Now in its seventh year, the annual design week continues to place the city and its residents at the heart of its activities. This year's theme, Design and the City, provided an opportunity for designers to come up with community-focused design created to enhance and activate public space across the Lebanese capital.
"In the past months Lebanon has witnessed new conversations and developments on the political sphere, leading to the elections that had not taken place for nine years," explains Doreen Toutikan, the design week's founding director. "Citizen engagement and active participation has been on the rise, focusing on being more critical of current challenges, and mobilising to create new grassroots movements."
With this in mind, the festival's newly appointed managing and creative director Ghassan Salameh, an established designer himself, curated a programme that eschewed glossy product launches and instead focused on answering questions such as: What makes a good city? And how can design influence that vision?
"As we are a non-profit organisation we don’t really have to be a commercial trade fair," says Salameh of the festival, which has been organised by the non-profit Beirut-based MENA Design Research Center since its inception in 2012. "This gives us the freedom to focus more on creating content that actually discusses issues that are more than just object design.”
“Instead we are talking about how design can be more inclusive, diverse and can be used to make the city a better place to live. Especially in a city like Beirut that has so many problems."
Responding to this brief, Beirut-based designer Natalie Harb showcased two interventions in the city. The first is a modular garden, the Urban Hive, built on a scaffolding platform that is designed to be installed above parking spaces in the city. The second is a silent cocoon-like pavilion that provides a space for residents to escape the city noise.
"I realised there were very few green spaces in the city," says Harb. "Gardens have disappeared through the years from the urban fabric. They have been destroyed because of war but also because of reconstruction. The idea with the Urban Hive is to bring these green spaces back into the city. It’s an affordable module that can be duplicated as much as you want to create shaded parking and community gardens.”
As well as Beirut, this year's design week encompassed the northern city of Tripoli – one of the poorest urban areas in the Mediterranean. Designed in response to an open call put out by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), a series of public benches produced by designers and students from Beirut Arab University in collaboration with carpenters from Tripoli were installed along the Al Mina seafront.
All of the public space projects showcased at this year's Design Week, such as this series of seafront benches in the northern city of Tripoli, are being presented to the city mayors as pilot projects for the municipality. The benches were designed in response to an open call put out by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) and produced by designers and students from Beirut Arab University in collaboration with carpenters from Tripoli.
Elsewhere, Nada Debs Studio, one of Beirut's best-known designers, got on board with the week's theme by creating a series of planters and benches to enhance the local streets. Students at the American University of Beirut (AUB) created playful street furniture – including a movable bench, a mobile botanical garden, a free public library and cigarette disposal unit – that were installed along the city's Jeanne D’Arc street and presented to the city mayor as pilot projects for the municipality.
"In Beirut the people are not used to public space, so they don't use it," says activist and architect Mona El Hallak, who organised the Jeanne D’Arc street project. "All of these small projects are changing lives and creating spaces for interaction between people. I think we are starting to create the notion of public space."
A number of interventions designed to reclaim public space along the city's Jeanne D'Arc Street were implemented by students from the nearby American University of Beirut (AUB). The bench, designed by Rana Haddad, Pascal Hachem, Tala El Khatib, Jad Najm, Tima Rabbat and Mariya Zantout, invites passersby to sit together and move the bench back and forth with their feet as they sit and chat.
Outside of the design week, grass roots projects, such as the Greening of Bourj al Shamali, are using design and technology to make these positive changes from the bottom up. Claudia Martinez Mansell, the project's initiator, teamed up with local youth living in Bourj al Shamali, an unmapped refugee settlement in south Lebanon that was founded in 1948, to create a system for improving living conditions in the camp. Using a helium-filled balloon fitted with photography gear, the community-led team were able to build their own map from aerial photographs, which in turn enabled them to identify areas for community gardens and urban agriculture.
"One of the most fun and enriching parts of the project to date has been the response of the community, and their delight in seeing that it does not require high technology to create a map," says Martinez Mansell. At institutions such as Dar El-Nimer for Arts and Culture – a non-profit art foundation in the heart of the city that offers film screenings, workshops, performances, talks, and tours – inclusivity is top of the agenda. In particular, the space celebrates the culture of the city’s Palestinian residents - one of Lebanon’s most marginalised communities.
"There is a focus on breaking the clichés that were built throughout the years around the Palestinians, by promoting Palestinian artists such as Larissa Sansour, Yousef and Elias Anastas - Local Industries, Kamal Al-Jaafari and Katanani," says Dar El-Nimer director Rasha Salah.
Dar El-Nimer for Arts and Culture – a Beirut-based non-profit art foundation that celebrates the culture of the city’s Palestinian residents – played host to an exhibition of work by Local Industries – a Bethlehem-based furniture company founded in 2011 by young Palestinian architects Elias and Yousef Anastas.
For the design week, the venue hosted a solo show of work by Local Industries – a Bethlehem-based furniture company founded in 2011 by young Palestinian architects Elias and Yousef Anastas. “Five years ago we started to feel the pulse of the younger generation, it’s starting to pick up,” says El Hallak reflecting on citizen participation and engagement. “This generation have less chances to leave Lebanon. As a result they are realising that they are stuck in this country, so they better do something about its problems.”