Disposable architecture – reinterpreting ruins in the age of globalization: the case of Beirut
This chapter engages with those modern ruins for which no final decision on preservation, restoration, or demolition has been made. I will argue that this uncertain status imbues the ruins with a significance that has been overlooked in most of the academic literature on modern or contemporary ruins. The condition of possible impending demolition is important because it resonates with the precarization of life in the era of globalization. Within the context of a volume on global garbage, one might expect a reading of ruins that addresses its state of dereliction and decay. However, approaches that focus on the materiality, affect, and aesthetics of ruins (e.g. Edensor 2005) leave little room for the politics of the past and present that have conditioned these structures. Instead, I will use the concept of disposability, which is equally related to the dynamics of waste, but which points more clearly towards forms of violence that are operative in the production and management of waste. The case of contemporary Beirut is illustrative, because some of its civil-war ruins are still standing amidst a frenzy of highly speculative real estate development, in a historical period punctuated by episodes of war, assassinations, and street clashes. The discussions revolving around these ruins focus mostly on their significance as bearers of memory. I will argue that the fascination with these structures equally arises from the improbable reality that they are still standing as derelict giants in a violently transforming cityscape. This has become particularly meaningful, because the uncertainty of their fate has become interwoven with the uncertainty of the fate of Beirut itself. However, the argument is relevant to many other cities across the world. The global spread of risk on the one hand (e.g. Beck 2009) and the global precarization of labour on the other (e.g. Gray 2004) have increased the awareness of a shared vulnerability of all (e.g. Puar 2012). The destruction of architecture is an important phenomenon in this respect. Architecture is constructed first and foremost to protect and give shelter and, second, to order space in meaningful ways. Moreover architecture is intended to last, to at least outlive its makers and to give an impression of durability. Its destruction unequivocally reveals the
exposure of our bodies to violence when meaningful structures are shattered – when our shelter, or even our world, is threatened. The violent destruction of architecture has become structural in many places. For example, the structural destruction of domestic architecture by the Israeli Defence Force in Gaza, US drone attacks in Pakistan and the clearances of slums by the governments of Malaysia, Zimbabwe, Brazil, and India, among other countries, put the inhabitants of these areas in an acute state of permanent anxiety and utter precariousness. In other cases, destruction may not be structural, but imagery of these more exceptional forms of destruction has become part of our daily lives. The effects of unintended and natural disasters, such as floods, earthquakes, and oil spills, for example, are increasingly well registered and increasingly widely circulated, with amateur footage bringing various inside perspectives into our homes. Within a larger discourse of global warming, population growth, and financial crisis, an increase in catastrophes is commonly perceived or anticipated. Finally, the spectacular destruction of modern architectural pride on 9/11, of which images have proliferated across the globe, has revealed the vulnerability of all, even of what was considered to be the centre of power in the world. At the same time, neo-liberal urban renewal schemes from Beijing to Johannesburg, and from London to Istanbul, constitute another form of urban violence. If all urban renewal projects entail the violent destruction of the old, its aim in the neo-liberal age has shifted from the regulation of urban populations to the accumulation of capital. This means that ‘the new’ of neo-liberal urban renewal is especially unwelcoming to the poor, whose condition in these cities has become increasingly precarious. Although the two forms of violence are different – the first with the stated intention of destruction, the other with the stated intention of construction – it is important to be aware of two consequences that they share: the violent transformation of the built environment and the precarization of certain populations. Moreover, various scholars have investigated how the two forms of violence intersect (e.g. Graham 2004; Chatterjee 2009). Starting from an analysis of civil-war ruins in contemporary Beirut, this chapter seeks to complement readings of ruins that rely on memory studies with a reading that relies on the concept of disposability. After sketching the social and historical context of contestations over Beirut’s ruins, I will discuss some of Beirut’s most iconic ruins and the way in which they feature in contemporary artistic practices. Subsequently, I will briefly outline the traditional reading of these and other ruins as structures that refer to the past. Then I will introduce and elaborate the concept of disposability in relation to the notion of precariousness, building on the works of Giorgio Agamben and Judith Butler. An analysis of two works by the Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet, finally, will demonstrate how the disposable state of Beirut’s ruins resonates with a more broadly shared experience of living in Beirut today – an experience of precarious provisionality that arguably reflects global transformations in contemporary urban life and culture.