Building and destroying the city
Two artists explore the (de)construction of the structures of Beirut and Tehran
BEIRUT: Entering Sanayeh House and winding up the dark staircase, there are no signposts and all the doors are firmly shut. This residential house is not your usual venue for a performance.
Reaching the third floor, however, the sound of laughter echoes through the hall and a young woman swings a door open and welcomes the audience into a living-room-like space.
Before the show even starts, the space has already started telling its story, a story that is at the heart of the tale artists Golrokh Nafisi and Giulia Crispiana wanted to tell in their performance “Gradual (De)construction,” staged at Sanayeh House on March 6 and 7 with simultaneous performances in the Iranian capital of Tehran.
The expansive room runs the length of the building. Its high ceilings, fireplace, tiled floors and curved balconies are reminiscent of the typical charming features of old Beiruti apartments. Along the whitewashed walls are hundreds of carefully displayed photographs, depicting some of Beirut’s tall buildings. A map of a different city covers the entirety of the floor. We were walking in Tehran, surrounded by the cityscape of Beirut.
A large canvas sheet dominates one end of the room, covered in rough black brush strokes – the work of Iranian artist Nafisi, who met her collaborator Crispiana while they were both studying at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. Nafisi stands in front of the canvas, where the paint depicts an unfinished building. It represents the texture of Tehran, she explains.
The piece is an exploration of the impact of development on the urban landscape, whether it is in Beirut, Tehran or elsewhere, and what is lost when architectural history is destroyed. Inspiration for the performance sprang from a reunion of the two artists in Beirut in September 2016. Sitting on a balcony in Sanayeh, across from a tower block under construction, the artists discussed how the view before them could have been Tehran or Beirut.
Having spent time in both cities, Crispiana begins her story by recounting her experience in both Tehran and Beirut. For her, the mountains above Tehran, like the sea in Beirut, represent safety.
“The mountains look over Tehran, protecting it from enemies. The mountains, by appearing between the buildings, never make you feel alone,” she says. “The sea in Beirut contains the city, and when we know where the sea is, we know where we are.”
This is lost, however, with the growth of skyscrapers, she says, examining what the changing landscape means for the cities and their inhabitants. “The towers replace the sea and the mountains. Although we know the sea is there, we have to look for it between the tall buildings. The sea is hiding below the towers,” she says of Beirut. “When we don’t see the mountain, can the tall buildings make us feel safe?”
With the demolition and erosion, she says, the city itself “would forget what it had been.”
Crispiana narrates a conversation between the “shiny princess of real estate” and Sanayeh House facing it across the street. Standing behind the sheet of canvas, only Crispiana’s silhouette is seen through the painting of the building. “Will I ever be a house myself?” she asks as the tower. “You will be many houses,” Sanayeh House answers.
While the skyscraper seems to be struggling to find its identity, Sanayeh House is trying to hold onto its own. “Could you step to the right, so I can look at the sea one last time?” Sanayeh House asks. “I am afraid not,” comes the tower’s reply.
Preserving architectural heritage is not only a matter of aesthetics, the artists say. With the aggressive construction of glitzy and shining skyscrapers, left relatively unchecked in both capitals, more than just buildings are at risk of being lost.
By anthropomorphizing the buildings, Crispiana delivers a touching and emotional plea. The frustration and anger usually expressed at the demolition of these historical buildings is replaced by overwhelming sadness and grief.
Nafisi then takes the floor, taking the audience on a journey to Iran by recounting the story of Apartment No. 8 on Miremad St., 5th Ave., Tehran. “This home, whose furniture and walls are covered in dust, still looks like a home that is waiting for its family to come back from their short trip to the north,” she says. “But broken windows and doors, destroyed furniture and the tree stump in the backyard tell of the reality of the home. In Tehrani urban language, this home is waiting to be ‘smashed.’”
Awaiting demolition, the apartment had become a space for theater and art where Nafisi spent months painting before its deconstruction began. Telling the story of her last visit to the apartment just the previous week, Nafisi explains, “There are two different techniques of demolition. Either they destroy the house in a few hours – loud and quick. Or it is gradual deconstruction. They take the windows out, then they demolish the third floor, then the second, then the first.”
Monday night, one last group of artists played a concert in the apartment as the top two floors were being dismantled. Today, she says, it is gone. The performance leaves the audience with a sense of loss and a lingering question. Sanayeh House and others like it still stand, but are surrounded by encroaching construction sites. How long before it too is torn down?
A scene from “Gradual (De)construction.”