Tuesday, November 30, 2010

War Appeal

On my recent visit to Beirut, the traces of twenty-year-long civil war are still unmistakably there. They appear as small as bullet holes on a building’s façade, or as large as entire ghastly structures, bricked-up for safety.  The most notable of these is the infamous Holiday Inn, a monumental multi-story ruin, standing on a prime city site next to a brand-new swish InterContinental. (Built extra-strong to withstand an earthquake, it became a snipers’ lookout during the war, and no amount of grenades or rocket fire could bring it down.)

It is a journalistic cliché to liken these traces to scars on the city’s fabric. In the context of Lebanon, I would rather call them tattoos. Not only these jarring reminders of the not-so-distant past give the city its peculiar gritty character, they are sometimes used as a source of inspiration by contemporary Lebanese designers. There is, for example, a well-known night club B018, designed by Bernard Khoury in an underground bunker in the former war zone, complete with coffins for seats. One could say that traces of war give Beirut a feel of authenticity, something conspicuously lacking in many glittering capitals in the Middle East.

In his bizarre book What’s Wrong with Plastic Trees, Martin Krieger writes about background noise in the analogue LP records, which continue to fascinate the music buffs. “A certain level of what is conventionally defined as noise and distortion may contribute to that sense of realism and accuracy,“ he says. In other words, noise provides authenticity.

Like everything else, noise could probably be faked. But why would someone bother? Yet in design of today’s new cities, in the Gulf region and elsewhere, the imperfections and accidents are badly needed to achieve that exciting feel of an authentic, lived-in urban environment. We have to learn how to design, plan, and implement these accidents. No one wants to wait for a war.