The Lebanese House; Broken glass from Beirut; Maurice Broomfield: Sublime Industriel – the review | Art


In August 2020, some 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate carelessly stored in the old port of Beirut suddenly exploded. The explosion, one of the worst in world history, released a ball of fire miles into the air. In the briefest moments before whiteout, silver sparks could be seen flying – fireworks, fatally stored in the same depot – through slow-motion footage captured on cellphones. The thunderclap was so loud that it could be heard across the Mediterranean in Cyprus.

At least 218 people lost their lives and another 7,000 were seriously injured. People were talking about being lifted in the air like feathers, sudden deafness and hot blood in their eyes. Some buildings rose up, inexplicably, while others nearby crumbled in an instant. The explosion had the magnitude of a small nuclear bomb.

Never mind that we got to see it all happen, almost live, on social media and on TV; reality remains at a distance. More than 300,000 people lost their homes. What happened to their homes, what shelter they found for the next night and the next, was much more difficult to imagine than what we have generally seen, namely the citizens of Beirut valiantly fleeing, their government having quickly resigned .

A detail of Lebanese house tiles. Photography: Ed Reeve

One of these houses has been recreated in all its crumbling glory at the V&A in London, and I doubt anything can get you as close to material devastation as The Lebanese housean installation by Franco-Lebanese architect Annabel Karim Kassar and her Beirut studio AKK.

What you see is the reconstruction of an exquisitely beautiful 19th century facade, rising to a height of four meters. There are the towering triple-arched windows of the late Ottoman Empire style, except one is completely blown out and the others partially missing. Wooden joists support the empty window, like giant matches supporting an eye. Walk through the gaping entrance, its destroyed door, and any rooms that might have existed in the hallway on the other side have simply disappeared. It’s like a theater set.

Some of the marble and sandstone fragments in this intricate facade come from a real house that Kassar was restoring when the Port of Beirut exploded. In the lobby, Lebanese craftsmen laid tiles from the actual floor. Adorned with Venetian shamrocks and Arabic stars, damaged and blackened by fire, some of them even bear the trace of an unnamed red substance that looks like dried blood.

The installation also includes a reinterpretation of the traditional liwan, a small living room in the corridors of these old houses in Beirut. Here, on striped silk cushions, you can watch specially commissioned films about the explosion. A barber, blown away by the window of his shop, has lost all his teeth. A mother tries to help her son forget the blood, night after night. Kassar herself describes the moment when the facade separated from the rest of the house and the ceiling exploded. The street tottered and swayed.

Recreating a rare old building may seem almost out of place given the devastation of huge areas of modern housing in Beirut. But The Lebanese house is a doorway to empathy. It is also an opportunity to marvel at such beauty, far away in London, presented to us here and now in three dimensions as a symbol of Beirut’s heroic endurance.

A crate of ancient glassware – Roman, Byzantine, Islamic – spilled and fell at the American University of Beirut’s Archaeological Museum, 4 km west of the port, that day. Only two ships survived, miraculously intact. But others have been recovered from the millions of shards of glass, and eight have been reconstructed by restorers at the British Museum, where they are on temporary display as Beirut broken glass before being sent back to this city.

First century AD Roman goblet.
First century AD Roman goblet. Photograph: Archaeological Museum of the American University of Beirut, Lebanon

Glossy blue, green and gold, transparent and ribbed, elegant and curved, they mainly date from the first century BC. Ancient light once shone through their glass and light shines again now, thanks to the restorers’ breathtaking meticulous methods, revealed in online films. It seems that glass was already blown for mass production in Beirut 2,000 years ago, just as marble was shaped into perfect columns, then as now. Some technologies have barely changed.

A few galleries of The Lebanese housethe V&A has a show, Sublime industrial, magnificent photographs by Maurice Broomfield of industrial production in the 1950s and 1960s, where the figures, often in dark silhouette on a light background, working with molten glass, liquid steel or massive looms, seem to keep out of time. Broomfield (1916-2010) studied photography at night school, before escaping his day job at a car factory in Derby to become Britain’s foremost industrial photographer. He has insider knowledge of these scenes.

A fountain of sparks swirls around the metallurgist at the Woolwich foundry. A man examining a colossal roll of paper at the Bowater factory appears like a surfer at the foot of a large crested wave. A technician in a white coat testing fluorescent tubes at the Philips factory in Eindhoven is filmed from below, staring deep into the light loop he is holding, one of several dozen spinning in the dark like sculptures abstract paintings by Dan Flavin. It’s like a scene from the future of art.

Balancing a ship's propeller, Bull's Metal and Marine Shipyard, Glasgow, 1956.
Balancing a ship’s propeller, Bull’s Metal and Marine Shipyard, Glasgow, 1956 by Maurice Broomfield. Photography: © Estate of Maurice Broomfield/ Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Broomfield staged his productions with great care and creativity. He is known for painting factory workers’ boots white to make them stand out. One of his masterpieces shows a Glasgow shipbuilder balancing on an elevated platform to perfect the balance of a giant propeller on a hull. The large object, polished and shining like watered silk, has been described by the artist as “one of the most beautiful and tactile pieces of industrial sculpture”. All his photographs aspire to the same condition, turning the beauty of labor, alas so superfluous, into a collective tribute to the work of those who have built the world around us.

The Lebanon House is at the V&A, London, until September 25

Shattered Glass of Beirut is at the British Museum in London until October 23

Maurice Broomfield: Industrial Sublime is at the V&A, London, until November 6


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