Living and Imagining City Spaces: The Case Study of Beirut
Harb, Mohamad Khalil
“Schein und Sein,” is a baroque German proverb that literally translates to image and reality or the illusionary and the real. The dichotomy between the image and the real, the imagined and the lived, served as the initial inspiration for my project on the city of Beirut. Between the image and the reality, the notion of space unfolded and that was the crux of my research. This project has been a synchronic one, studying and capturing Beirut in a moment in time with all its contemporary complexities. The famous American novelist and essayist, Christopher Morley, once said “all cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful, but the beauty is grim.” This is the city, a place of paradoxes, a place of beauty, a place of contradictions, evidently a space. Whether we romanticize a city, or criticize a city, we tend to forget that in the end it is a space. In particularly, it is an amalgam of spaces that are imagined, lived, contradicted and resisted. From certain spaces, the imagination of the city arises and from certain spaces, a different lived experience of the city arises. This dichotomy of spaces is witnessed in Beirut, a city that exhibits a paradoxical relation between its image and its various spatial realities. In this research, I used Beirut and its spaces as a model and a means to an end. I probed to see how groups conceive, imagine and live city-spaces. When looking at the image of Beirut, we see one that is part of the global order of world cities; a cosmopolitan capital that provides all that is available in international exclusivity and its accompanying lifestyles. This globalist spatiality can be lived in certain enclaves of the city, albeit limited ones. While the image exists, a different set of realities and lived experiences in Beirut and its spaces also exist. These lived experiences are different from the image and project a new, locally-oriented reality. With this in mind, I asked two central questions for this research: Is the image of Beirut the product of an affluent upper class that imagines the city-space in a certain way? Moreover, is there a different lower-income group that lives and generates a different spatial reality in the city? Through attempting to answer these questions and through attempting to thickly describe Beirut in a moment of time, I identified a new model for studying city-space. This model is the Urbanista and the Biarti model. In this research, I will present this model and demonstrate the spatial dichotomies it generates in cities. Throughout the research, I will be using the Urbanistas, as the main label to describe the group that imagines the city and that positions it with the global order of metropolitan cities. It is the group that is responsible for the “image” and who lives the image in their globally connected spaces. I will also be using the Biartis, as the main label to identify a locally oriented group that lives the city in a particular way. This group accords a lifestyle that is so very different from the image of Beirut and that produces a city-space of its own. Evidently, space cannot come about on its own and it requires groups that live it and imagine it. A city is not a city without its inhabitants and through the Urbanista and the Biarti model, we will see that what we think is a unified city, is actually a set of fragmented spaces that are lumped under one label.
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