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Beirut Shifting Grounds

Beirut Shifting Grounds is a research project led by Sandra Frem and Boulos Douaihy in collaboration with ArD/ AUB faculty Carla Aramouny, Rana Haddad, Nicolas Fayad and Joanne Hayek. It spanned over two years, simultaneously as Beirut was going downhill with the collapse of its economy, pandemic outbreak and finally the Beirut Port explosion. This very same period was ripe with unprecedented activism, collective self-organization and bottom up mobilization in the face of the pervading adversity.

In such context, the project probes “how will we live together” by foregrounding spatial practices at the ground level of Beirut that allow people to adapt through uncertainty and change.

Through four parallel narratives, the research focuses on manifestations of improvisation, reclamation, and production that offer lessons of adaptation and solidarity for the uncertain future.

The human lens - it is all on the streets- presents four short films that encounter the act of “being” in Beirut’s public realm through shifting conditions: privatization, revolution and post-blast activism.

The urban lens - improvisation-  projects the life of 7 neighbourhoods in Beirut through transitional moments; narrating their urban transformation, improvisations at their ground level, as well as indicators that inform their urban pulse. This lens traces how improvisations evolve to organized networks of solidarity after the Port Blast, during the relief and reconstruction period.

The architecture lens – production- narrates Beirut’s built environment through specific buildings and typologies of sections, reflecting on the spatial modes of production that shaped Beirut’s ground until the Port blast, and calling for new modes of collective production amid the post-blast reconstruction.

The temporal lens- reclamation- emphasize the agency of urban space to accommodate public expression through a time-lapse of Martyrs ‘square, focusing on the metamorphosis of its urban form, activities, public mobilization and its capacity to reinvent itself through the different periods.

Together, the four lenses raise an open speculation on the architecture of the ground and its proclivity to support collective appropriation, offering the possibility of a city that still belongs to its inhabitants amid shifting conditions.


Beirut Shifting Grounds is featured in the Co-Habitats section out of competition of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition, How will we live together? This section includes 12 Co-Habitats projects focusing on the themes of the Biennale Architettura, developed by selected researchers in collaboration with academic institutions from around the world. 

The installation comprises two overlapping volumes: one that emerges from the ground and one that is suspended from the ceiling. The base hosts three videos projecting respectively the urban, architecture and temporal lenses. The suspended volume features the project title and concept note, a timeline of change for Beirut from 2000 until 2020 and QR codes meant to be scanned to access the four films of the human lens.

The exhibition opens both online and in Venice on 21rst May 2021, at 11 am Venice time, 12 noon Beirut time.
www.beirutshiftinggrounds.com will function as an online exhibition during the Biennale, to make the research accessible to the general public.

How Will We Live Together?

The 17th International Architecture Exhibition is titled How will we live together? curated by Hashim Sarkis and organized by La Biennale di Venezia.

“We need a new spatial contract – said Hashim Sarkis. In the context of widening political divides and growing economic inequalities, we call on architects to imagine spaces in which we can generously live together. The architects invited to participate in the Biennale Architettura 2021 are encouraged to include other professions and constituencies—artists, builders, and craftspeople, but also politicians, journalists, social scientists, and everyday citizens.

In effect, the Biennale Architettura 2021 asserts the vital role of the architect as both cordial convener and custodian of the spatial contract.” “In parallel, the 17th Exhibition also maintains that it is in its material, spatial, and cultural specificity that architecture inspires the ways we live together. In that respect, we ask the participants to highlight those aspects of the main theme that are uniquely architectural.”

“The question, “How will we live together?” is as much a social and political question as a spatial one. Aristotle asked it when he was defining politics, and he came back to propose the model of the city. Every generation asks it and answers it differently. More recently rapidly changing social norms, growing political polarization, climate change, and vast global inequalities are making us ask this question more urgently and at different scales than before.

In parallel, the weakness of the political models being proposed today compels us to put space first and, perhaps like Aristotle, look at the way architecture shapes inhabitation for potential models for how we could live together.”

“The Biennale Architettura 2021 is motivated by new kinds of problems that the world is putting in front of architecture, but it is also inspired by the emerging activism of young architects and the radical revisions being proposed by the profession of architecture to take on these challenges.

But more than ever, architects are called upon to propose alternatives. As citizens, we mobilize our synthetic skills to bring people together to resolve complex problems. As artists, we defy the inaction that comes from uncertainty to ask “What if?”.  And as builders, we draw from our bottomless well of optimism. The confluence of roles in these nebulous times can only make our agency stronger and, we hope, our architecture more beautiful.”