Recently, Tina Roth of the popular Swiss Miss blog shared some photos of her trip to Switzerland. Her photos give us a glimpse into the order and tidiness commonly associated with Swiss culture. I myself passed through Switzerland recently as well, but it was just a waypoint to a markedly different destination: Lebanon. To counter Tina’s post, I thought I’d share some thoughts about life in Lebanon and how design lives in the public space.
For most, Lebanon conjures up notions of conflict, political turmoil and a nearly chronic state of crisis. This characterization isn’t without merit. Lebanon has suffered through a grueling civil war, a mess of a war with Israel in 2006, and countless assassinations of political figures, journalists and most notably, one of it’s most popular prime ministers, Rafik Hariri. To say the least, Lebanon has had a troubled past.
Driving through the streets and highways of Lebanon today, one thought prevailed: the place is a mess. Its shared, public spaces are run down, unkempt and often-times filthy. The buildings and streets feel like the residue borne from fits of capitalist progress, snuck in between periods of conflict and unrest.
As you take in the scenery, you can’t help but connect your surroundings with the way people behave in the public realm. One trip down its main coastal highway and you’re quickly caught up in the anxiety and altogether sense of hurriedness that seems to grip everyone on the road. A trip to the nearby bakery feels like an evacuation.
A society’s shared space can reveal a respect and reverence to the past and hope and aspirations towards the future. When an otherwise forgettable building boldly soars in its architecture, it can signal something bigger and better than the present. When people live and work around and within something they view as worthwhile, it engenders a certain relationship between this “place” and it’s inhabitants. A valued place asks to be taken care of and in return is a source of pride and cultural identity.
Lebanon doesn’t cover its wounds. It’s streets and buildings mutter of a difficult, tortured past. A difficult past is not unique. Most nations have suffered through them. But Lebanon is unique in that its wounds never get a chance to heal. It’s civic spaces suffer from neglect because there is no faith in the future. Why invest in anything when it could all come crumbling down next year…or next month?
So what is left for Lebanon? With a past worth forgetting and an uncertain future, all that’s left is the present. And in today’s Lebanon the present exudes a heart-pounding energy that is both exhilarating and painfully aggravating all at once. The present is all Lebanon can bank on and its people live…and race and compete and cheat and lie to survive because tomorrow, well tomorrow is not for Lebanon.
I can’t help but wonder if this nation of worn down spaces can rise above its current state. What if Lebanon’s goal was not for political revival but something far smaller: a greater attention to the place everyone lives in. What if things like order, cleanliness, civility and respect became the pivot points of a national movement? What if just a bit of the care and attention most in Lebanon give to their private spaces (most Lebanese homes, even among the less affluent, are very well kept) were channeled to the public space? Can physical surroundings change how people think and behave?
I’m not really sure. I do believe that if a society creates places worth caring about or cares more for its existing places (no matter how decrepit they are), it’s collective psyche will be all the better for it.
But it’s not all bad. You can’t help but be struck by Lebanon’s audacity and charm. While it may have a dysfunctional collective psyche, it wears it on its sleeve. Lebanon is an extreme manifestation of human frailty. Its buildings, its shops, its roads and sidewalks tell stories, often painful stories about its past. Dubai may have the tallest this and the largest that, but all its wealth can’t create the rich experiences and history the Lebanon of today embodies. You can create man-made islands, but you can’t construct character. For all its faults, Lebanon bursts with character. It’s all at once glamorous and decrepit. Frustrating and liberating. Invigorating and suffocating. It’s difficult to fault Lebanon for what it is today because, like any one of us, Lebanon didn’t choose its history.
It’s difficult to just say “clean up Lebanon and make it like Switzerland.” To sterilize Lebanon is to couch it in hypocrisy. The balance lies between embracing Lebanon’s past and evincing pride and attention towards its future. Great design is about balance. You can’t drop a Walmart in the hills of Tuscany.
While in Lebanon, I was coincidentally reading, fittingly, Alain De Botton’s Architecture of Happiness. It’s an excellent exploration into the relationship between people and the things and places we create. It’s one of those books you feel compelled to mark up and highlight. I highly recommend it.
One passage carried special weight for me while in Lebanon:
[The Street] offers a lesson in the benefits of surrendering individual freedom for the sake of a higher and collective scheme, in which all parts become something greater by contributing to the whole. Though we are creatures inclined to squabble, kill, steal and lie, the street reminds us that we can occasionally master our baser impulses and turn a waste land, where for centuries wolves howled, into a monument of civilisation.