The Eclectic, Bricolage of Urban Reality

Beyroutes. A guide to Beirut is the result of several workshops and meetings in the Lebanese capital. Although it’s not an average travel guide, the publication considers human infrastructure as a departure point, the guide can be useful for urban designers who are interested in bottom-up interventions and travelers who want to visit Beirut for the first time.

Each story in this book provides a glimpse, albeit one-sided, into the specificities of a certain area within Beirut. Taken as a whole, the book provides an overview of the city in the form of an eclectic, bricolage representation of urban reality.
Beirut has long been hailed by writers and academics as the crossroads of western and oriental civilizations; and its unique blend of cultures, religion and politics is a topic widely commented on. But the tiny city is composed of a number of miniscule quarters, each unique in itself and yet all falling under the umbrella that is Beirut.
History remains a highly politicized, hands-off topic in the tiny Mediterranean city. Thus, in the absence of a common historical narrative, subjective oral histories like those included in Beyroutes become as legitimate as any other.

Beirut’s complex history reveals a long process of implementation of different ideologies by and in different communities which later transmutated into full-fledged political parties widely based on religious confession. This process of course was a direct cause of the chaotic urban configuration of Beirut, the overlapping of emotions, and the co-existence of its numerous societies.
The city cannot be more fragmented than it is today, but this fragmentation is not only a negative. It also offers an abundance of vibrant layers, a complexity reflected in the guide’s rich and diverse views and explorations of the city. The structure of the book, a result of multiple workshops and of different nationalities of writers, gives the reader a real sense of being in Beirut. Even the formalities and the informalities of representation and content co-existing in Beyroutes are not an inaccurate representation. One cannot look at Beirut from only one perspective. Its districts differ radically from one another; thus, it takes an insider to decode and break down what has been built, intentionally or serendipitously, over the years.

Studio Beirut’s point of view — or view(s), and I must say view(s) because one must emphasize the multiplicity of the writers and texts — is that they try to include a wide range of ideas and an even wider range of perspectives for this multi-layered city. While it is for the most part a successful attempt, with most articles based on real, solid facts, at times they lack background and explanation, especially for a reader with no previous knowledge of the area. It is possible, however, that the guide aims to make it easier for the reader to understand that a city like Beirut has never been and will never be constructed ‘objectively’. But the articles may have benefited from analyses supported with more info-graphic evidence.

Also, the stories seem to fall into a sequence of no real logical construction, which might create confusion for the reader if he/she is trying to extract a history or a rational explanation of why the city fabric is the way it is in our contemporary times. When taken separately, each article differs drastically from the next, which is interesting in itself but at the same time the reader may feel that the book is an unfinished project or an endless cycle of stories and myths around the beloved and hated city.
I believe the subjectivity of each author should have been explicitly framed as a viewpoint and supported by enough information to allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions from the evidence. For example the Emotional City chapter is an entire chapter of stories with no evidence at all. Hence the reader’s educational and cultural background can influence the way he/she interpret these stories reaching different conclusions.

What saves the guide, in my opinion, is its simplicity. While the documentation is anemic, especially for a reader who is not familiar with Beirut, it is relatively straightforward, uncomplicated to read and unique when taken as a whole.
I myself felt that I would have to turn to alternative sources, save for a handful of plans of some areas of the city which are explicit and, again, subjective. One cannot find maps of this type in an atlas or on Google Maps. Therefore, as a Beiruti myself, I would still recommend anyone heading to Beirut to grab this guide. It is an extremely helpful rough guide to the city. But bear in mind that online searches or GPS may still be necessary – although in Beirut, it may prove more effective to trust citydwellers’ knowledge of their intricate alleyways than the directions of your GPS.