+ Civil Space Civil Love

Competition entry for the Lebanese Pavillion- Venice Architectural Biennale 2020
Vanessa Dammous and Cindy Menassa-Kuelby

How will we live together?
“We need a new spatial contract. In the context of widening political divides and growing economic inequalities, we call on architects to imagine spaces in which we can generously live together: together as human beings who, despite our increasing individuality, yearn to connect with one another and with other species across digital and real space; together as new households looking for more diverse and dignified spaces for inhabitation; together as emerging communities that demand equity, inclusion and spatial identity; together across political borders to imagine new geographies of association; and together as a planet facing crises that require global action for us to continue living at all.’’ (Hashim Sarkis, Venice Biennale 2020)
These words of Hashim Sarkis are particularly relevant in a Lebanese context. ‘’Living together’’ can indeed be challenging in a country with 18 different religious sects and 15 different religious authorities, where these categories play a more important role than in most other places.
A civil union or marriage that is regulated by the Lebanese law in this context would be an obvious way to overcome this division over time: It would allow members of two different religions to get married and thus blur the boundaries of the segregation.
But unfortunately, such a union is recognized by the Lebanese state when initiated in another country, but it cannot be formed in Lebanon. In Lebanon, there are only religious weddings. A Christian-orthodox couple is married under Christian-orthodox church law, a Shia couple is married under Shia law etc. These laws differ tremendously with regards to equality (in some religions, women are not allowed to inherit properties, in others it is up to the discretion of the priest to grant a divorce, some grant the husband the right to…). In Lebanon, the religion she is born with defines the degree of gender equality a woman will experience throughout her life.
Why would this be an architectural issue?
Hashim Sarkis talks about a new spatial contract when we face new challenges. The family contract that in many societies governs our closest relationships has spatial impacts on both an urban and architectural scale. On an architectural scale, the housing market caters to the predominant family model, whereas on an urban scale, demand for roads, schools, parks, kindergardens, schools is calculated based on average estimates deducted from that same model. When we talk about a new spatial contract in Lebanon, we must thus talk about these family models, or in other words the legal and social units that define space today and in the future.
Today, Lebanon is literally built around the idea of traditional marriages – husband and wife, as prescribed by the many religions in Lebanon. This role model governs the housing market – the prototypical apartment for a married couple with children. The husband is established, marries a usually younger wife who then will move out of her family home – where she lived with her parents – into a new apartment, building a new family home for her children. There is no room or need for shared apartment situations, multi-generational homes, buildings with shared common public or semi-public spaces because everything – at least in theory – exists within that one core family.
The consequence of this is a housing market and a building industry that either builds single family homes or – more often – stacks the (always identical) prototypical floor plan with little variation to (always the same) apartment buildings that cover most parts of the country. Space consumption is high; traffic problems are the obvious consequence. Even more problematic is that the idea of that family and that family apartment is complete – you do not need anything else. Consequently, there is nothing else – no society around to rely on, no public space for that society, no public space around the apartment building where communal life could start to exist or is needed.
The absence of a civil union also prevents even the discussion of other forms of relationships: gay relationships, models of co-habitation between senior citizens and young people, polygamist relationships just to mention a few. In this context, the introduction of a civil marriage, or civil union, becomes the next and an overdue step towards a more equal, more tolerant and less segregated society: The future.
When unions can finally be formed freely between any group of individuals, each and every union is the result of a process in which the modes of living together are negotiated individually. Some of these or maybe even most unions might closely resemble today’s religiously-prescribed marriages, while others will be beyond our imagination. The important part is that the choice is everyone’s, and that the outcome is open.
In such a future, residential units tailored to less conventional models of cohabitation will succeed on the market. More flexible, neutral space configurations will offer chances for change where needed. Communication beyond the immediate family will start to play a role in design considerations. A new spatial contract will establish itself over time.
The Lebanese pavilion
The Lebanese pavilion at the Biennale 2020 offers a possibility to form a free union between individuals. In essence, it is a wedding pavilion without any rules: It can be used by anyone. It does not prescribe a particular form of living together, but it invites everybody to make this choice freely. A photograph documents and remembers this important point in life.
Meanwhile, the audience performs its own negotiation process: To take a seat. Five different heights and a field of over 300 legs offer almost unlimited possibilities. Where do I want to sit? Close to my friend? Next to my wife? Alone in peace? Can I ask my neighbor to share a leg? Do I have to talk to him or her?
The major part of the pavilion consists of a field of legs on which seats can be installed in various ways. More traditional, auditorium-like configurations are possible, but at most times it will be left to the visitors to decide how and where they want to sit – low or high, in groups, or alone. This installation encourages people to participate and interact. It raises questions of social and personal space.