Beirutopia . 2011
Since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, Beirut has been striving, to regain its glamour and splendor through the efforts of reconstruction, in the aim of reconstituting the old myth of a city commonly referred to as the Paris or Switzerland of the Middle East. This photography project is a portrait of Beirut’s urban future. It aims to raise questions about the devenir, or the becoming, of Beirut and its associated representations, characteristics and how they culminate to become the future essence of the city.
Beirut is currently undergoing a construction boom on the back of large inflows of foreign capital and the historical profitability of the real estate sector. To advertise construction projects, developers display large billboards in situ reproducing the proposed reality to come. These displays exemplify computerized “biopolitic” renderings that simulate the building, its interior, surroundings, illusory residents and their lifestyle.
The photography project intends to capture billboard images that represent virtual buildings framed within their real environment. This dichotomy and juxtaposition give the photographs a sense of “oddness” that reflects the current transformation of the city. The latter is demonstrated by the use of scale, layering and image framing as tools to underline readings of the city.
The content of these billboards is standardized: similar images and slogans that refer to homogenised cultural and social values. The slogans are used interchangeably as titles of the project’s photographs because they embody the uniform concept of luxury, dream lifestyle and ethos associated with these structures. Rather than representing a distinctive aspiration, this architecture acts as a medium for promoting a hegemonic way of life based on consumption under the myth of progress and development.
Instead of advocating living spaces intended for the city’s residents, these buildings are, in fact, mere commodities and real estate transactions marketed mainly to the well-to-do Lebanese Diaspora and wealthy investors from the Arabian Gulf. Thus the billboards act as marketing tools, cementing an ever more pervasive and commoditized idea of modernity and progress—one that is detached from its historical surroundings and that is autonomous from the city.
The displays themselves work as an apparatus. Not only do they act as an image of a ready-made future, they are also utilized as a physical barrier to close off the industrial scene behind them. As such, they serve to veil and replace the transformational and untidy scene of the construction site. The real environment is hereafter objectified and takes on the form of a projected reality. The monumentality of the billboard is furthermore emphasized by the “augmented reality” of the virtual, making the difference between the real and the semblance of reality barely distinguishable. This hyperrealism of the generated images and the reality they seek to portray are hence confronted within the same interface: the photograph. This overlap eliminates the hybrid spatial experience, raising fundamental questions about the correspondence between the reality and its representations. The superposition of these two layers constitutes a mise en abyme, the experience of an image contained within itself. This image is looking to reach an unattainable simulated reality.
One cannot disregard the economic and political factors linked to the values and rules of the free market. Rather than criticizing this reality, this project aims to incubate different perceptions of utopia that are prevalent within the social consciousness of the city. On the one hand, a projected image of an anonymous global city born out of the machinations of politicians, investors, developers, contractors, promoters, architects and consumers. On the other, an emergent populist nostalgia that calls for the conservation of the genius loci, or spirit of the place, through the preservation of the historical heritage.
Beir-utopia is, in essence, the title of a counter-utopian situation, one that does not differentiate between illusory images and the pastiche narrative they embody. This confrontation allows for spaces to be redefined and their potential encouraged as new forms of identification arise and are re-appropriated within the wider social and architectural fabric of the city. The photographs become spaces of resistance.
Text by Randa Mirza and Stephanie Dadour