Nostalgia for lost days of glamour, design which reclaimed a place of horror, memories of warring militia bands and stylised and brutalist buildings all feature a display about the evolution of the urban landscape of Beirut.
Curated by Rana Salam “Brilliant Beirut” illustrates how the capital city of Lebanon, with its wide range of cultures, has emerged at the forefront of the global design industry over the last seven decades.
The exhibition, which forms part of Dubai Design Week, starts its journey in 1943 when Lebanon won its independence, through Beirut’s growth through the 1960s and early 70s as a glamourous resort, onto the disaster of the civil war from the mid-70s to 1991, then the subsequent rebirth.
Curated and put together by designer Rana Salam, who was born in the city and returned to her home after 28 years, it encapsulates her term for all that surrounds and inspires her “The Wow and Wonderful”.
She said: “The Wow and Wonderful World consists not only of design but of a mix of things – an eclectic selection of found ephemeras. The edgy side of fashion and cultural nostalgia such as old cinema posters and signs. I’m like an alchemist – things get transformed into another language or product which is the beautiful thing about design.”
The daughter of Lebanese modernist architect Assem Salam, she grew up among the city’s growing design community and incorporates the city’s street and pop culture into her own work – which includes window displays for stores such as Harvey Nichols in London.
Large blown-up cityscape photographs, which illustrate the urban fabric of the city, form the centrepiece of the Beirut display. But it also consist of illustrations of the past, ranging from posters dating from the “jet set” period when air travel was all about glamour and style to graffiti logos of the city’s warring militia bands.
Another major part of the display is a film – found online, its origins unknown – which is a travelogue starting from arrival at Beirut International Airport, then a drive to the city and a taste of its famed 1960s “high life” – water-skiing, dining and shopping for jewellery.
“It shows an era of lost glamour,” said Mira Hawa, who helped to stage the exhibition. “It’s all very vintage-era James Bond, so it’s a lot of fun. It shows fast cars and luxury living in a city with its enticing mix of style, fashion, politics and even spies. But we have had people watching it being very moved emotionally.
“And the strange thing is – we have no idea of where it came from, who shot the footage, or why.”
Photographs of buildings from architects such as Alvar Alto, Alfred Roth and George Rais all form part of the display.
“We blew them up as much as we could,” said Salam. “We wanted to give people the feeling that they were actually walking through the city and looking out across the street – looking out into the past.
“I didn’t want the exhibition to be wholly academic. I wanted it to be dynamic. For instance the militia propaganda posters. We pasted them onto the display boards at 4am and they have that wrinkled look – just as they would have done when hastily put onto a building wall.”
Two of the most striking photographs show the changes the turbulent city has gone through.
BO18 is the name of a nightclub designed by Bernard Khoury and named after the underground term for raves and parties held at hidden locations through the war years.
Frequented by celebrities such as Naomi Campbell it is built on the site of the massacre of Palestinian refugees and the destruction of their camp.
In his design, Khoury wanted to arouse remembrances of the war. The club itself is sunk in the ground like a communal grave and seats inside are shaped like coffins.
The design includes a circular iron plate which from above resembles a helicopter landing pad. This can be lifted up, transforming the club into an open-air venue where revelers are taken from the underground dance floor and find themselves under the open sky.
Victor Bisharat’s “Gruyere” building was once one of the city’s stylish residences with its circular windows, but is now home to a large number of refugees. A photograph of the structure in its current states gives viewers a window into the lives and conditions the displaced people exist in.
As a contrast the Middle Eastern Airlines vintage posters illustrate an age before air travel became common place and when a holiday was viewed as “exotic”.
“We came across them online and they looked amazing, so incredibly evocative of a past time” said Hawa. “Eventually we sourced them to a gallery which gave us permission to use them.”
Bringing the city’s story up-to-date is the work of architect Ghaith Abi Ghanem who showcases his work on a studio which has holes in the wall so hooks and hangers can be re-configured.
“Lights can be moved as well so that the building’s interior can be made to look different anytime the owners wishes,” he said.