x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Monument valley

Art Is Beirut's new cultural centre just a receptacle for impossible dreams? Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports.

The present state of Plot 128-4, a humble 4,000 square metre patch of unoccupied land in downtown Beirut that will someday be the site of the Omani-funded House of Arts and Culture.
The present state of Plot 128-4, a humble 4,000 square metre patch of unoccupied land in downtown Beirut that will someday be the site of the Omani-funded House of Arts and Culture.

Is Beirut's new cultural centre just a receptacle for impossible dreams? Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports. On the southern edge of downtown Beirut lies a tiny scrap of empty land known as Plot 128-4. On one side, it bumps up against the elevated high-speed ring road that runs parallel to the coast and whisks traffic between East Beirut and West. On the other, it slopes down to a small street, beyond which is a public square arranged around an enormous old Ficus tree. A hundred years ago this area was a suburb. Fifty years ago it was a slum. During the civil war it was abandoned, and afterward it was destroyed: in 1994, the real-estate company Solidere, which was established to carry out the urban renewal of Beirut's city centre, flattened everything in this area except for one building, a pink house with white trim that dates back to the French Mandate and looks like a birthday cake. Plot 128-4 doesn't seem like much at the moment, other than a 4,000-square-metre parcel of tall grass and weeds. The neighbourhood is empty, and no one is using the adjacent public square except for a single security guard from a private firm, one of many in Solidere's small army of enforcers, who habitually stashes his newspaper, his lunch, a few coffee cups and a spare uniform in the gnarled folds of the Ficus tree's trunk.

If all goes as planned, this humble spot will host a world-class cultural centre for the visual and performing arts by 2013. But to envision the future of Plot 128-4, as at any other site in downtown Beirut slated for eventual development - including Martyrs' Square, the Souqs of Beirut, the new waterfront marina and the so-called Garden of Forgiveness, all of which have been in the works for years - requires imagination and a willing suspension of disbelief.

Imagine a building made of gradated white stone, oxidised copper and glass. Imagine a ramp zigzagging down the slope of the land like a scar. Imagine a design that gives material expression to a notion the architects call "tragic optimism". Imagine a smooth flow between interior and exterior space. Imagine modular exhibition rooms, two performance halls, a cinema, a library, a documentation centre and more. Imagine these spaces animated. Imagine them popular.

For all the cultural vitality of the Lebanese capital, Beirut has never had an art space of this size and scale. The city has neither a modern art museum nor a contemporary art institute. Public funding for culture is meagre, and there is virtually no government-sponsored infrastructure for the arts. The city is home to a critical mass of artists, writers, curators, choreographers, theatre directors and filmmakers - but when they present their work to the public, they usually do so by borrowing, renting or appropriating spaces such as commercial galleries, old movie theatres or derelict and abandoned buildings. Under the auspices of Solidere, the downtown district has been more or less cleared of culture in favour of commerce. By necessity and design, the art scene since the start of the reconstruction era has thrived outside of the city centre, and it has established its own infrastructure without support or interference from the state. The new visual and performing arts centre is unusual, then, not only because it will be located downtown on Solidere's turf, but also because it is being conceived and executed by a government agency, namely, Lebanon's ministry of culture.

Among the many development projects that are on the drawing board in Beirut, this one - variously known as the House of Arts and Culture, Dar Bayrut or the Lebanese-Omani Centre - is of relatively recent vintage. The idea was hatched four years ago, during a conversation between Lebanon's prime minister, Fouad Siniora, and Tarek Mitri, who served as the minister of culture from 2005 to 2008. "The two of us thought that Beirut needed a concert hall, a museum of modern art, a historical archaeological museum, the revival of the national library project and a house of arts and culture," recalls Mitri. "So I wrote a few papers. Fouad Siniora said, 'We'll never get the money for this here.' It's true. You can't go to cabinet ministers and ask them for $25 million. These projects are important but maybe not urgent."

In early 2006, Siniora travelled to the Gulf to seek financing for these five cultural initiatives. The Sultanate of Oman pledged $20 million for the House of Arts and Culture. Tapping external donors for internal projects is nothing new in Lebanon (though foreign money has historically fuelled wars rather than museums). Neither is it unusual for the Gulf states to be generous with their wealth - in the form of humanitarian aid, post-war reconstruction, or massive real-estate investment.

But obtaining the funds proved less difficult than selecting a location. According to Mitri, "quite a few people didn't like the location in downtown Beirut. There was a strong argument against it, and I was not oblivious to it. But I came to be an advocate of downtown because the House of Arts and Culture must be accessible to all: north, south, east and west. Symbolically, downtown is the meeting place par excellence."

These plans unfolded against a backdrop of political chaos: the 33-day war with Israel in the summer of 2006, the opposition protest encampment that took over downtown Beirut for more than a year, and the outbreak of street fighting in May 2008. At one point, recalls Mitri, "I thought, should we go ahead with this?" But a few months after the brokering of the Doha Accord, which brought Lebanon's latest crisis to a close, Mitri travelled to Turin, where he launched an international competition for the House of Arts and Culture during a general assembly meeting for the Union of International Architects (UIA). More than 750 initial entries from 63 countries came pouring in.

In March 2009, a jury convened in Beirut to consider 388 final entries, and awarded the commission to an Italian team led by the architect Alberto Catalano. According to UIA regulations, the Lebanese government is obliged to contract Catalano for his design - a seemingly minor detail, but one that may be critical if the project is to survive Lebanon's frequent political storms.

If the House of Arts and Culture actually succeeds, it will be an unprecedented achievement. But there are several reasons to be sceptical. The first is political. Long-term planning is, in general, a luxury that few cultural figures in Lebanon can afford, as they are always facing the possibility of the next government stalemate or collapse, the next political assassination or explosion, and the next local or regional war. Lebanon is holding parliamentary elections on June 7, after which the current government - culture minister included - will automatically resign. Who knows what the next government will look like, or who the next culture minister will be? The second and third reasons to doubt the feasibility of the project are structural and financial. The gift of $20 million from Oman is barely enough to cover the cost of construction, to say nothing of the money required to outfit and equip a cultural space capable of hosting high-quality exhibitions and concerts. The model mentioned repeatedly in conversions about the House of Arts and Culture in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. But the differences between them are vast, not least because the project in Beirut is a kunsthalle-style venue with no collection and just 1,100 square metres of exhibition space; the Centre Pompidou, by contrast, is a museum with a collection of 53,000 works and 14,000 square metres in which to display them.

According to Angus Gavin, the head of Solidere's urban planning division, who sketched out an early feasibility study for Plot 128-4, "$20 million is just enough to do a building. But a cultural building? It's not enough, and it will take another $1 million a year just to run it." Even if the House of Arts and Culture gets built, there is little to suggest that anyone involved has any idea what will happen there, or how. At present, the centre has no director, no board of trustees, no executive committee and no infrastructure whatsoever. The culture ministry has no track record of carrying such a project to fruition. There are no proposals for fund-raising, staffing, programming or operating expenses. Beyond the generic and the vague, there is no artistic vision for the centre. In four years' time, Plot 128-4 might become a beautiful building. But architecture alone does not guarantee active cultural engagement. Consider the case of Lebanon's National Museum, which was gorgeously restored after the civil war and boasts a comprehensive collection of antiquities. On any given day, the museum is empty, and as silent as a long-forsaken stage set.

At the moment, there may be no structure for the House of Arts and Culture, but there are several hands in the proverbial pot. One is GAIA Heritage, the consulting firm that was contracted to conduct the competition. Another is Solidere. Another is an organising committee that Mitri created to shepherd the project from his term as culture minister to that of his successor, which consists of four volunteers, the director-general of antiquities Frederic Husseini, and the culture minister himself.

Talking to all of the different parties involved, it is difficult to ascertain who is really in charge. Tammam Salam, who succeeded Mitri as culture minister, insists that the House of Arts and Culture is the ministry's affair. "The representative body for this project is the Ministry of Culture, and it will be the Ministry of Culture all the way through. Certainly we imagine creating an administrative council or a governing board," he adds, explaining that a few months ago, "we enacted laws to govern the relations between different institutions in the country and the government, such as concert halls, museums and libraries." Such laws should allow greater autonomy for such institutions - including, possibly, the National Museum - while keeping them in line with the culture ministry's regulations.

Among Beirut's community of artists and cultural figures, however, there is little enthusiasm for the project: few believe it will ever happen, and even fewer understand why the Omani donation is funding form (the building itself) rather than function (the activities on the inside). Many of Beirut's artists believe, furthermore, that the strength of the city's art scene has derived precisely from the lack of state support. "Beirut is one of the rare instances where you find forms of art that are generated out of a need to experiment," the artist Akram Zaatari once said. "The current art scene was born in times when the experience of museums was being questioned. The challenge was precisely to look for alternatives to those missing channels.... We have been producing work without museums, so why should we need them now?"

The indifference of Beirut's artists raises a thorny question: If it is not for the people who give Beirut its cultural vitality, then who is the project really for? What is its purpose and does Beirut actually need it? Samir Khalaf, a sociologist at the American University of Beirut who has written several books about the city, argues that it does need such an institution. "Art can bring together people who harbour all kinds of fears and paranoias about one another," he says. "It is not only existential but also transcendental. How can the Lebanese cultivate a genuine interest in art? As the youth are breaking away from family and community, as they are becoming disaffected by politics, where do they go? Where is the public sphere emerging? We must create a venue that breaks away from politics. We must to use this house to reach out. We have to reach the young."

But the House of Arts and Culture, like so many unfulfilled projects, also seems like a receptacle for impossible dreams. To read through the brief that was prepared for the architectural competition is to encounter a litany of ambitions: to educate, to advance, to assert, to project, to lead, to influence. The House of Arts and Culture, like many of the new cultural initiatives, art spaces and museums taking shape in the Middle East, is heavily burdened with responsibilities that relate more to the experience of citizenship and modernity than to the beholding of art.

"We have nothing," says Rita Ragavlas, a lawyer with experience in heritage preservation who is a volunteer with the organising committee set up by Mitri. "We're starting from nothing and building up and it's going very fast. I'm sure when we have the building and we start operating people will be happy, because no one can imagine that we will have something like this, such a variety of things, of styles. This is where we are going to see marvellous things. Other projects, those are museums. Here you'll have the action. This is the difference. Can you imagine? This a dream for us."

But the artist Walid Sadek points out that Lebanon has an entire storehouse of projects that are planned and but remain unfulfilled, and that these projects are all somehow symptomatic of a broken state that chronically, pathologically, imagines itself whole. "The reason we can't move on is because we are incapable of mourning as a society, and I think the question we have to ask of all these projects is will they be conducive to mourning?" he says. "What is happening here is not a city but the building of monuments. It seems we can't live in Lebanon unless we are in the shadow of monuments."

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie writes for The Review from Beirut.