Lebanon, Beirut – Over 160 craftspeople were geolocated and mapped as a part of the Living Heritage Atlas Beirut to highlight their contribution to the reconstruction of the city’s center following the devastating blast of August 4th, 2020. This Dar Group-funded research project, which has been developed by a team of MIT and Beirut-based researchers over the past two years, will be featured at the collateral exhibition of Venice Architecture Biennale 2023 “Time Space Existence.” The show runs from May 20 to November 26 at the European Cultural Centre (ECC) in Venice, Italy
The Living Heritage Atlas Beirut sheds light on the often unrecognized living heritage of craftsmanship through an open-source database mapping Beirut’s craftspeople and their local knowledge. The goal of this project is to shed light on the intangible heritage of Beirut by highlighting craftspeople’s cultural significance, their vulnerability to displacement and economic inequity, as well as their vital role in crafting the future of Beirut. To that end, the Living Heritage Atlas’ interactive website offers open access to a wealth of information about craftsmen, their stories, and their crafts, including over 800 entries about historic and contemporary craft workshop spaces. This data has been collected through on-site investigations, archival research, and community-based engagement.
One of the strengths of this project lies in its collaborative nature. The extensive data-gathering process involved a team of 16 designers and researchers from Lebanon and the US, led by the Civic Data Design Lab and the Future Heritage Lab at MIT. This research was funded by a grant from the Dar Group at the Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism at MIT. In July 2022, the team also executed three days of events to celebrate the past and present of Beirut’s artisanship, which involved crafts workshop tours, archival craft tours, and a mapathon. The team also hosted a series of roundtable discussions in Beirut focused on living heritage preservation concerns. Over a dozen prominent local stakeholders involved in the craftsmanship community came together in the Abroyan Factory, a former textile factory and adapted event space in Bourj Hammoud. Daniella Maamari, the co-lead of the project and an alumna of MIT’s AKPIA program, notes that “this discussion revealed the need to develop different approaches to documenting craftsmanship, to join forces in valuing craftspeople’s presence, and to recognize their potential in mobilizing shared spaces.”
According to the project’s co-lead Carmelo Ignaccolo, MIT PhD candidate in City Planning, “the project not only helped trace and track crafts across space and time but also provided insights into the impact of the blast on the informal network of craftspeople and their displacement throughout the city.”
Professor Azra Aksamija, director of the Future Heritage Lab at MIT, believes that the Atlas “enriches the conversation about the built heritage in Beirut by placing the intangible layer of local knowledge and practices related to craftsmanship on the map.”
The findings of the project are up on their official website where, as Professor Sarah Williams, director of the Civic Data Design Lab, explains, “users and policymakers can draw from the material collected to inform policies and better target people who might benefit from financial aid and support.”
The Living Heritage Atlas Beirut will be exhibited as a part of the “Rebuilding Beirut” section of the “Time Space Existence” exhibition at the ECC curated by the Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism, which showcases three collaborative research and design projects by faculty and researchers from MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning. Each project highlights a unique aspect important for rebuilding Beirut’s urban fabric: from the significance and vulnerability of cultural heritage in the Living Heritage Atlas; to the environmental impacts of the explosion and the subsequent rebuilding efforts in the City Scanner project; to the redesign of streets and public space in the Community Streets.
The exhibition “Time Space Existence” will be open to the public as of May 20th, 2023. Ashley Louie, a research associate at the Civic Data Design Lab, says that through this exhibition, “the project team hopes to inspire more people to contribute to this ongoing effort in documenting and preserving this vital aspect of Beirut’s cultural identity.” Anyone passionate and knowledgeable about Beirut’s cultural history is encouraged to contribute to this Atlas by sharing their stories and images about Beirut’s crafts, thus helping to build a more comprehensive and nuanced archive of Beirut’s living heritage.