BEIRUT: According to one old adage, a sculptor can make a square wheel, but an architect has to make a round one. To put it less artfully, architecture cannot be divorced from functionality, where art can.
In “The Balustrades of Beirut,” now on show at Karantina’s Art Factum Gallery, Lebanese architect and conservationist Mazen Haidar explores the demarcation lines separating architecture and art, function and decoration.
While assessing this selection of 40 of Haidar’s simple black-and-white architectural renderings of ornamental wrought-iron handrails, one question forms itself in the back of your mind. At what point do architectural features transcend functionality to become art?
Haidar chose to exhibit his designs in an artistic venue with the aim of provoking such questions. “It is meant to change the way they are perceived,” the architect explains. “The reason you won’t find any photographs next to the balustrades is to give them a sort of independence, to detach them from their context.”
The only exceptions to this approach are three now-extinct handrails. The buildings that supported them – one of which was Lebanese author Amin Maalouf’s childhood home – have been razed. Next to each of these drawings a small photograph is displayed, as if to emphasize that even if the objects themselves no longer exist, the designs are worthy of preservation.
Over the last three years Haidar has produced more than 400 proportionally exact drawings of ornamental balustrades – research for a book on the subject, due to be published later this year.
“It’s an attempt to document modern architecture in Lebanon, which is late 1930s to mid-1960s,” he explains, “through this apparently secondary element ... the handrail or balustrade. It’s a way of giving people a tool to discover the city.”
Haidar studied architectural conservation in Rome before returning to Lebanon in 2010. He has since successfully introduced elective courses in the subject at LAU and AUB. “The Balustrades of Beirut” is his way of drawing attention to an often overlooked aspect of the city’s heritage at risk of being obliterated.
“This exhibition is not inviting anyone to actualize this patrimony, but to preserve it,” he says. “At least acknowledge this part of your heritage. Acknowledge modernity as part of your heritage. It’s not only the 19th and 20th century – and not even that is respected, let’s face it.”
“Heritage is conceived as something you can recreate today,” he laments. “It does not have any historical value, or historical base of reference. You can decide now, in 2013, to build a Lebanese house, a ‘heritage house,’ this is the term that people use ... we have a problem in defining ‘heritage’ itself and crossing a demarcation line between the present and the past.”
Haidar sees Beirut’s modernist handrails as being representative of a key period in Lebanon’s history, spanning “three very rich decades.”
“If we don’t respect the spirit that is the era of independence, it means that we’re not respecting our independence,” he says. “This is what happened in Beirut Central District – a decision was made to preserve Place de l’Etoile and make tabula rasa on Martyrs Square, even though [it] reflects the Lebanese mentality. This is where the heart of Lebanon was and you can read it through the architecture, and the adjacency between the old and the new.”
Though the balustrades in Haidar’s study span a brief period, they reveal a lot about the city’s unique identity, forged from a complex past.
“During the French Mandate you have many handrails that are copies of the handrails that you find in Paris or in the south of France,” he says. “But after that we can feel a certain local sensibility ... The fact that it’s so varied and distinctive from one place to the next makes it very related to this area.”
Over a 30-year period, he explains, the balustrades went through a process of evolution, beginning as reproductions of French designs and ending as the simple, functional rail favored by contemporary architects, the complex ornamental designs replaced with vertical elements. The height of the balustrades also evolved from full size, down to a third, and then back up to somewhere in between.
The range of styles and influences in the patterns on display is certainly striking and Haidar himself admits he is constantly discovering new interpretations and symbols hidden within the balustrades. On opening night, he says, one viewer point out a Freemason symbol he had completely overlooked.
While each design exhibited is unique, they do share certain commonalities. Most are symmetrical horizontally, if not vertically, and many display an art deco influence, redolent, perhaps, of a lingering French legacy.
As for whether these designs qualify as art, Haidar believes that they do. His interest in modern handrails, he says, stems primarily from the fact that – unlike earlier balustrades, which echo ornamental elements in the architecture – they are not necessarily linked to the design of the building they belong to. Often designed by local artisans, they are works of art in their own right.
Mazen Haidar’s “The Balustrades of Beirut” is up at Art Factum Gallery in Karantina until Feb. 23. For more information please call 01-443-263.