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French Version

The 'fading poetry' of old Lebanese architecture

Aeronautics expert Joseph Homer Saleh follows the artistic path in new exhibition

What makes a house a home? Do architects design inherently compassionate structures or do occupants fill cold buildings with warmth? How does history or the passage of time affect how houses are perceived? Why is the poetry of old Lebanese houses fading? How are they poetic? And what are old Lebanese houses, anyway?

All these questions are at play in a modest photography exhibition titled "The Fading Poetry of Old Lebanese Houses," on view at the American University of Beirut's West Hall through October 9.

Joseph Homer Saleh, who produced the 20-odd images on display, is neither an architect nor a photographer. He is the executive director of the Ford-MIT Alliance at the Center for Technology, Policy and Industrial Development in Boston.

He studied aeronautics and astronautics and his current research focuses, in his words, on "how to embed flexibility in the design of complex engineering systems in general, and aerospace systems in particular."

He left Lebanon 17 years ago to study in Paris. But his parents and his brothers are still here. He lately got it in his head to build his own house in the country of his birth. Maybe it's an occupational hazard, but to do so, he basically set himself up as a one-man mobile research unit.

"I knew what 'impression' I wanted my house to convey," he writes in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, but he wanted to go further in finding out how certain houses convey such impressions.

"I borrowed my parents' car and my brother's camera and got lost," he says. He trekked through Lebanon from Jezzine to Tripoli to Zahle and photographed Lebanese houses from the 18th and 19th centuries. He shot different color gradations of stone, many a red-tiled roof, trefoil reliefs, and variations on the triple arch. "Sometimes there are four, like Gillette razors," he quips. "You have two, then three, then four."

"I became interested in the mapping between a set of 'impressions' and the design elements, as well as their integration," he writes. But when he showed his pictures to an artist friend who responded, "So your country is beautiful, it's all old houses," Saleh realized something was wrong. He was isolating these emblems of architectural heritage from the contemporary concrete reality of their context.

The resulting exhibition features one particular image of a tiny, archaic red-roofed stone box cowering in the shadow of a monstrous, unfinished ten-story apartment building. It is as apt a critique as any on the rapacious unregulated urban sprawl taking over Lebanon today.

Some, particularly architects with a penchant for preserving Lebanon's modern architectural heritage (when boundless creativity with concrete was possible), will likely grumble about this show. What makes these old buildings so very Lebanese and not a mishmash of imported and colonial styles? What, other than facile nostalgia, places them hierarchically over other structures from other times?

But the charm of Saleh's text (defying every word of the old saying, "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture") and the simplicity of his pictorial style effectively disarms all criticism. He knows he's not an expert, but he brings a wide-eyed freshness to his subject that is endearing, even redeeming.

The design for his dream house may still be percolating in his brain, but he has other ambitions occupying his time. The AUB exhibition, which went on view at MIT last year, is an attempt to raise awareness about Lebanon's vanishing heritage and an effort to engage students in the preservation effort. Saleh hopes to one day form an NGO to help document and advocate for the protection of Lebanon's old houses through government regulations. But at the say time he says he's not imposing anything on anyone.

"If it creates a spark and people become sensitive to the aesthetic of their environment," he'll be satisfied. That said, he's not entirely convinced this will happen.

As he was scouring the country for architectural samples, he was constantly impressed with the hospitality extended in his direction. But his enthusiasm often outstripped that of the homeowners. In another accidental and understated critique, he says: "Everyone wanted to sell me their house."

"The Fading Poetry of Old Lebanese Houses" is on view at AUB's West Hall through October 9. For more information, call +961 1 340 460 or +961 1 350 000.

Beirut,10 10 2005
Kaelen Wilson Goodie
The Daily Star
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