Beirut – Last May, for the first time in nine years, elections have taken place in Lebanon, boosting citizen engagement and active participation in a country dealing with challenges like a lack of infrastructure, high levels of pollution and a growing number of refugees. Doreen Toutikian, founding director and president of the board at MENA Design Research Center in Beirut, Lebanon, highlights the growing role of designers, architects and other creatives in improving the places people live in.
Design is not only about the newest chair or the latest gallery-bound collectible object. To bring about change and foster participation, designers should collaborate more with activists, institutions and citizens. These are the issues at hand in our conversation with Ghassan Salameh, the newly appointed managing and creative director of Beirut Design Week (BDW).
The theme for this 7th edition of BDW is Design and the City. How did you come up with the theme?
Ghassan Salameh: I think today this is the most relevant topic that we should be discussing, not only in Beirut, but in any city in the world. Cities deal with many problems, like political instabilities, extremism, sectarianism and pollution. These issues influence livability. So it’s time for us designers to stop and ask important questions like, how can we make our cities better places?
Where do we start?
GS: I realised that we had to change the way designers in Beirut think about their role and approach their work. For example, there were very little collaborations, not only amongst designers, but also between designers and professionals of other disciplines.
Another issue is that people think that being a designer is about making a nice table or a new collectible chair that will be sold for a large sum of money and exhibited in a gallery. They don’t see design as a tool to make a change. The way people look at the government should also change: we shouldn’t simply wait for politicians to create better living environments.
This way of looking at design is quite new for designers in the MENA region. Was it difficult to find enough people that represent that kind of work?
GS: When people think about the design weeks, they think about a fair that you visit to see new collections, or where you can buy some products. So when we launched the theme, people were confused at first. But it opened the door to a whole other section of professionals who had never been included in the design week before. Researchers, service designers, urban strategists and activists, all collaborated in building up this year’s design week.
Can you give an example of a project with this collaborative approach?
GS: Students from The American University of Beirut Neighborhood worked together with residents and businesses to created interventions in Jeanne d’Arc Street to improve walkability in the city, for example. The most interesting thing about these installations is that people are really interacting with the designs; they are thirsty for these types of work. Hopefully it will make them realise that they can also make a change.