Decks and the City: Artist proposes gardens over car parks in Beirut

This year's Beirut Design Week focuses on urban design, and the projects and showcases include street revival and creative new green spaces.

al-monitor Urbanist Nathalie Harb’s "Urban Hives" project creates gardens on platforms built over parking spaces.  Photo by Marco Pinarelli.

Jul 3, 2018

Rue Jeanne d'Arc is a jungly street in the neighborhood of Ras Beirut named after the patron saint of France, Joan of Arc. It runs north to south, connecting the area’s residents and students from Rue Bliss to the lively, commercial Hamra Street, which many still consider the heart of city. Flower shops, fruit vendors, parking lots, restaurants, manousheh bakeries and convenience stores are dotted along the way. After not being maintained for years, Rue Jeanne d’Arc has been remodeled into one of the few pedestrian-friendly streets in Beirut.

The redesign was presented last summer and completed this February 2018 by the American University of Beirut Neighborhood Initiative, which since 2007 has been researching the neighborhood and encouraging civic responsibility by proposing sustainable solutions to its problems. The scope of their decadeslong work can be observed in their latest collaboration with Beirut Design Week on a series of public installations, participatory recycling initiatives, and performances that will contribute to the rehabilitation of the street and make it an example for other streets in the city.

The seventh edition of Beirut Design Week took place June 22-29. Its theme, “Design and the City,” focused on the transformation of seven different neighborhoods in the capital like low-income, industrial Karantina and hip Mar Mikhael. Parallel to the urban installations in those neighborhoods is a daily program of workshops, round table discussions, city tours, open studios and pop-up exhibitions. Yet unlike many of today’s luxury art and design fairs, which are dominated by gallery booths in an enclosed space keen on selling overpriced work, this approach is decidedly more democratic. Doreen Toutikian, co-founder and director of Beirut Design Week, tells Al-Monitor that her intention has never been to establish an “elite” fair but rather balance the social impact of design with its luxury appeals.

If last year’s edition questioned the need for design, Toutikian says, then this year’s theme is a direct response to the citizen engagement by creative young people who are demanding change in the country. “In order for people to appreciate the potential and power of design, it needs to be relevant and relatable to us,” Toutikian says.

Beirut Design Week has always collaborated with universities as a way to foster conceptual thinking and improve design education. This is year is no exception. The AUB Neighborhood Initiative addresses the sociocultural and political issues of the city — the environmental crisis, the lack of parks and public spaces, Lebanon’s waste mismanagement and more — with its 22 projects on Rue Jeanne d’Arc.

With its concrete wilderness, one of the most pressing issues in Beirut is the lack of green space. Nathalie Harb, a multi-disciplinary scenographer based between Beirut and London, came up with the idea of modular raised allotments as a solution. Her project, titled “Urban Hives,” proposes to install platforms slightly larger than a car, raised on scaffoldings, with a garden on its roof. The module would cover single car spaces in an open car park.

“By creating a garden in the city, you change the relationship between the neighbors and create a space for them to interact,” Harb tells Al-Monitor. She hopes they will become a place for local families to grow their fruit, vegetables and edible and medicinal herbs and flowers.

Harb also notes the cost-effective nature of her design: She’s able to keep expenses at a minimum by using local plants and repurposing materials for the drainage system and the platforms’ structure. She also makes use of temporary car parks awaiting construction — when a building is taken down in Lebanon, contractors need to wait two years before beginning new construction — thus taking up vertical space rather than physical plots of land.

“Urban Hives” is one of three pilot projects from the 22 interventions that will be presented to the municipality in the hope of developing them further, Mona Hallak, director of the AUB Neighborhood Initiative, tells Al-Monitor. It's found early success and they’ve been able to extend the installation for another month, during which Hallak will use the time to apply for a permit and reassess the design to be more child-friendly and withstand rain, among other considerations.

Hallak, a practicing architect and heritage preservation activist who has toiled the last 24 years to conserve and restore landmarks like Beit Beirut, now a museum, says she “invited designers and creatives to think of elements of play, greenness and sustainability for the design week.” The result was a joint effort between the Beirut Municipality and the Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service to “encourage people to think of a sidewalk as more than just a place for walking, but a public realm where many things can happen.”

The other two pilot projects are “Deconstructing Space” by a Beirut-based NGO called The Chain Effect, which hopes to install bicycle racks in locations around the city to encourage people to use bicycles in Beirut, and a multidisciplinary collaboration called District D's “Red Reading Hood,” a free library where anyone can take a book to read or leave one for someone else.

As happens every year, a slice of Beirut Design Week was reserved to highlight emerging designers. This year, in collaboration with ABC Verdun Mall, a pop-up store featured clothing, accessories and designer goods for sale from participating brands like Keen Handmade Design, Potion Kitchen, YAD and My Toy Town.

Other public art installations include a video installation called “Shame On Us” by Beirut-based audio consultancy 21DB and Berlin-based arts collective Das Scharf.

The number of public and participatory art projects has markedly increased this year in Beirut, and Toutikian is eager to see more of this in the future. The more visible this work is, she says, “the more inclusive we are and the more people understand it.”