Reclaiming city spaces

With fighting in Tripoli and little progress on public services, it’s always nice to see positive events happening in Lebanon, especially involving young people. Today I had the opportunity to attend “Welcoming City” an outdoor exhibition created by AUB architecture professors and students that helps residents discover and engage public spaces in Beirut a time of unchecked urban sprawl and privatization of the city. 
The first stop was the famed striped lighthouse (above), which is no longer in service. Thanks to the organizers, we were able to access it from the inside:    
We could enter the workshop of the man in charge, Victor, whose family has run the place for over 100 years:

Victor, who seems like a swell guy, actually lives in the tower with his family and was on hand to answer any questions we had. He explained that his son now runs the new lighthouse on the corniche, seen here:
Photo credit: Reemolution
But why is there a new lighthouse anyway and why was the old one decommissioned? According the event organizers, a wealthy businessman decided to build a massive tower in front of it about 10 years ago and was allowed to do so because he offered to build the new lighthouse above to replace it. The downside, according to architecture professor Sandra Rishani, is that this move set a precedent for the building of towers along the waterfront, effectively blocking much of the city’s residents from access to the sea view including the old lighthouse, barely peaking out in the far right of this picture: 

What better metaphor for unchecked urban growth than a landlocked lighthouse?

The tour then took us to an exhibit called “Corniche Extended” whereby students conceived of a flying piece of sidewalk that could magically transport citizens to restricted spaces such as this private pier, one of many in the city:

So how did they accomplish this? Ingeniously, the students were able to borrow an old train car (think “Wild E Coyote” cartoons) from Lebanon’s defunct rail company. They then added tiles and railing to mimic the style of the public promenade or corniche (above); i.e. a flying public space in the private sphere:

And after some pumping and pulling:

Away we went:

There were a lot of other great sites on the tour including this abandoned home, with the only picket fence  I’ve ever seen in Lebanon:

…accessed for the first time in decades since its abandonment, presumably during the civil war, by this staircase, also built by students:

Then there’s the curious ringing telephone booth in an abandoned plot-turned sunken garden. Pick it up for a surprise message:

And of course the flying chair:

I’ll let you check these out for yourself, so as not to give too much away. The exhibit will be up till the 18th, with details posted on the Facebook page.

It’s a beautiful time of year for a walk around the city, and what better way to enjoy it than with the innovative, enlightening and inspiring work of students. That they were able to negotiate the use of these private locations and receive and install equipment on them from two defunct or poorly functioning state entities (the telecom company and the rail company) speaks volumes about the power of determination, even in a collapsing political context like Lebanon. Their slogan: “Beirut can still be a city where all can live and share, where all can inhabit and use…”

Special thanks to co-organizer Professor Sandra Rishani, who keeps a fascinating blog about public space in the city called “Beirut The Fantastic.”