Public Beirut | Temporary Installations & Urban Intelligence

Public Beirut* was part of a series of courses that aimed to see how an enthusiastic point of view towards the city could directly engage its ‘smartness’, urban fabric and uses. At the heart of the studio was the ‘Corniche’,  Beirut’s sea side promenade and arguably one of its most successful public spaces.

 

The Corniche, Beirut’s Sea Side Promenade (image taken in 1991)

 

The studio aimed to envision how the meeting of temporary installations and public urban spaces could both reveal, highlight and engage the city’s existing forms of spatial intelligence. The course started by generating a wide range of scores, and ‘analog’ test kits to document, understand  and frame how the Corniche expresses, mediates and creates forms of urban intelligence as portrayed in its highly active public life. Public Beirut culminated in five built installations around the corniche, each of which focused on particular forms of spatial intelligence.

sample score documenting different user groups and user generated activities

Methodology:

Based on the fact that spatial intelligence is not an independent entity but rather one that is reliant on instincts, emotions, and actions, prominently the subtle and the mundane, the instructors encouraged lateral thinking; whereby, each idea develops its own logic and conclusion. A methodology for reaching an answer to a question that was never really asked.

The journey started with 24 hours spent on the corniche in five teams each consisting of five students.

– Prior to heading to the corniche, each group had to set specific rules that would govern their conduct in the public space and direct their investigation into specific notions. Rules and decisions were left utterly to the students.
– The teams had to keep a log of their observations.

– Thinking of the best way to communicate these observations, the teams had to accordingly organize their notations into scores.
– Translating the observations spatially, the teams compiled the information identifying the most surprising, the most absurd, and the most repetitive observations. A series of adjectives were then used to describe these events that were later transformed into models built out of reclaimed/found/recycled materials only.

These models became the trigger for the following stage that culminated with the built installations. Since they were not mere representations, but rather thinking-in-progress kind of models, the dissection of each one allowed the students to extract new notions, thus looking at the issue of publicness and intelligence from different perspectives.

 

Corniche Extended, the installation I worked on,  was situated on a  pier that was funded by public money but was surprisingly off-limits to members of the public. The pier was monopolized by a specific sect of Beirutis who insisted that no one be allowed to set foot on their turf.  Using the rules set for us to our own advantage, we built a replica of the Corniche that ran on tracks, powered by a 1945 handcar. The platform serves as a visual invitation for the users to trespass the barbed wire onto the pier and take their public space along with them by taking our little Corniche for a ride.

Corniche Extended as viewed from the actual Corniche
In form, the installation utilized notions of mnemonic intelligence by using the same building blocks (tiles, bench, rail) of the original corniche. Both visually and by means of its mode of operation (the handcar), it tapped into an unspoken historical consciousness that was specific to Beiruti’s and the corniche’s users. At its heart, the platform carried notions of communal consciousness in its attempt to invite city dwellers in asserting their right to pier, city, and the sea. In essence, the installation itself came from a need to be just and treat city dwellers on an equal footing. It is ergonomically minded, with an intuitive design that allows total strangers to cooperate together in order to drive the platform back and forth over the pier. It is expressive in its creative attempt to use constraints (people not being allowed to set foot on the pier) as a design prompt that then can drive the project forward.
Group of users propelling the platform across the privatized pier
My specific interest in presenting this project as a precedent analysis stems from my view that intelligence does not have to alway equate to technology, software, or quantified data. In that sense,  modes of urban intelligence can be tested and engaged by provocative and generative ideas, a myriad of scores and by means of temporary architectural installations . Corniche Extended, for example, not only helped users better understand the specificities of the chosen site as well as a wide range of circumstances that created it, but it also encouraged them to look back at the city and wonder about several other cases of inaccessible or privatized public space becoming a test kit for publicness, engagement, surveillance, and community.
 
*Public Beirut Studio was given as a vertical studio course at the American University of Beirut led by rana haddad, sandra rishani, carole levesque.

3 Comments

  1. Rami, this was a super interesting project. It was speaking directly to the users of the city (the real experts, if you ask me).

    I also liked that it capitalized on human interest, casually. It was unassuming but direct in attracting interest to the issue of access to public space in Beirut. Moreover, there is definitely potential for knowledge generation in the project. Perhaps the only thing missing is a data collection process that isn’t so invasive! Maybe tapping on technology to collect sound bites?

  2. I love the school projects becoming real somehow. I think it is valuable to create a platform to interpret and apply ideas. I find both the idea and way of doing the installation is very naive and humanistic.
    As we already discussed in class, for me, one challenge of urban installations or interventions is their temporality. It doesn’t have to be permanent, but what if it would be something which stays in urban environment longer to be understood by more people? Or how can we use the ideas of smartness to create a strong (or permanent) effect on urban environment even if the installations wouldn’t still there?

  3. Really great project and synopsis. I’m particularly interested in working to reveal existing intelligence in communities so this bit caught my eye: “The studio aimed to envision how the meeting of temporary installations and public urban spaces could both reveal, highlight and engage the city’s existing forms of spatial intelligence.” The focus on mnemonic intelligence is also fascinating- using existing intelligence and public space to uncover and solidify collective memory. Also really glad to read this: “intelligence does not have to alway equate to technology, software, or quantified data.” I’m definitely on board with focusing on low-tech intelligence that favors accessibility over cutting edge technology.

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