American University of Beirut

Architecture students reflect on public space in Beirut using the city as a canvas

​​Jennifer Muller, Office of Communications,

BePublic / Appropriation 2018” was the final, culminating project of third- and fourth-year architecture students in the Vertical Design Studio class taught by architects Rana Haddad and Pascal Hachem. This year’s theme was about “a sense of not being part of the community” and “investigating the (lack of) place that is provided for youth in the city.”

For their final projects, groups of students set off across the city to create life-size (1:1 scale) installations in four different neighborhoods of Beirut. This was the fourth in a series of studios given about public installation in the city, held at the Department of A​rchitecture and Design, Maroun Semaan Faculty of Engineering and Architecture. One of the final projects this year was done in collaboration with AUB’s Neighborhood Initiative.

“Between a thought and another” - Hamra
The installation on Jeanne d’Arc Street appropriates a previously underutilized plaza between Bliss and Hamra streets, introducing a long planter and bench on wheels that invites pedestrians to interact with it and reflect on the dichotomy between public and private. A curved metal plaque runs along the semi-circular trajectory of the bench with short citations from each storeowner along the street expressing their feelings and memories of this historic thoroughfare. The students engaged with the merchants, not only to get their quotes but also to plan and implement this installation, which was supported by the AUB Neighborhood Initiative and is expected to remain a permanent addition to the street.

Students: Tala El Khatib, Jad Najm, Tima Rabbat, Mariya Zantout​

“Dare to approach” – Ain Mreisseh
Along the Corniche near the old St. Georges Hotel, billboards and banners rise 2.5 meters from the sidewalk, obstructing the sea view. This group of students erected a series of ladders along the sidewalk that would seem to offer an opportunity to see over these barriers, but the horizontal platforms at the top of each ladder cuts the vertical perspective and presents the viewer with an obstacle, obscuring the expected view of the sea and leading to a sense of disappointment. In their installation, the students use this frustration to reflect on the false sense of involvement in Lebanon and intended the installation as an “ironic intervention that critiques the already existing appropriations on site.” ​​

Students: Sari El Kantari, Elie Geha, Amina Kassem, Tamara Salloum

“Khod nafas (take a breather)” – Karm el Zeitoun
Four separate installations were done in this eclectic and relatively little-known part of Ashrafieh. The neighborhood is built on a hill with tightly packed houses lining narrow alleys with winding stairways, where neighbors share the public spaces between and around them. The aim of these installations was to create an interface with the user, bringing out elements of everyday life that would otherwise be disregarded and highlighting the already existing appropriations of the neighborhood. One of the installations involved a fountain on one balcony that was being fed with water from a small pipe coming from the neighbor’s property across the stairway. Another involved a basketball net on a pole rising over three stories high, so that the only way to “play” would be to shoot a basket from the rooftop.​

Students: Taha Barazy, Andrea Chaanine, Mohamad Chami, Tala Salman 



“Come and play” – Gemayzeh and Mar Mikhael
Along with a set of physical installations, this group also used performances by the students, their friends, and a small fleet of service taxi drivers, revolving around the concept of “play as a survival kit.” Groups of four viewers were ushered into a service taxi, which at one point went down an impossibly narrow alley—with just centimeters to spare on each side of the car—and stopped in front of a doorway where a performer entered the already full taxi, forcing those in the back seat to make room for another occupant. At another stop on the route, the students constructed an elongated cart covered in real grass with a person sunbathing on it, highlighting the lack of public space in Beirut. The cart even had a time-stamped parking ticket since it was in a parking space.

Students: Nicolas Abou Haidar, Lina Akkaoui, Soraya Hammoud, Nicol Yamin, Carl Yammine​

Before this final project, students had done previous smaller-scale installations around the city. For one of these, the students appropriated a tiny square of grass on the sidewalk. In an attempt to draw attention to how little green space there is for children to play in Beirut, they hung a tire swing over this small patch of grass. Neighborhood children immediately came to play on the swing, highlighting how these installations are very different than classroom exercises since they necessarily involve​ interactions with the public.

Learning through doing and interacting

Jala Makhzoumi was one of the jury members who visited the installations to evaluate them and give feedback to the students. She noted that these projects in one-to-one scale are important because architecture students normally work with drawings and models, and so this reminds them of what real scale means.

Public installation projects also serve a broader pedagogical purpose, as explained by one of the instructors for the Vertical Design Studio: 

"These interventions aim to seek, to host, to challenge, to improve, to engage and to question the city, reacting to the event that is taking place here and now,” said Rana Haddad. “It is a pedagogical tool both for the city dwellers and for the designer, underlining the importance of the subtle and the mundane, questioning socio-political measures. Also students acquire a sense of maturity as they feel the responsibilit​y towards the public."

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