Three burgeoning institutions, established to provide accessible work spaces for artists and to prevent – or at least stave off – demolition of the structures they occupy, are contributing to the cultivation of a creative environment in Lebanon, a country that, despite its prominence on the international art scene, still lacks serious governmental support for the arts. Mansion, Batroun Projects, and Art Residence Aley (ARA) reflect an effort to repurpose vacant, dilapidated structures, battered by the Lebanese Civil War, in order to carve out spaces for residencies and artistic production across the country.
“Lebanon itself is quite unique in light of the quantity of urban dead points,” says former architect Ghassan Maasri, co-founder of Mansion with Sandra Iché of Batroun Projects. “Such structures … present some substantial possibilities for art production, artistic encounters, and accessibility.” What are the unique possibilities that arts initiatives unleash in the process of architectural reclamation?
Inaugurated in December 2012, Mansion is located in Zouqaq Al Blatt, one of Beirut’s oldest neighborhoods, and had not been inhabited since the 1980s. It is a beautiful, two-story, Ottoman-era residence, surrounded by a verdant garden and tall trees. Maasri came across the house and managed to convince the owner over a period of six months to lend him the property at no cost in order to transform it into a polyvalent space for artist studios, film screenings, performances, and exhibitions. Drawing from his own architectural background and relying on the help of collaborators and experts, he took on the challenge of restoring and rehabilitating the edifice.
Mansion is a shared working and production space, with each artist in the building holding responsibility for the upkeep of her own studio. The community seeks to “achieve an internal economy to sustain the costs for maintenance and servicing of the space as an experiment,” says Maasri. “We would like to build up partnerships with new technologies and environmental companies that could make Mansion a place for experimentation: solar heating, roof gardening, insulation.”
Maasri, who has long had an interest in “communal activity and its urban impact,” was one of the people behind the project Artists’ International Workshop: Aley (AIW:A), which invited eighteen artists to work and produce within a specific context in the hills overlooking Beirut in 2008. Like AIW:A, Batroun Projects and ARA are situated outside the capital.
Located on the shore of the northern coastal town of Batroun, about 54 kilometers from Beirut, Batroun Projects is an 800-square-meter, two-story house, built sometime during the mid 1980s and abandoned since. The house’s interior was left unfinished; the stones of its walls “are sourced from destroyed old houses,” says Nora Razian, a curator and writer living in London and one of the founders of the space. Together with London-based writer and sound artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Maasri of Mansion, the three sought to provide a place where artists, international and local, can work and live in a more secluded space, disconnected from the bustle of the city.
While refurbishment has been ongoing since the space launched in spring 2011, it will never be fully restored, as such an undertaking would require a much larger budget. “The idea was always to keep the unfinished character of the space showing through while at the same time making it usable and comfortable for residents,” says Razian. The seaside villa has begun to host artists-in-residence as well sporadic events, concerts, and workshops.
It is not only the dearth of accessible arts spaces that necessitates the establishment of spaces such as Mansion and Batroun Projects, but also civil warfare and political violence in Syria have resulted in a refugee crisis, with more than one million Syrians fleeing to neighboring countries, with more than two hundred thousand, including artists, finding refuge in Lebanon. ARA opened its doors in 2012 to Syrian artists living in either Lebanon or in Syria. Raghad Mardini, a trained civil engineer, art enthusiast, and collector, first visited the space in June 2011. The stable, where the residencies occur, is part of a friend’s abandoned traditional residence in Aley, 17 kilometers from Beirut. Experienced at renovation, Mardini was loaned the stable and given free license to restore and make use of it by the owner, and thus she established ARA.
The vaulted, stone interior space opens to a landscaped garden and outdoor area for young artists to work, exhibit in, and most importantly inhabit. The artists here are predominantly young or have only just graduated from art school; they often come from Syria or from Beirut, where they are staying temporarily. Through her connections in Syria’s art world and community, Mardini invites artists to work and produce during a period of extreme duress, offering not only space but also time that is so unaffordable to young artists, a welcome escape, albeit ephemeral.
Will these spaces witness, as other arts institutions already have, a radical shift in their surroundings?
Older art institutions such as Ashkal Alwan and Beirut Art Center opted to settle in factories in an industrial, sparsely inhabited area of Beirut a few years ago. Both institutions have now inadvertently changed their surroundings. For instance, internationally renowned architect Bernard Khoury has designed a residential tower, slyly dubbed Artists Studios 4371 across the street from adjacent spaces. Other developers in town have been quick to follow suit, commissioning high-end residential apartments, thus rendering this once industrial zone into a potentially desirable location for the hip and wealthy.
While it seems unlikely that Batroun and Aley will attract the attention of profitable real estate ventures such as Artists Studios 4371, it remains to be seen how these spaces will engage with their environs: will they operate independently of their surroundings? Whom are they intended to serve? Maasri is optimistic that the repurposing of privately owned, derelict buildings could “influence other private owners and maybe the state to be more lenient and accepting of such options.” But for now, and seemingly for the years to come, the creation of spaces that foster and help generate artistic production will depend on either individual or collective initiatives looking to occupy the city’s “dead points.”