GHASSAN SALHAB'S THE VALLEY
PROJECT METHODOLOGY / MYTHOLOGY
and the role of the architect / writer
This thesis begins by surveying actually existing spatial practices and economies, both local and international, that are seen as examples of non-state-centric politics, in an effort to imagine a future politics of the act. Non-state-centric politics refers to the multitude of practices that exist as material alternatives or extensions to the institutions of the state. In the context of the weakened and non-interventionist state of Lebanon, these realities, from the museum of the luxury fashion corporation to sectarian party welfare systems to religious nonprofits, are present and greatly influential. This terrain of conflicting reals serves as the backdrop for the construction of the speculative fiction of the Dissenting Departed Polity (DDP): an imaginary cross-sector organization existing in a special economic zone inside the Lebanese state. In the research leading up to the construction of this entity, particular weight is given to two artefacts: the privately-owned art object as asset, and the dead human body, both buried and cremated as cremation is proposed as both a symbolic and material alternative to the set of dominant sectarian mortuary practices of the Lebanese context. The functions contained in the DDP deal with storage and archiving, leading to an apparatus that ranges the spectrum from exacting architecture of art storage to interactive audiovisual installation. The installation is a columbarium and archive made to receive the remains and discourses of consenting deceased subjects, problematizing agency in relation to death and resurrecting the subjects as a polity of spectres-in-waiting. The constructed fiction of the DDP positions itself as a variation on a theme, mirroring the latent processes of the surveyed cases and rejecting the dictum that architecture be a normative proposal and a reproducible solution.
GHASSAN SALHAB’S THE VALLEY
In Ghassan Salhab’s The Valley (2014), an amnesiac finds himself among a hermit group of individuals practicing a form of communal living, in a lone house set in a vast and sparse landscape. The stranger is cared for by the bunch until the agreement ceases to be mutually beneficial when it is discovered that the group’s raison d’être is illegal drug manufacturing and that the stranger has been attempting to flee the quarters. There are several particularities in this setup of relations that interest me and relate to what I intend to carry out in my own proposal later. The group’s internal hierarchy is hard to discern as the men and women rotate among house chores, positions of power, and idiosyncratic hobbies, chastising one another when an action is committed that is deemed detrimental to the group’s well-being and sustainability. The viewer arrives to the conclusion that the tense roundtable horizontality is maintained by the group’s dubious legal status. This position outside of the rule of state law, at the geographic outer reaches of the nearby village, becomes the site of a horizontal power structure that more often than not would not have organically occurred elsewhere had the group been operating legally. Unwittingly, and without any lofty political ambitions, the group performs a perfect instance of the concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone.
What complicates this dynamic further is the arrival of the stranger into this pocket of autonomy, and his questionable status as group member. He is neither a conscious member of the group, privy to its intentions and undertakings, nor is he fully outside of it. For a while, an exchange of services takes place between him and the group as a whole: in exchange for his ignorance of their activities and his consequent silence, he dines and sleeps and bathes like any other member of the household. I will allow myself to extrapolate here and expand beyond the confines of the film’s huis-clos. If we begin to draw parallels between the group and a political party in power, we may say that both are concerned with maintaining a current order of things: the party relies on voters for another term in power as the group relies on the stranger’s complicity for another day without legal persecution. In this rapprochement, we may go further and liken the economy of the household in the film, the symbiotic exchange of service-for-silence, to the range of economies set up by political parties (in Lebanon and beyond) where services and benefits such as healthcare are offered in an effort to foster and maintain a loyal voter base. These economies and their spatial embodiments form a major theme for both the research and proposal sections of this thesis.
and the role of the architect / writer
In imagining the coming-into-being of this web of relations, and their substantiation in an architectural object, I do not in any capacity aim to devise a reproducible model. Rather than a normative proposal that is to be tended towards, the fiction under construction in this thesis should be read as the accumulating narrative resulting from the research subjects and case studies.
As a result, I see my role as being closer to that of the extradiegetic narrator than to that of the visionary architect and the associated positivist baggage where the architect must collect data and infer from it the ideal design process and output. Instead, I am allowing all doubt, both my own self-doubt and doubt in the role of the architect as optimizer, to infiltrate this process and alter its course of action. The output is thus not a design proposal per se but a speculative fiction in the form of an architectural object. This approach is not dissimilar to recent design fiction or critical design work such as that of Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, where conceptual design is used as a form of critique of emerging technologies and designed objects.  Their work (and mine) distances itself from what is termed “affirmative design,” which is design as real problem-solving. Where my work in this thesis differs from theirs is that I am less interested in critiquing actual technologies and designs, and more interested in critiquing the social and economic relations that lead to certain local spatio-political practices.
The program and form of the final architectural object are thus the mirror-images, or less binarily, the variations on a theme of the existing case studies. Research into Beirut cemeteries and land use is processed into an exploration of the cremation agency as a service , and research into the political uses of curatorial/museum experience outputs a recombined instance with new qualities. Through this distorted mirror-image I am aiming to place existing practices in a different light. To these ends, the project may tread terrains of hyperbole in the same way that a dented mirror surface may warp an eye that gazes at it. That said, I aim to steer as far away as possible from narrative extremes: the project is neither a utopian wandering nor an alarm-sounding dystopia.
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