Book Review by Gioia C. Sawaya; Chemaly’s book offers a different attempt to reading war ruins in a Lebanese urban context. It suggests another perception of an architectural space, with the need for a built environment that encourages empathy with the user. He defines this space as a verb (an affording action) rather than a noun. The introduction of the book helps to locate the author’s main aim and frame his discourse.
By introducing the term “self-scape”, Chemaly sets forth a set of dimensions (or parameters) that are adopted in the book as “tools of analysis”. Those parameters are specifically space, time, and matter.
To begin with, the author’s arguments throughout the book stem out from different definitions, the first being the notion of architectural time. Chemaly adopted the concept of time as posited by the German philosopher Schopenhauer. To him, time should not be perceived in a linear or classical way. This perception of time is in fact very similar to the differentiation of time previously developed by Henri Bergson1.
Time does not exist in our human perception. Similarly, space is not fully perceivable. Objects engender different temporalities in relation to human’s pace.
Consequently, Chemaly describes emotional experiences as precognitive and pre-reflective in which they affect the user in their immediacy. He brings up the term “Hyper-objects” as used by Morton2 to describe “entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place”. To Chemaly, “Hyper-objects” emit both time and space.
Interestingly, this reminds me of a counter phenomenological approach proposed by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty that aims to restore the centrality of the body in time and space. “My body is the fabric into which all objects are woven, and it is, at least in relation to the perceived world, the general instrument of my “comprehension”.
However, Chemaly proposes to emphasize the opposition. He states that spatial atmosphere encompasses the subject and the object altogether. “The space user is an ecosystem made of human and non-human attributes at once”. By criticizing anthropocentrism (meaning human supremacy over objects), the author claims that when the architectural self-scape is flattened, the schism between the subject and the object becomes obsolete.
The Asymptote of Flattened Ontology: On Time
In other words, what Chemaly is trying to say is that, if we look at things from an object-oriented ontology approach, we find that the human mind no longer has a privilege over the object, and that the object’s behavior is no longer underestimated.He illustrates the dissolution of boundaries between those two discussed entities (the subject/the felt body and the object/the immediate surroundings), and argues that when objects are equated with subjects, the difference between them is drastically diminished, almost eliminated.
Particularly within this book’s context, Chemaly considers war ruins5as his built environment. He adopts wartime architecture in the urban milieu 6 to read war ruins as architectural debris in the city, “terrains vagues”7 that, according to Ingold, generate blandscapes that are so empty that they lead to an alienating sense of placelessness”.
By applying the OOO approach to war ruins, one statement that I particularly found interesting when reading Chemaly’s interpretation of space boundaries in warfare was (quoting Chemaly):“In the interobjectivity of War Ruins, a shared space exists between the debris, the outer observer (indirectly related to the damaged site), the “ruined” observer (emotionally linked to the ruins), the direct damage-maker (the bomb) and the indirect one (the military planner). A sensuous, a-temporal dimension connects these factors altogether”. In this sense, the body should extend beyond its limits in a continuous process of “becoming”.
As a final thought, “Spacing Forth the Architecture Self-scape: A Phenomenological Reading of War Ruins in a Lebanese Urban Context” contributes to Chemaly’s wider view of thinking, in particular the role of an Object-Oriented Ontology in wartime architecture. Unlike correlationism that states a dichotomy should exist between the two, an OOO approach expresses sympathy and builds up on a discourse that reads space from an empathetical point of view where there exists a relationship between the self and the built environment. The book reclaims the autonomy of theoretical discourse in relation to the built environment; however, the ideas raised by Chemaly also have a practical dimension. By suggesting a possible discourse that is supported not only by literature, but also by Chemaly’s own reflections of what war ruins in an urban context may mean via phenomenological readings, the author’s subtle interpretations allowed him to suggest that we, as architects, should revisit the process of architecture and design and reconsider its meaning. This book is indeed a challenging read, one that invigoratingly suggests a new possible architectural discourse and that reflects the wealth of ideas that populate Chemaly’s text.
About Gioia: Gioia Sawaya is an architect based in Lebanon. She holds a B. Arch from NDU, Lebanon and an MSD from IE, Spain. Gioia’s research methodology focuses on the role of theory in relation to the design process, examining the possibilities that challenge the rethinking of architecture and space in a novel way. She has contributed to several journals (PLAT, The Hybrid_Link, [Trans-] journal, Hidden Architecture, Failed Architecture). Her current interests look into the intersections between design and sociology that are transforming the way people live today.
1 The Bergsonian differentiation of time has been impregnated with dualism to indicate an interpretation that is two-fold: homogeneous time, a scientific concept indicating the practical time that we are able to measure, versus the real duration of time, that can be neither quantified nor classified, and that is the constant evolution of matter, the inner time, forged out of several rhythms. Henry Bergson, Duration and Simultaneity, (Manchester: Clinamen Press, 1992)
2 Timothy Morton is one of the initiators and pioneers of the Object-Oriented Ontology movement. He uses the term “Hyper-objects” to explain objects so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend localization and argues that humans need to radically rethink the way in which they conceive of, and relate to, non-human attributes.
3 According to Merleau-Ponty, the body is an expressive space, the origin of expressive movement, and a “medium” for the perception of the world.Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, (London: Routledge, 2002): 173
4 The diagram is inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Eternal Recurrence of Time” in whichNietzsche claims that the universe has been recurring and will continue to recur in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time or space.
5 It is important to note that the author discusses war ruins in his book and not heritage ruins.
6 Chemaly tackles the hot war zone in the region (mainly Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen). However, he takes Beirut as the epicenter of all this conflict.
7 “Terrain Vague” represents the form of absence that is often undefined, such as in abandoned areas or in obsolete spaces and buildings.
TitleSpacing Forth the Architecture Selfscape: A Phenomenological Reading of War Ruins in a Lebanese Urban Context
AuthorIssam S Chemaly