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Linking the Human to an Urban framework

Subject: Collectives and urban space
 
Author: Nadine Khalil
 
Through an inquiry into how some recent artist-activist networks and collectives in Beirut are responding to the urban environment and production of space, “Human and Urban” was discovered. This will be the first of a series of articles about how artists, architects, academics or researchers who are interested in working with or on space, have been doing so in an organizational framework, with a recent rise of urban interventions throughout the city.
 
Georges Rabbath and Nayla Tamraz, the main founders of Human and Urban as President and Vice-President respectively, are also full-time academics from diverse backgrounds. However, these two professors at USJ have approached the urban problematic in their work, albeit very differently. Rabbath has a doctorate in psychology and a Master’s degree in neuroscience. He has researched extensively about how cognitive science can be applied to perceptions and mental representations of urban space. He has been nominated curator and chief commissioner of the Lebanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year. 
 
Nayla Tamraz’ academic background is in French literature and art and she has researched the urban imaginary and subjective geographies in literature, such as in the work of French novelist Richard Millet. Tamraz has recently launched a Master’s program at USJ in Art Criticism and Curating. And yet both Rabbath and Tamraz share a strong fascination with bridging the worlds of science and art in organizing events and talks related to arts and architecture. “Since the late 60’s, art has had an architectural turn to it and art world cannot be viewed without imagining a space for it and creating an interaction with the viewer,” Rabbath tells Archileb in an interview. “The only difference between art and architecture is that the latter needs to have utility. It is the only artwork that we cannot do without, and I see architecture as being right in the middle of art and science as a discipline.” And envisioning architecture as an art combines two fields of knowledge and practice, which are actually part of one another, in Rabbath’s view, “except that one is functional, unless you think of Zaha Hadid, and then it is not functional anymore.” 
 
Although Rabbath’s role in the Venice Biennale and Tamraz’ role at the university has taken them away from Human and Urban as of late, they are still very much active in the production of knowledge related to urban studies or reinforcing related academic research in an interdisciplinary manner. And it is indeed Human and Urban’s main aim to conduct evidence-based research and writing, linking the arts and the human sciences, and how they both relate to the city. One of the ongoing initiatives is to continue their series of publications known as the H&U book series. Their first publication was released in 2009, by Georges Rabbath and published by Alarm Editions, entitled “Can One Man Save the (Art) World,” and preceded by Nayla Tamraz’ introduction: “Ayman Baalbaki’s Mythological City.” Ayman Baalbaki is a contemporary Lebanese painter whose looming buildings comprise a seemingly infinite proliferation of painted dots, evoking an apocalyptic vision of the endless cycle of destruction and reconstruction in Beirut. Rabbath is also interested in publishing a book by Mirna Hanna, an architect who is working on writings of Jung in application to architecture. Furthermore, Human and Urban recently partnered with Dr. Semir Zeki, who is a well-known professor of neuroaesthetics at UCL and invited him to give a lecture at USJ. 
Rabbath proposed to Archileb the following problematic which has been on his mind for years: “Are there different thinking patterns and cognitive processes related to cities? Is the way a city is organized or planned associated with how you think?” Beirut is not a clear city to navigate, as evidenced in the difficulty foreigners have in adjusting to its “plan.” “That is part of its concept,” Rabbath claimed wryly. He recounts how cognitive theories went from comparing human mind to the computer in the 60s, to an embodied brain in the 80s, where the body was an aspect of cognition, in what was known as situated cognition, where the body dictated how thought process. Hence it is no wonder that the movement of the body through urban spaces has an effect on cognition. According to Rabbath, “The specificity of Beirut is interesting because it is like a laboratory, and downtown Beirut was constructed only recently; no one was inhabiting or experiencing it. It is like an open air lab, where people don’t have a memory of it and those who do, see it completely differently.” Rabbath’s grand vision would be to have virtual exhibitions throughout the city via augmented reality, “all of which are GPS based, which would allow for new buildings or modify existing ones and also go back into the past through a time machine, to see what was there before, and preserve the old buildings virtually.”
 
Tamraz also spoke about how it is precisely this urban revival that has led to the critique and debate on architecture in Beirut. An idea for a workshop on “writing Beirut” is in the making, with this narrative aspect of the city being a key development since both Tamraz and Rabbath would like to further the results of their first workshop in 2008, “Threading the City,” (show link) led by Nathalie Harb. Nayla Tamraz is currently preparing a seminar about the urban imaginary in arts and literature. She is interested generally in “the history of ideas and the critique of the imaginary,” and more specifically, how city spaces are depicted in literature, the fine arts, mainly paintings. In her research, she has worked primarily on Proust, who deals with space a great deal,  and in particular, “les paysages.” She recounts the shift in literature from the modern idea of the city with Baudelaire, the surrealists, and poetry at the beginning of the 20th century, to the postmodern idea of the city and its placelessness, even homelessness. “The fragmentation of the city came with fragmentation of narratives and literary forms.” She is currently organizing “a conference about the map, the idea of the map and territory, in relation to literature with Sophie Rabeau. The seminar will be finalized with a workshop with her at Zico House.” Tamraz expressed her fascination with “mental and subjective maps in tandem with real and imaginary spaces.” 
Also among her Tamraz’ academic concerns are how Beirut features in works of “literary production and contemporary artistic and cinematographic visions.” She has just finished a book on French novelist Richard Millet, who she has studied in relation to his subjective geographies vis-a-vis Beirut. In 2009 he published, “ La Confession Negative,” which is set during the civil war in Beirut and featured his fictive participation with the Kataeb during the “hotel wars.” “It is a very provocative work,” Nayla admitted and her article will appear in France next month with the journal Litterature (show link), with a focus on the ideology of a text and its reception, and the system of values texts can embody. Tamraz articulated her wonder at a story that can be “so seductive and yet so politically incorrect at the same time.” 
 
Although since 2010, Human and Urban has stalled its activities due to the involvement of the association’s members with the Venice Biennale, new links and partnerships are being forged, with Claudine Abdelmassih from Majal (show link) in ALBA as recent and active member, as well as a collaboration with Samer Mokdad, head of the Arab Images Foundation. Abdelmassih is project officer at the latter urbanism institute and has published her research on various issues. She wrote an article about Youssef Tohme’s USJ building before it was constructed. His idea was to maintain memory of the war by creating “casual” openings and she spoke about how the original drawings show holes like impact of bombs. Majal will be organizing a competition on sustainable cities through architecture soon. 
 
When asked how Human and Urban’s interdisciplinarity actually relate to the architectural community, rather than mostly the academic community, since those who actually determine urban space are very much architects, urban practitioners and planners, Rabbath responded: “The problem with doing research and trying to find results, or finding theories to fit the data that is becoming more and more complicated, is that you are dealing with intelligent people who read about those theories. And the data is coming in so fast that sometimes you don’t need the theories anymore; you just need to conduct a study in real time and find out what is happening. Theory always reduces information. One of the reasons we are delving into art and architecture is because both are initiatives that are done on the spot. Part of it may be research-based, but at least something is being done in the sense of production. When you write about an artist, after one year, the text is often no longer as accurate or actual.” In other words, both art and architecture seem more timely.
 
In the case of Beirut, when Elie Harfouche, founder of Archileb, posed the question to the two passionate academics about whether they were exposing themselves to Western theorists who were nevertheless referential in our local context, they both admitted that it was difficult and their affiliation was mostly to European literature. Harfouche gave the example of “Henri Lefebvre, who writes of Beirut a key example of a Mediterranean city that is suffering from its own rhythms: biological, sociological, religious, all of which collided at some point and this is how he explains our war. I am always interested in highlighting the specificity and application of such theories through local knowledge. Through academia or Human & Urban, are you able to generate an idea about what is Beirut, about what is an urban environment in Beirut, or a visual language in Beirut? After a long silence, Nayla Tamraz responded: “Maybe I can tell you one day.”

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