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An anthropologistís homage to absence

Architecture

For the last three years, Lebanese anthropologist and photographer Houda Kassatly has focused her attention on Lebanon’s architectural heritage and the regrettable destruction of historic structures around the capital, a sad consequence of real estate development.

This article was featured on the Daily Star’s website (www.dailystar.com.lb) on March the 3rd, 2012, written by Chirine Lahoud.
 
“Fastes et Devastations” (Splendor and Devastations), the exhibition currently up at Ashrafieh’s Alice Mogabgab Gallery, is comprised of a selection of 30 of Kassatly’s photographs. She captured these images at some risk, entering a few buildings to document them before their actual demolition. The resulting exhibition is an homage to the collective memory Lebanon’s architectural patrimony.

"Abandon" et "L'Escalier"
The show falls into five main categories: painted walls, windows and stained glass, arcades, staircases and, finally, the idea of devastation. With these photos, the artist invites viewers to embark on a journey through obsolete spaces, many of which were abandoned by their former residents in haste and under considerable pressure. Most of the houses the photographer chose for this show don’t exist anymore.
Kassatly’s “Abandon” (2010), depicts a solitary leather armchair, coated in a fine layer of dust, in an otherwise empty room. With the closed doors in the background (and what appears to be elaborate molding on the walls) the ensemble is emblematic of both graceful early-20th century design and – thanks to the layer of soot-like grime on them and the dust-coated detritus on the floor – dereliction.
Insofar as the photo mimics the style of interior photos of luxury resorts issued by publicity firms, “Abandon” functions to lure the onlooker to take a seat and assess the room’s charms from that perspective – an invitation that cannot be met.
The photographer’s depictions of Lebanese houses on the verge of demolition are, in the words of gallerist Alice Mogabgab, at once “serene and also dramatic.”
In “Devastation” (2009), Kassatly documents the dismantling process that precedes the final razing of an historic house. Dominating the middle ground of the photo is a typically Beiruti treble-arch – the gold-painted latticework still beautifully well preserved – which at some point was modified to make a false wall.
The foreground and background of the image, meanwhile, are storage for unhinged doors and Ottoman- and Maddate-era floor tiles – all detached from the floor for later re-sale.
Mogabgab explained how, after being so denuded, these edifices become skeletons emptied of architectural substance. Ironically, it’s the doors, tiles that you notice first. The characteristically Lebanese arcade is secondary.
In “L’Atelier” (The Warehouse, 2010), the interior turmoil may be stressful enough to make you feel uncomfortable. A dressmaker’s dummy sits abandoned on the floor, the tailor’s last pattern still clinging to the form by a band about the waist.
The accompanying ensemble might be the leavings of hasty departure or later looting. An open suitcase, drawers pulled from cabinets, a cardboard box torn-open and emptied, a red toy truck and a tube of Clipp hand cream – it could be the residue of a bomb blast, were it not for the plates and coffee cups that sit, still whole, among the debris.
Depending on the onlooker’s attitudes in the debate between irreplaceable architectural heritage and quick-fix real estate development, some of these images may radiate a tragic air. Yet Kassatly’s is verite-style camera work and the locations are as they were found – without effort to manipulate light or settings in any way. What tragedy there is here has not been scripted.
Houda Kassatly’s “Fastes et Devastations” are up at Ashrafieh’s Alice Mogabgab Gallery until March 17. For more information please call 01-204-984.                         
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 03, 2012, on page 16.

 

 

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