A future refracted through the present

BEIRUT: How do you think Beirut will look in the year 2090? This question is the genesis of “Beirut 2090,” a poster competition organized as part of Beirut Design Week, currently in full swing in multiple guises and venues across the city.

“2090 has been chosen because it’s just a decade before the year 3000, the next millennium,” says Beirut Design Week’s organizer Doreen Toutikian. “Almost like a wake-up call before that next major step into the future.”

It’s an interesting concept, if you set aside the intervening 900 years between 2090 and 3000. Perhaps time travel will have been invented by then.

The posters may not be much help when it comes to predicting the future, but they provide a fascinating insight into the way the 12 shortlisted designers view Beirut’s future in terms of the present, with visions of the city ranging from grim to hopeful, satirical to mysterious.

Simple but powerful, the bleak work of freelance graphic designer Rana Zaher is infused with satirical black humor. Executed in fiery shades of maroon, orange and black, her design captures a blackened city of blocky buildings topped with satellite dishes silhouetted against an enormous mushroom cloud, the explosion’s blast radius accelerating outwards.

The poster purports to be an ad for an exhibition to be held May 31, 2090, at 1900 earth hours. “In light of the 60th annual memorial event of the 2030 Nuclear War,” reads the blocky cream text, “the Lebanese Post-Nuclear Association presents the first exhibition of its kind, ‘The Aftermath: items from the Beirut Ground Zero Radiation Zone.’ With a special appearance and lecture by Dr. Ziad Aderuman :‘Claiming identity without the Basis of Culture.’”

Zaher explains that the poster was designed during a period of instability last month, when a rocket was fired from Lebanon toward Israel just hours after two rockets hit a Shiite district in southern Beirut.

“It was something that made me feel so insecure about living here,” Zaher explains, “and I had this dreadful feeling that something bad was going to happen. ... Everything was so negative. I felt like I really didn’t want to produce something that will give people hope, when it’s a time where actually you need to make people feel the fear of what might be the future of our country and the world.”

Zaher’s idea of a lecture on identity without cultural basis, she says, sprang from present realities.

“This is something we’re already going through now, that I’m actually witnessing,” she explains. “Even myself, I’m trying to discover a certain identity that I feel was lost among all the partying that we’ve been doing.”

She added: “I break into old abandoned buildings and I try to take pictures of the tiles, the architecture. I go to villages and photograph the old houses. It’s my way of trying to go back to my roots, but it’s still a bit futile.”

The 12 shortlisted posters of “Beirut 2090” will compete for the grand prize of $500 in an exhibition at Ashrafieh design studio Platform 39 Wednesday. The winner is to be decided by a team of six local designers. Accompanying the visuals, Magali Wehrung’s food design workshops will offer up “creative futuristic edibles.”

A joint effort by Rabih Ibrahim and Fouad Mazher also predicts a dark future for Lebanon’s capital.

A combination of black-and-white illustration and photography, it captures a man hanging in midair high above the city, seemingly dead or incapacitated, suspended by an enormous metal hook protruding from his guts. In the background other men hang from monstrous machines – cranes that have come to life – whose claw-like hooks tower menacingly over the city’s towers.

“The idea actually started before this competition,” explains Ibrahim. “I was living in Spain for a year and a half, and when I came back it was like living in chaos again, being back in Beirut. ... The idea of this guy hanging by the hook was this image that was recurring in my mind all the time, because you’re living in this paradoxical city and you can’t do anything about it. Everything is controlling your life.”

Ever-present on Beirut’s skyline, the cranes serve a dual purpose.

“Living in Beirut you have to look at the deconstruction,” Ibrahim says. “It’s part of the visual identity that we have. The construction, on the other hand, is the tough point, because construction in Beirut feels like deconstruction – seeing these old buildings coming down, big buildings coming up in a high-density city.”

Nour Aboukarroum’s entry is more hopeful. It consists of the logo “FIFA World Cup Beirut 2090: A Game to Die For,” alongside a beautifully rendered painting of the famous trophy. Within, a distorted representation of the figures of Beirut’s Martyrs’ Statue blur and bend with reflected light, reminiscent of classical paintings of figures in purgatory, grasping heavenward in a hopeless quest for salvation.

Aboukarroum explains that the poster symbolizes hope for a better future. “I wrote the slogan ‘A Game to Die For’ to say that the martyrs didn’t die for nothing,” she explains. “They died in order that Beirut could go on to host or to win the World Cup.”

Other entries explore futuristic architecture. Ayaman Assaf’s poster captures Pigeon Rocks, transformed into the base of glittering, crystalline high-rise buildings, capable of out-blinging Dubai. These are connected to a distant city by a lengthy industrial-looking bridge, a mass of gleaming metal and glass, above which spaceships, among them Star Trek’s USS Enterprise, hover weightlessly.

George Madi’s bleak “Bey Roots” imagines Beirut as “The first multilevel city in the world,” showing streamlined, antiseptic towers against an idyllic blue sky. Below, meanwhile, the deep blue sea reflects a distorted glimpse of the old Beirut, its red-tiled roofs and stone walls sunk forever beneath the waves.

“Beirut 2090” takes place at Platform 39 in Ashrafieh Wednesday starting at 7 p.m. For more information please call 01-339-381.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 26, 2013, on page 16.




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