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Lebanon embraces unity at the Venice Architecture Biennale


In times of social, economical and political tension, "How are we going to live together?" was the theme chosen by Hashim Sarkis, the general curator of the 2020 Venice Architecture Biennale. His theme, through which he seeks to imagine and create spaces of conviviality, is now more relevant than ever.


It is confirmed: in 2020 Lebanon will be present at the Venice Architecture Biennale, one of the most important comings together of architects on the calendar. The call for project proposals for the national pavilion was launched by the Ministry of Culture and the Order of Engineers and Architects of Beirut, in the presence of the Biennale’s general curator, the Lebanese Hashim Sarkis, who is also the Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Lebanon first appeared at the 2018 edition of the event, with a project developed by the architect Hala Younes, under the title ‘The Place That Remains’. Lebanon will also be present at the next edition which will take place from May 23 to November 29, 2020, said Lynn Tehini representing the Minister of Culture Mohammad Daoud, during the press conference held last week at the headquarters of the Beirut Order of Engineers and Architects, in the presence of Hashim Sarkis, the President of the Order Jad Tabet, the Dean of the School of Architecture and Design at the Lebanese American University (LAU) Elie Haddad, as well as of a large number of architects.

"How are we going to live together?” was the theme chosen by Hashim Sarkis for the 17th edition of the Biennale. The concept brings to mind Roland Barthes’ first course at the College of France in May 1977, which bore a peculiar title for its time, but that was extremely prescient: "How to live together?".

Together toward global action

Given the current global political divisions and growing economic inequalities, as well as massive displacements of people, the question has become more critical today. "We need a new spatial composition”, said Sarkis, calling on architects to imagine spaces that possess humanity, and that could foster the idea of living together. "In spite of his growing individuality, the human being aspires to establish links with others, within both digital and real space,” said Sarkis. He added emphatically: "Let's look together for more diversified and dignified living spaces; together as emerging communities demanding equity, inclusion and spatial identity; together across political boundaries in order to imagine new geographies of association, and together as a planet which is dealing with crises that require global action so that we can continue on living in it. "

To do this, Mr. Sarkis’ recommendation to architects is to work with a multidisciplinary team combining academicians, artists, builders, artisans, but also politicians, journalists, sociologists or ordinary citizens. Taking into account the practices and stratifications of society allows us to look at a project with a pro-active dimension, which can contribute in changing the dominant order. In this way, architecture can expose challenges that go beyond forms and structures.

At the same time, Hashim Sarkis urges professionals who have "neglected their role as supervisors and guardians of spaces to raise the level of architecture instead of promoting it; to collaborate instead of competing; to recommend geographies of inclusion rather than politics of exclusion"; and to share their best experiences at the national level.

Real and virtual demarcation lines

"Hashim Sarkis has put his finger on the wound," notes Jad Tabet, pointing out that "the war has transformed our cities and neighborhoods into socio-religious ghettos that the post-war period has not succeeded in eradicating. Thus, we have seen a partitioning of each confession, and a general mistrust leading to a cultural effervescence. This cultural isolationism within a context of inequality can only aggravate the divisions. If we wish to transmit something to the world, we will not be able to do it by denying this situation, nor by clinging to the tale of us living together, but by asking questions that will enable us to conceive spaces open to the plurality of cultures and affiliations, where the expression of differences does not keep on surfacing and shake up the bases of conviviality". Mr. Tabet emphasized that this art of living can succeed through the renewal of public space and the crossing of two dimensions: the individual and the collective identities. According to him, common space is the mediator through which it is possible to overcome the violence that lives in our collective memory. "Imagining this space (or designing it) is the main challenge in the conception of the Lebanese pavilion", added Tabet.

Who will play the role of ambassador?

The projects proposals launched by the Ministry of Culture and the Order of Engineers and Architects of Beirut are addressed to professionals registered in Beirut or Tripoli, as well as to academicians, historians and artists, preferably with experience as curators. A jury - chaired by Elie Haddad and comprising of the architects Hala Younes, Chawki Fatfat, Wael Debs, Atef Mcheimech and Elie Khoury - will nominate the winner. The architects were asked to submit their project before the deadline of October 4th to the offices of the Order via the following email address: carlanasr@oea.org.lb

It should be mentioned that the Order of Engineers and Architects is spending 80,000 to 100,000 euros to provide the Lebanese pavilion with a site at the Venetian Arsenal, a 25-hectare site, once the dockyard and the heart of the military and economic power of Venice. However, Lebanon’s presence on this prestigious international platform will be dependent on large amounts of sponsorship.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 3rd of September)

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