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Guerrilla Painters Are Fighting for Beirut's Public Spaces

Urban renewal started with filling up the bullet holes. With color.

by Rashed Aqrabawi
Jul 23 2013, 1:42pm
 
Painting in Geitawi

With its long history as a colonial chew toy, Beirut is blessed and cursed with an extremely layered, complex urban fabric. The city has been planned, constructed, and modeled in four very distinct urban patterns. The French planning pattern is most dominant in areas like Martyr’s Square; the Roman planning patterns are most prominent in areas like Burj Hammoud (with significant Armenian influences); and, expectedly, the Arabic and Ottoman planning patterns are spread more evenly throughout the city.

However, a large amount of these buildings and blocks are being revamped and redesigned with a more contemporary urban agenda, as is happening in many areas around the world.

The most famed example is the downtown renewal project, called Solidere. The project was necessary because a large chunk of Beirut was destroyed during the civil war between 1975 and 1990, particularly in downtown Beirut, which was used as a squatting area by Shiite Muslims during the war. The Solidere project is named after a joint-stock company (private-public partnership) founded by then Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, which enjoys special privileges of reputed domain and limited regulation. It was literally attempting to erase the urban residue of the civil war and resurrect the old city in a modern light.

Beirut's general growth diagram, via Beirut the Fantastic

Solidere is entrenched by tiny souks (open air markets), cafés and restaurants, and jam-packed with everything from Armani Exchange to McDonalds. Essentially, in wanting to regenerate the commercial hub of the old city, they have successfully gentrified every square inch of the area. In many ways, Solidere is a victim of its own success.

Other areas are witnessing a different type of urban regeneration, from grassroots organizations that want to change the urban layer of the city. In the hopes of cleaning up and redesigning some of the more desolate urban areas in Beirut, design students and artists have played a major role in attracting public, municipal, and economic attention to them.

Two nonprofit organizations, Dispatch Beirut and Paint Up, seek to rejuvenate Beirut's urban areas by addressing the city's ubiquitous staircases and neighborhoods where public space is being sold off by the square meter. Afterward, residents of the area begin flocking by the dozens to the newly repainted squares, gardens and steps with lawn chairs, and jugs of iced tea. The founders of these organizations graduated from Lebanese universities, studied in Lebanese schools, grew up in Lebanese homes, and go about reconstructing Beirut with little more than a Ziploc bag of art supplies. However, their growth and development is representative of a very new kind of relationship between artists, the city, and the public.

I spoke to Pamela Haydamous and Lea Tasso, the founders of Dispatch Beirut, over Skype, while they sat in their car. Over the occasional din of honking, we talked about how they're transforming their city.

Motherboard: What is Dispatch Beirut, exactly?

Dispatch Beirut: We’re a small organization whose main purpose is to rebuild Beirut, one brick at a time. We find that we’re sort of suspended between being an art movement focused on public space and an official organization working on urban design. Our main mission is to highlight urban problems in Beirut in an artistic way, in the hopes that the message reaches out to “people of influence,” whether in private or public sectors. Maybe they would step up, follow, and resolve those issues.

We believe that public art shows that a city is ready for change and if we look at trends around the world, renovation and regeneration always come after urban reconstruction. So by making the place artistically pleasant, we trigger the public to look at it from a different perspective.

Green space initiative in Jesuit Gardens by Paint Up & Collaborators

What made you think of this? How did you come up with the idea?

It started with filling up the bullet holes.

With what?

With color.

That is some beautiful symbolism, really. 

(Laughs) We started by carrying around art supplies and going to certain parts of the city, particularly those with lots of damage from the civil war, and filling up the bullet holes with paint. So we initially started small, nothing too noticeable. Wherever we would go we would ask the residents of that area for permission, and then we’d just start painting.

How did you grow to what you are today?

Well, we just started going bigger. We wanted to impact more and make more space better—make it more colorful. So we would ask the entire neighborhood or block, depending on the size of the project, if we could paint some parts of the area. We’d show them our portfolio, see what they think, and once we’d get the green light from them, we’d ask the municipalities. We also worked with other organizations like us, particularly in the Geitawi area.

In some places, what you guys are doing would be considered vandalism of public property. What’s your relationship with the municipalities like?

Yeah, absolutely. We just wanted to be legit and not get into any trouble. Keep all parties involved. Our relationship with them is pretty smooth, actually. We just have them sign a paper authorizing us to paint or design and they usually don’t say anything unless the residents of that area are against it.

More recently, for Independence Day, we painted this mural in downtown Beirut, the Solidere, of the Lebanese flag cracking through the concrete wall. Like, no matter what happens—and a lot has happened—we’ll get through it, and we’ll come out the other side alive and kicking. But the next day they painted over it, they covered up the whole thing. It was brutal. Seeing your artwork just destroyed before your eyes. I started crying.

Did you guys get permission first?

Well, that’s the thing! We did get permission and we showed the paper to the guards on-site but they still took it down anyway. It’s because it was Solidere and it doesn’t have space for things like that. It’s all Zara and Starbucks.

So do you mostly stick to less central areas?

It depends. We’ve done a lot of work in places that aren’t particularly “on the map”

Installing a patio made of Legos at an abandoned house

We want to reinforce the use of green spaces... We want Beirutis to take a walk and not be reminded of a dark past but see a colorful future. We don’t want all the public space in the city to be demolished for condos and offices. This isn’t Dubai.

Have you ever followed up with the residents? Or anyone else that passes through the area? What was their reaction?

Yeah, we have. We have a very inclusive process so the residents of the area we’re working on usually know what to expect, and when we finish the work they’re usually so grateful. It makes us so happy. People spend more time outdoors, closer to the space we’ve redesigned. It’s an incredibly rewarding feeling.

Sometimes, if people aren’t satisfied, our designs are removed. But we believe that when our installations are placed in the public realm, then any reaction from the public is just other people’s way of expressing their ideas and thoughts too. It’s a more democratic form of urban transformation.

Working with foreign exchange students in Karantina

After other organizations, like yourself, worked on repainting and cleaning out the Jesuit Gardens, more and more people started coming. You we’re also part of a protest against its demolition. The turnout was more than 1,500 people. You’re readdressing the issue of public space. How is this part of your mission?

Yeah, the turnout was amazing. Residents of the area, students, urban planners, families all showed up to prevent the demolition. This is part of an initiative we have, all of us working on Beirut. Paint Up, the Dihzayners did most of the work on the gardens, we couldn't make it that day, but this initiative, it is the same for all of us. 

We want to reinforce the use of green spaces especially in Beirut as an important part of the urban fabric. We want Beirutis to take a walk and not be reminded of a dark past but see a colorful future. We don’t want all the public space in the city to be demolished for condos and offices. This isn’t Dubai.
 

Follow Rashed on Twitter@r_aqrabawi

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