can there be a productive ambivalence?

Bernard Khoury’s early work (1998-2002) feels antagonistic yet it is largely ambivalent. Khoury is obsessed with the willful amnesia of elite post-war Beirut, and his buildings are redolent with reminders of the conflicted past. But despite being hung up on the negation of social memory, he doesn’t really want to do anything other than remind people that memory is still present.

B018 Beirut, Lebanon

His formal language speaks sharply of violence and power in B018, a subterranean club on the site of the French quarantine (which could easily be mistaken for an underground bunker or missile silo) and decay in Centrale, a chichi restaurant near the demarcation line between east and west Beirut (the crumbling historical façade of which he encases in steel mesh), and yet he does not admonish the socialites who frequent these places for having forgotten their city’s recent troubled past. His buildings don’t have a didactic imperative, they simply state what he sees as blunt realities: this is a site of former violence, this is the product of decay, and you are seeking pleasure in this place.

What, then, do these projects actually produce? Given their popularity as absurdly decadent social venues for the well-heeled of Beirut, it would seem that these buildings do not make their inhabitants uncomfortable. Do they even cause people to pause and reflect? And are they any more or less successful if they do? Khoury’s projects are mirrors on the current social climate in Beirut—they reflect an unapologetic culture of consumption while referencing the political and social backdrop against which pleasure now occurs. As Khoury notes, his projects “are not moralistic projects; they are not about what is good or what is bad. They are about the harshness and sometimes the beauty of those realities.” Khoury’s architecture, as I have already stated, feels very antagonistic to me (this is why I like it). And yet it does not antagonize. Is that good or bad? I’m leaning toward the latter.

In a recent interview in Metropolis (Jul/Aug 07), Khoury says of his work:
"My projects are not manifestos. They take a very specific situation and try to dig into that situation, push and reinterpret it, and flip around these realities in the most pertinent way. But I am not being cynical here, because I think each of these projects has a dose of pleasure in them and that pleasure is extremely important to me."

10/5: After talking with T. Hyde this morning, I think my earlier statement requires an acknowledgment that ambivalence is, at the very least, an active stance in Khoury's case. I took Khoury's lack of commentary as, perhaps, a lack of theorization. One of the few questions he explicitly asks regarding/through his architecture is 'what does it mean to rebuild?.' It may be that in the face of on-going strife in Beirut, this question can't be answered. Khoury's ambivalent response is an active deferral that maintains the possibility of change. TH pointed out that the program--the bar--is the very image of deferral, of biding one's time, glass of champagne in hand...


bryan said...

This reminds me of Kipnis' argument about the OMA Prada store in NYC. He proposed that the fold-down stage was never actually meant to host any real events, but that merely through the equation of shopping and 'high culture' the visitor could be unsettled--agitated into a state where shopping becomes impossible.

I can't quite articulate why, but this seems like the socio-architectural equivalent of having eyes larger than your stomach.

// JD said...

Lauren's eyes or the bar patron's?

L, this case study is very interesting for your research, and to me, I think because it also calls into question the agency of the architect as a provider, rather than a pure social critic. Khoury clearly had a (well-off) client to satisfy, and I think it very likely that the client approached the architect with the idea for a "bunker bar" in mind. What then does this say about Lebanon's boutique architectural market, or perhaps the architectural market's global reaction to conflict? While we in the west might see this bar as an example of "conflict chique," I wonder if rehearsing the ceremony of saving one's like (by entering a bunker) has any connection to the act of social gathering.