Notes on a Tree
One sunny afternoon in Beirut, a band of gray-haired men sat in the shade of a leafy tree. Some played backgammon and traded gossip; others leaned against its trunk while sipping strong cups of coffee. They had been meeting at this spot for years. Familiar faces left with time and new ones arrived, but the tree always stood, waiting to welcome its visitors.
In Lebanon, developers’ needs routinely trump the public interest. Urban planning and the common good are expendable, and, as a result, conscientious architects face daily battles to preserve unofficial public spaces.
Some battles are won. Others are lost. At 109 Architectes, our priority is to accommodate the city’s communal elements by weaving them into our projects.
The motive for preservation might be environmental, if this were any other city. We’re driven by a need to protect history and collective memory. Whether it’s for a makeshift children’s football field or a rusty old bench, we work to preserve the vital snippets of space the community has claimed as its own.
On that street in Beirut, we successfully integrated the neighborhood tree into a residential project, saving generations of memories in the process. In another instance, a centuries-old eucalyptus was cut down to make room for excavation despite our efforts to defend it. Playing out countless times since we opened the firm in 2002, those scenarios emphasize the balance between project constraints and our obligation to society. In that sense, the tree is the ultimate symbol of the intersection between time, space and existence.
To explore the symbolic tree on a larger scale, we’re handing out thousands of seeds at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Visitors are invited to take one and plant it anywhere in the world. It will become a living reminder of the public spaces we have lost in Lebanon.
With each seed, participants will have access to a website where they can submit their planting location. Once entered, a location pin will be projected back onto a map at the Biennale.
The experiment will start in May 2016 and continue after the Biennale closes. The dedicated website will welcome images and host future tree-planting efforts in other locations.
Perhaps, together, we will ignite new woodlands in remote countrysides, or miniature forests in sidewalk cracks. Or maybe nothing will be planted at all. Just as with our everyday battles, success and failure are equal opponents. We are relying on you to tell us who wins.