When SOLIDERE, the company in charge of the reconstruction of the Beirut city center, launched a competition for the regeneration of its most important public square, we thought to deal with the brief as an opportunity to design for an emergent common ground for a post-civil war society instead of imposing a “neutral” space formed by random real estate requirements.
This became a re-thinking of what war and post-war memorials could be – how to avoid falling into the trap of “dead” memorials vs “temporary” installations. So we proposed a “memorial infrastructure” upon which periodic temporary memorials could be grafted, as part of a yearly national event designed to engage the country’s disparate regions and often conflicting communities into a recurring coming-together in the centre of the capital, transforming political conflict into economic competition with a socio-cultural outcome: “The Martyrs’ Festival”.
According to Quantum Theory, the universe continuously splinters into parallel worlds representing each a different configuration of its elements. Every instant a forking in the road of history appears, the whole universe goes into both directions at the same time, and we continue to be aware of only the universe we are in.
In the words of Borjes, “We do not exist in the majority of these times; in some you exist, and not I; in others I, and not you; in others, both of us. In the present one, you have arrived at my house; in another, while crossing the garden, you found me dead; in still another, I utter these same words but I am a mistake, a ghost…”
“Time forks perpetually toward innumerable futures. In one of them I am your enemy.” - Jorge Louis Borjes, The Garden of Forking Paths
In addition, the strange world of Quantum theory also says that quantum particles go from A to B by going through every potential path simultaneously – and it is the “Sum over Histories” of these paths, according to Richard Feynman that allows us to understand what is going on.
What brings Borjes and Feynman together to Beirut is the realisation that Martyrs Square represents the opportunity to address the complex histories and hence, identities, that make up the Lebanese social and urban reality.
In addition to the different histories that this land has gone through, in the archaeological sense, there are the geological, political, cultural, and confessional histories that together make up this constantly fluctuating identity at a social level; add to that the personal, subjective histories of each individual crossed with her group histories, and you can quickly see how valid the metaphor of a garden of forking paths representing a sum over histories would be for such a site.
We adopted this metaphor to answer the following specific objectives, which also address an international urban design competition launched in 2004 by Solidere:
- To create an urban experience that encourages and enhances the healing process, both social and spatial, to fulfil the real potential of the Beirut Central District (BCD) as a catalyst for cohesion.
- To create an urban identity that recognises the complexity of Beirut’s socio-cultural, spatial, and historical identities, in response to the perceived notion of the BCD being an exclusive socio-economic scene, with over-sanitised and sterile architectures, hidden away inside the “neutralised” spaces of “Fortress Solidere”.
- To propose this experience and identity as a major selling point in the positioning of Beirut in the regional and global contexts.
In a sense we propose to treat the whole project as an event-led public relations campaign were the goal would be to enhance the relations (and create new ones) between the BCD and Beirut, between Solidere and the citizens, and between the citizens themselves, between Beirut and the rest of the country, and the country and the rest of the world. Because this is an urban space of national importance, the ambition needs to go beyond the mere image or money making exercise urban designers and developers tend to limit themselves to.
We need an event that would galvanise the activities and emotions of all the population, that goes beyond Martyr’s Square spatial confines, and beyond Beirut, yet focuses back on Beirut and on Martyr’s Square.
“What statue? Of who? If you want to start having war memorials, you should have a statue for every dead. The whole street would be filled with statues!” – anonymous interviewee near Martyr’s square.
We propose a Martyr’s Festival as an annual event in May and a popular competition not too dissimilar of street festivals and carnivals. It would start in the heart of the Lebanese hinterland, inside each town and village, where each community designs and builds its own competition entry (a flower parade float, a martyr’s memorial statue, etc… let us call is a “Statue” for now) over the course of the year, and it is then “brought down” to Beirut to begin a ceremonial procession that would parade it around the square.
It is a process reminiscent of the Rio Carnival, or the procession of the Virgin Mary statue across towns, of Ashourah, of the procession of David in the streets of Florence before it was put up, or of the Martyr’s Statue when it was brought in after restoration.
The “Statues” then find their place on the “plinths” of the Square, on show for a few weeks. People vote for them, and a few could be chosen to become permanent fixtures, or taken back to perhaps be used in their hometowns as public monuments or public art.
It will be an event of great social significance, a proactive communal act of remembrance, but also an act of catharsis, an essential défoulement; an empowering event that allows anyone, however briefly, to claim a piece of the BCD as their own.
And because this is Lebanon and that money rules, it is also a very iconic event that could be easily merchandised, and create a major economic/touristic attraction. Imagine the souvenir shops now selling miniature replicas and postcards of all the kitsch creations over the years... it could provide Beirut with a very powerful new kind of landmark: a dynamic, city-scale, constantly moving statue park. Trafalgar Square’s biannual Fourth Plinth competition is becoming an increasingly famous art venue; Beirut would have more than a dozen such plinths!
Martyr’s Festival is a secular procession, a secular Carne-vale that can, with time, transcend its political dimension just as the Rio Carnival transcended its religious dimension, to become a true catalyst for social cohesion, economic growth, and cultural identification through diversification.
Between the 13th of April (Lebanese war anniversary) and the 6th of May (Martyr’s Day), Martyr’s Festival ties back with the Shopping Festival, activates and animates the Spring tourist season.
Such an event would be truly unique in the region because no other nation can claim the diversity in culture and identities and histories that such an event would require.
By adding new layers of collective memory that is non-destructive, it has the potential to help forgo the fear of the other and to help embrace this otherness as a mutually enriching presence.
It ties back into the Gardens of Forgiveness, the abundance of religious edifices, the presence of the mountain and the sea, with the pre-war, pre-independence histories of the Lebanese nation...
It would initiate a debate on memorials and memory, on civic pride, and on public space. Hopefully, it would create a heightened awareness of public space in towns and villages, as the oft-maligned Solidere finally re-injects the positive side of its urban design experience into the rest of the Lebanese territory: a final act of conciliation!
Such an event would require a leap of faith and great political courage to trigger it, but would show the mark of a great social vision.
“The task of memory should… not be to reconstitute and make whole, a whole which needs to lie about the fracture; instead the task of memory is to reconstitute turbulence and fragmentation, including these painful reminders of who we are and what we are.” - Ingrid de Kok, Cracked heirlooms: memory on exhibition
Martyr’s Festival requires a new urban infrastructure to be installed into the space of Martyrs’ Square.
Conceptually, the space of the main axis is occupied by a flow of people and emotions and ideas flowing from and into the Mediterranean. This flow is channelled by “rocks” designed as giant empty pavilions upon which new functions can be grafted. The flow and the rocks is a space-invading superstructure we call The Garden of Forking Paths.
It is an incredible structure of awe-inspiring flow and complexity that fills the space of the Martyr’s Square axis: it brings back the turbulence and fragmentation that has been artificially removed from Beirut’s city centre, with Solidere’s original narrative of providing a “neutral” meeting space for all Lebanese.
This quantum garden is made up of a collection of 15 particle-like Pavilions/plinths, one for each year of the Lebanese War (variation: one for each Lebanese Region or Kazaa), and 18 wave-like intertwining paths, one for each officially recognised Lebanese community + 1 for those non-confessional.
Metaphorically it complements the Garden of Forgiveness, and provides a less poetic, and more active form of memorial, intrinsically linked with the every day life of the city: let’s face it, most Lebanese are not particularly spiritual people to go and meditate in a garden of forgiveness. Such a setting may be exactly what is needed by some who have actually been active actors of the war, but the incredible excess energy of the Lebanese masses requires such an event to help channel and defuse it.
The Martyrs Festival could act as a regional socio-economic engine similar to the famous Rio Carnival, with all the Carnival schools preparing throughout the year for this great moment, this competition, this catharsis.
The Pavilions/Plinths function programmatically as cafés, kiosks, galleries, souvenir shops, memory booths, etc. to activate the outdoor spaces between them. Spatially they bring a human scale to the main Martyr’s Square piazza. Climbable and appropriatable, they are the equivalent of Trafalgar Square’s Lion plinths and Fontana di Trevi’s rocks. They are Rocks, Sakhras that break the river into turbulent streams – they are Shakras that channel strands of captive energy.
Their roofs are pedestals upon which more art, statues or installations can be setup: they are the interface between memory and infrastructure.
Topographically and conceptually they are the stones that channel the flow of the Forking Paths, which eventually break up into a chaotic pattern that pervades space and becomes bridges and promenades that lead over streets and through archaeology. They join with the archaeology trails or go down to the quayside where they even transform into boardwalks to floating pavilions, reminiscent of fishermen’s boats randomly spread onto the Mediterranean or Phoenician voyagers or the never-ending movement of people migrating in and out of this fascinating and complex country.