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Unshakable Castles

Image of Burj al Murr by al-Khoury

The Burj al Murr and the Holiday Inn in Beirut described by a combatant at the time as an “unshakable castle”, still stand empty and resolute after their role in the Lebanese Civil War.

Despite a savage siege of actors’ intent on redevelopment and gentrification, these buildings have endured, owing their survival to shareholder disputes, politics and the practicalities of demolition rather than their social, educational or cultural value. They live preciously positioned between the city’s political and economic ambitions.

These contemporary castles are ugly though. They are concrete and steel instead of stone and timber. They don’t have the moats and ramparts we expect from our archetypal castles of the past, no princesses rescued, or invading nations repelled. They are morally and socially ugly in the civil violence that they represent; whilst politically ugly in that they echo an uncomfortable narrative of current resentments and contention.

And yet, like castles, they are part of the social fabric, they represent conflict and the context in which it was fought. They play a role in a multi-generational narrative of conflict and post-conflict life, expressed in dance, literature, art and music. They represent not only the elites from which they served but the everyday people in which they have resonance.

Volk maintains that, elites sponsor memorials and cemeteries hoping to win legitimacy by championing a unifying idea in a ‘fragmented’ country. By sculpting bodies, carving texts and posting banners, Lebanese politicians use public art to create national images. The making of memorials becomes a way for elites to publicly exercise power (Memorials and Martyrs in Modern Lebanon by Lucia Volk Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 2010, page 250).

These buildings represent something else other than Volk’s notion of artificial top-down reconciliation. They tell of an authentic bottom-up way of approaching memorialization, an ‘undone-monument’ the potential of which is immense, if only the activists would un-condition themselves for what is stereotypically required from them.

Case in Point is the illegal Buj al Murr art instillation by al-Khoury who installed 400 coloured curtains in the building’s windowless voids. He explains in an article that “the colours are curtains that are usually seen on balconies in the poor neighbourhoods of Beirut’s suburbs that are vibrant with life” and that now there is “movement in its infinite black windows, in order to give life to this giant monster.” He goes on to suggest that the curtains will “keep moving with the wind, blowing the bad memories away”. Thus, typically taking an apparently predictable approach to beauty and its relationship with the monstrosity of conflict, whilst dubbing down the harrowing nature of memories related to violence and what or who hosts them.

However, this project has an excellent effect of drawing the building out from the the murky shadows of social inurement, helping the building to be an undone-monument to violence. And as such, to be re-read, re-acknowledged, recognised and refreshed in the consciousness of those that have become accustom to its presence on the city skyline or urban fabric. Doing what castles do best which arguably is to establish a sense of place, belonging and a scene of identity…. Unlike castles, these undone monuments aren’t clean cut and curated methods to articulate a country’s history or amplify its convenient nationhood; they are honestly ugly and stoically relevant.

Image of Burj al Murr by al-Khoury

Image: Holiday Inn in Beirut by dpa picture alliance archive/Alamy

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