At the recent London Design Biennale, the terrace of Somerset House became the setting for Lebanese artist Natalie Harb’s installation The Silent Room, which was shown at Beirut Design Week earlier this year. The wooden construction – painted in a dark blue in London, a light pink in Beirut – allows one visitor at a time to enter a small room with a mattress. The insulation of the structure drowns out the surrounding soundscape of the city. The intent is to offer a space of respite: Harb writes that city-dwellers are ‘subject to a sensory experience’ which ‘can contain elements of overabundance, manipulation, and even violence.’ The Silent Room, then, seeks to limit the impact of such ‘sensorial aggressions’ and provide moment of private calm in overcrowded public settings.
The notion that the city is a place of sensory overload has been part of the urban debate since German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’. While Harb’s installation thus highlights a challenge faced by many cities, her work also points to some issues which are more explicit in Beirut. Noise pollution is a central concern for residents of central Beirut, as we learned from local stakeholders and researchers during a recent workshop on well-being in the Ras Beirut neighbourhood. The event, organised by the RELIEF Centre, was a first step to developing a Prosperity Index for the area that measures precisely such difficult-to-measure aspects of quality of life.
Unlike London, which has numerous parks (despite increasing privatisation of public space), Beirut has few public spaces for recreation. Apart from ever-diminishing spaces along the city’s coast, green spaces are limited to the Sanayeh Garden – a highly landscaped and regulated park opposite the Ministry of Interior – and Horsh Beirut. This triangular park is what remains of Beirut’s pine forests; yet is only open at particular times of day or to people who hold a special permission, and its green space is constantly under threat from real estate development. Thus, Harb’s small-scale, mobile installation offers an interim solution, where a piece of parking lot might be turned into locus of respite.
The Silent Room highlights how the insufficient service provision impacts the city’s public sphere and – perhaps inadvertently – calls attention to the way individualised solutions exacerbate this problem. In suggesting ‘silent rooms’ could serve as a solution to noise pollution if placed across the city, Harb’s approach frames the desire for calm as a private, individual need – almost like the need met by public toilets. Yet conceiving of public services in such an individualised manner risks aggravating the problem of the city as a socially and sonically toxic environment. For instance, to make visitors’ stay inside the Beirut Silent Room as comforting as it was intended to be, a generator had to be run to power the air conditioning unit cooling the small room to a bearable temperature. Ironically, then, in creating a restorative interior space, The Silent Room polluted the city outside its walls.
This reflects a broader issue at work in the realm of public services in Beirut, where the individualising approach of using micro-solutions to mitigate the effects of infrastructural crisis has had a detrimental impact on the city as a whole. The most obvious example is the absence of formal public transport (although organisations like The Bus Map Project are seeking to make the informal network more accessible). An excess of cars contributes not only to severe congestion and (noise) pollution but to the lack of pedestrian space. Private generators are used to fill gaps in the public electricity network’s provision as the planned daily cuts last three hours in Beirut, and much longer in other areas. While they may be a useful ad hoc solution to ensure continuous power for a household or apartment building, generators have become permanent fixtures since the end of the civil war. Because of this quasi-institutionalised of the informal localised solution, lobby of generator owners wields significant political clout, to the degree that they are part of the obstacle to creating a functional public network. In addition, generators also use unsustainable fuel, cost more than electricity from the grid, and emit constant noise as well as carcinogenic pollution. The water from the public network is neither sufficient nor potable, so Beirutis must ‘top up’ their water tanks with private water delivery, which depletes groundwater through illegal wells, and by purchasing bottled drinking water, thereby continually contributing to the country’s still-unsolved waste crisis.
We might see this as a tragedy of the urban commons: to carve out more ‘liveable’ spaces for ourselves in a city of disconnected public networks and lacking public areas, we erode quality of life for the community as a whole. Rather than privatising what should be public goods, there should at least be a debate about how these resources are used and allocated. This a problem shared by most cities, including London, but it is brought into sharp relief through the inequality and patchwork of infrastructural micro-solutions in Beirut. As the IGP’s work on Universal Basic Services has shown, solutions that view infrastructures and the services they enable as commonly held resources, rather than consumer goods with exclusive access, have the potential to improve quality of life and enhance equality for all residents. In this vein, our project Public Services and Vulnerability in the Lebanese Context of Mass Displacement, along with the RELIEF Centre’s research strand ‘The Vital City’, not only examines the harmful effects of individualised solutions, but will also facilitate the co-creation of innovative ways of addressing Lebanon’s infrastructural crisis.
Dr Hanna Baumann is the IGP’s research associate on the British Academy-funded project Public Services and Vulnerability in the Lebanese Context of Mass Displacement.
References and suggestions for further reading:
Shihadeh, Alan et al., Effect of distributed electric power generation on household exposure to airborne carcinogens: unintended consequences of supply-side electric power reduction measures in poorly regulated environments (14 December 2012)
Verdeil, Eric. ‘Beirut. The metropolis of darkness and the politics of urban electricity grid’. Energy, Power and Protest on the Urban Grid. Geographies of the Electric City, edited by Andrès Luque Ayala and Jonathan Silver. London: Routledge (2016), pp.