
“On Fleeting Grounds,” the group exhibition currently on show at Galerie Janine Rubeiz , displays up to nine photographs from each photographer: Lara Tabet, Chafa Ghaddar, Elsie Haddad, Chaghig Arzoumanian and Rima Maroun.
Beautifully curated by Nadine Begdache, Janine Rubeiz’s first show of the year is worth seeing, even if it means braving the cold. The sheer range of techniques and styles used – and effects and atmospheres achieved – by the five photographers provides five unique takes on the same subject matter and demonstrates the versatility of photography as a medium.
Tabet, Ghaddar and Maroun have all chosen construction sites as the subject of their photographs, approaching them from very different perspectives. While Haddad is attempting to recapture a lost way of life – that of small neighborhood shopkeepers during the prewar era – Arzoumanian, by contrast, has chosen to photograph Asfourieh, Beirut’s now derelict insane asylum, which closed during the early years of the Civil War.
Tabet’s photos are mysterious, almost sketchy – a series of four soft-focus black-and-white images of construction sites. She snatched her photos from whatever vantage points she could find, using a pinhole camera to document places usually shielded from public view. Tabet explained that the camera’s simple mechanism – which mirrors that of the human eye – reflects the sense of voyeurism she experienced when photographing these hidden spaces.
The resulting images are timeless and impressionistic: a vertically striped box made by the metal rods protruding from a building’s half-finished walls; the blurred, ghostly shape of an overall-clad figure carrying a bucket; a series of jagged white lines resembling the nighttime blur of car headlights, which convey upward movement while obscuring the particulars of material and purpose.
Ghaddar has also captured a construction site – “an emblem of destruction in progress,” as she describes it – in black and white. Her lone photograph, entitled “Living Relics,” captures a truck parked amid mounds of dirt, the peaks and troughs of pitted earth filling the foreground of the frame, two high-rises and a crane silhouetted against the distant sky like afterthoughts.
The square photograph is interesting primarily because of its unusual texture. Ghaddar manipulated the photograph by forcing light through the negative, creating a “burnt image” in which each pixel is isolated from those around it. This softens the image and creates an effect very similar to pointillism, through which Ghaddar seeks to emulate the dust hanging in the air around the site.
Maroun’s four images of construction sites are something else again. Rendered in vivid, almost hyperrealistic color, her photos are bisected horizontally across the middle, capturing various Beirut landmarks (sometimes historic, sometimes not) in the upper half of the square frame, juxtaposed with the yawning black holes dug to house foundations for new buildings in the lower half.
Maroun avoided the simplicity and ease afforded by the digital revolution, shooting instead with an old Pentacon 6x6, necessitating multiple trips to each location in order to capture the perfect image. The compelling simplicity of her photos – in which the rich, sunlight tones of the blue domes on the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque or a glimpse of the distinctive red-tile roofs of Sursuq’s Ottoman-era villas are contrasted with the emptiness of freshly-dug pits – tells its own story.
Haddad’s photographs are the least visually engaging, though they are distinguished by their avoidance of architectural subjects in favor of timeworn shop interiors filled with relics of Beirut’s past. Her collection of nicely composed shots capture old portraits, warped furniture and decor that was probably the height of chic back in the 1960s, creating an impression of spaces frozen in a long-vanished past.
Arzoumanian’s nine photographs – four monochrome and five in color – capture the crumbling grandeur of Asfourieh, now overgrown by tangles of weeds and wildflowers. The old mental hospital, which is scheduled to be knocked down to make way for a new residential and commercial complex, sits on 130,000 square meters of land, which Arzoumanian has photographed along with the buildings.
The photographer says her distress at hearing that this site – a source of such childhood fascination – was to be destroyed provoked her to break in and document the place she had daydreamed about for years.
The result is a series of tranquil, quietly beautiful photographs of weather stained walls on the verge of being overrun by plants, the spreading branches of decades-old trees and one idyllic shot of an old gravestone that has almost vanished amid a sea of nodding foxgloves and dry, yellow grass, topped by trees heavy with blossoms.
Arzoumanian’s photos provide an appealing glimpse of an urban setting that is gradually returning to nature for want of human habitation. The knowledge that this picturesque part of the city’s history is soon to disappear gives her photographs a bittersweet edge.
“On Fleeting Grounds” is up at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Raouche until Jan. 30. For more information please call 01-868-290.