Build­ing and de­stroy­ing the city

Two artists ex­plore the (de)con­struc­tion of the struc­tures of Beirut and Tehran

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - ARTS & CULTURE - By Alice Row­some

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.”

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