BEIRUT: Poring over interlocking pieces of plastic, Ayssar Arida and Sabine de Maussion’s two daughters can’t help but think their parents are playing with a new toy.
“They keep asking us, ‘Are you really working?’” Arida confessed.
In fact, Arida and de Maussion have been hard at work, launching Urbacraft, a new city crafting system.
But their young daughters aren’t totally mistaken either. Arida and de Maussion see Urbacraft, based on a system of interlocking white plastic pieces, as equal parts play toy and urban planning tool suitable for tinkerers from 10 to 100 years old.
However, unlike more traditional building-block based kits, Urbacraft encourages the creation of unique cityscapes.
Urbacraft, which is manufactured entirely in Lebanon, was born when Arida and de Maussion realized they couldn’t conceive of a Lebanese-themed dollhouse for their girls, and decided to turn the classic plaything on its head.
“We very quickly realized that it doesn’t make sense to have a Lebanese dollhouse, because you would have no architectural reference point,” Arida told The Daily Star. They rejected the idea of a classic Lebanese home as overly nostalgic, and wanted something that reflected the complexity of modern Beirut.
Arida and de Maussion realized that for urban dwellers the entire city becomes the home, the familial locus. When dollhouses, Lincoln Logs and even Legos were conceived, the majority of people lived outside cities.
Now, however, more than 50 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, according to the World Health Organization. Urbacraft, Arida said, reflects our new metropolitan reality.
“All the construction toys that have to do with architecture concentrate on making one building,” Arida added. “We’re more interested in the city than the architecture itself.”
“We want people to grow up playing with this urban toy,” Arida told The Daily Star.
With Urbacraft units, users can build structures or streets, and can place people and flora in the plastic cityscape. “Very often you get people who say ‘I became an architect because I played with Legos,’” Arida said. “Maybe some day in the future people will say ‘I grew up to be an urban designer, or I grew up to be someone involved in public space because this toy [Urbacraft] made me aware of these things.’”
Moreover, Arida and de Maussion tout the fact that Urbacraft is “hackable,” meaning that individuals are encouraged to include additional toys and media in their urban creations.
Hot Wheels cars, Lego men or fabric curtains blend into the mixed media metropolises.
An exhibition at Beirut Art Center showcasing Urbacraft highlights the products’ hackability.
Arida and de Maussion invited over 40 architects and artists to create a piece based around Urbacraft.
“We thought maybe 10 or 12 people would do it,” Arida said. They received 36 responses.
Participants combined traditional architectural and urban arrangements with critical artistic elements. In one creation, the white plastic pieces are covered in Tarboush candy wrappers. In another, a polar bear stands near what appears to be a melting Urbacraft-plastic icecap.
A piece by Nadim Karam and Atelier Hapistus titled “Kaotika, a Beirut Monster” combines Urbacraft pieces, all spraypainted gold, into a convoluted, dystopian urban setting, with miniature cars driving off ramps into the abyss and paint masks hanging haphazardly throughout.
Some of Lebanon’s most renown artists and designers produced Urbacraft pieces for the exhibition.
Marwan Rechmaoui, who has sold six-figure pieces to galleries and museums worldwide, produced a miniature version of a recent work using interlocking Urbacraft plastic parts.
Still, with an Urbacraft-based train station covered in candy on proud display at the exhibition, Arida and de Maussion’s daughters may need more convincing to believe their parents’ work isn’t anything more than a ruse for playtime.