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BEIRUT — The Sursock Museum is housed in a striking white mansion, built in the early 20th century as the residence of an art-minded aristocrat. Having first opened as a museum in the 1960s, the Sursock continued hosting exhibitions throughout Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, before closing in 2007 to allow for seven years, and $12 million-worth, of renovations. The building, with its stately double staircase and Venetian and Ottoman detailing, looks like an ingeniously structured meringue.
The Sursock is one of very few heritage buildings in Beirut that has been pristinely preserved. The owners of Beirut’s old, dilapidated, and conflict-scarred buildings — dating to the Ottoman, French Mandate, or “modern” periods — often choose to let their properties fall into disrepair to make way for more profitable development.
The majestic ruins peppering the city are the subjects of Abandoned Dwellings. Display of Systems, an exhibition at the Sursock by researcher and photographer Gregory Buchakjian, curated by Karina El Helou. The show is just one product (in addition to a book and a PhD thesis) of Buchakjian’s seven-year project to survey and photograph Beirut’s deserted buildings, memorializing a vanishing urban landscape and the lives that intersected with it.
“You know, when you live in a city, you have your way of moving in the city from one neighborhood to another,” Buchakjian told me in July. “And some days you pass on the road, there is something, you see an empty plot or you see a construction site and you wonder, what was there before? Because there was certainly something there before. So you try to remember, and most of the time, you don’t.” After one 1920s building Buchakjian particularly loved suddenly disappeared, he set off to photograph what ruins he could find.
The initial photographs Buchakjian took inside the buildings were too close, he thought, to what some might call ruin porn or “Detroitism” — a typical badge of urban exploration. Watching the 1980 film Hamasat, in which poet Nadia Tueni is seen wandering the ruins of downtown Beirut, he was inspired by “the idea that her performance could transgress death and be a way of keeping alive something and someone who is not here anymore.”
The resulting staged photographs — displayed alongside narratives about the structure’s history and Buchakjian’s encounter with it — incorporate lonesome female figures, frequently in white. The trope of the ghostly woman can seem tired and essentialist. But at least these figures don’t dominate the images, and Buchakjian reasons that male subjects would immediately have reminded the viewer of militiamen or snipers — many of whom inhabited these structures during the years of civil conflict.
In one image of the Heneine Palace, in Beirut’s central historic neighborhood of Zokak al-Blat, striated light drapes languorously across the frame, just illuminating a stately staircase. A woman sits inconspicuously at its base, partly obscured by the ornate balustrade. In another building, identified as being in the Medawar area, light filters through the dust to illuminate a rubble-strewn sitting room and reflects distantly off the auburn hair of a woman leaning against a cinderblock wall in the background. The human figures, for Buchakjian, are a means of “appropriating the house.” The images become a symbolic reclamation of the city and its history.
These chiaroscuro interiors are accompanied by texts which supply gossipy, often absurd, or melancholic (or both) snippets of that building’s conflict-ridden history, its progressive abandonment. The Heneine Palace, we learn, was the residence of a Russian aristocrat and later a Dr. Calmette, who fled after the outbreak of World War I. The building then hosted the consulates of the United States and the Netherlands, before becoming a restaurant, then a shelter for refugee families, then a dormitory for construction workers. One apartment in another building, in Saifi, was occupied by a woman named Victoria, as evidenced by her correspondence, diaries, poems, papers and medical prescriptions. Intriguingly, Victoria’s prescriptions for radiology and blood tests continued well after the date that an invoice was issued for her inhumation.
Buchakjian’s photographic project became only one element of a broader effort to survey the city’s abandoned houses and unearth the lives that had passed through them. From 2009 to 2016, the photographer found well over 700 buildings, entering around 140 of those. “I was trying to do a comprehensive database, which was totally utopian,” he says, ruefully. Nevertheless, the breadth of his project is evident in the 760 data sheets, split into 11 Beirut areas, that are displayed alongside the photographs. Each sheet provides an exterior photograph of the dwelling (if one was taken before its destruction), as well as its location, era, architectural details, and state of conservation. Beirutis can flip through an inventory of their neighborhood, retrieving details of half-collapsed structures they’ve never really looked at before.
As Buchakjian conducted his survey, the process of “encountering the neighborhood, the city” — his interactions with policemen, dwellers, refugees, locals, wildlife — became important. So too, as he began to collect items from the houses. The project now began to include “disclosing the lives of people” — some of whom had lived in historic buildings, others whose dwellings were ordinary and whose lives were relatively obscure. Not all of the 140 houses he entered supplied interesting repositories, but around 10 disclosed narratives he found fascinating.
“The big question,” he thought, was “how and why people leave these things when they leave … The kinds of letters where you admitted you cheated on your husband or wife. You don’t leave this on the ground.” (Especially given that some of these buildings and materials had been abandoned not in war but in peacetime.)
Some of these stories are laid out in the video “Abandoned Dwellings, Archive,” in which Buchakjian and his collaborator Valerie Cachard examine the miscellanea, reading aloud excerpts of the found documents, interspersed with their own observations. A gloved hand snaps a woman’s purse, brown with age, open and closed; interior design plans are unrolled like parchment. “Damn the situation is messed up… the bombing doesn’t stop since this morning” — “To the smartest and brightest natural blonde on the upper floor: happy birthday!” — “A photograph of ghosts or a ghost of a photograph?” — “All the lists in this empty diary are strange.”
There is no context, no distinction made between original observation and found text. Of the 700 “elements” that were cleaned, photographed, and filed — for what Buchakjian hoped would be their eventual return to their owners — we see lace, needle and thread, pieces of tile, a mirror, doilies, manifold documents.
On the walls, digital frames display photographs of abandoned buildings’ interiors: a clothesline, the elegant curve of a marble staircase, stained glass, the diamond blur of a wire fence in the foreground, two abandoned wine bottles, lanterns, and an elaborate stucco ceiling. Plants thrust through wasted architecture, bullet holes fleck concrete, peeling wallpaper (mint green, with flowers) and cracked paint rise above geometric tiles.
The exhibition often feels more like a sociological exhibit than an art show. In his photographs and the narratives he unearthed, Buchakjian conveys the sense that in these visits, which became, for him, “something of a ritual,” he discovered “traces of the people who were there.” People who, after all, “could have been you, finally.”
Unlike many others interested in Beirut’s heritage architecture, Buchakjian has not only focused on historic, stately homes, and expresses little interest in renovation and preservation (although he is even less enthused about development). “The abandoned houses are important in their state of abandonment,” he says — in their capacity as time machines, but also as empty lots; areas free of commerce or productivity or purpose. “You have spaces that — even if people are not going to enter in them — if you walk in a neighborhood, you have [empty] pockets. You have something that is useless.”
Gregory Buchakjian: Abandoned Dwellings. Display of Systems continues at the Sursock Museum (Greek Orthodox Archbishopric Street, Ashrafieh, Beirut, Lebanon) through February 11, 2019.