In Spring 2019, I received three invitations to participate in or lead workshops about urban planning and conflict. One was a staff workshop, another was a student-led workshop, and the final email was about workshop I had proposed to run as part of the Royal Geographical Society’s International Conference. Academics and practitioners have been discussing planning in the context of conflict and ‘post-conflict’ states for decades, but it feels as though there is a lot more to say, figure out, and do, in the urban planning discipline when it comes to conflict, violence, and contestation.
I’ve been working in/on Lebanon since 2016: a country which is typically labelled ‘post-conflict’ by journalists and academics. But conflict is not consigned to Lebanon’s history. The Lebanese Civil War might have ended in 1990, but, as the label suggests, conflict is not irrelevant. Lebanon, according to those who use the label, exists in an in-between time: shaped and haunted by its past, whilst trying to look forward, striving to locate itself beyond the ‘post-’.
Such efforts do not happen in a vacuum. Whilst planners, architects, policy-makers and other residents might focus their energies on rebuilding their cities and putting conflict behind them, there is always something which complicates, or disrupts, a smooth transition out of conflict and into peace. Art is very good at reminding us of that which exceeds our intentions and actions. It points to the margins of our view, signals the existence of an uncomfortable truth, and asks us to take notice.
Ziad Kalthoum’s film, Taste of Cement, was launched in 2017, six years after the outbreak of war in Syria. The Development Planning Unit, the Institute for Global Prosperity and the RELIEF Centre hosted a screening of Kalthoum’s film in June, as a continuation of the conversations many of us had been having about planning in times of conflict. The screening was followed with a Q&A with the director, who answered questions from his home in Berlin (he is no longer allowed into Lebanon following the release of Taste of Cement).
In his film, Kalthoum follows a group of construction workers from Syria as they go about their daily lives building a high-rise block in Beirut. Trapped in a circadian rhythm that seems particular to the mundane, repetitive work on the high-rise building, the construction workers rise, march solemnly through the basement floor and into the whirring lifts, up and up into the Beiruti skies. They spend a day drilling, mixing and fitting, before they descend into the basement of the building, where they sleep.
And yet, their day is punctuated by moments of intensity. Once they’ve got back into their makeshift rooms, they meticulously search news websites and local updates on their phones and on the TV screens. Kalthoum does not provide his audience with any explanation of what this means, but we can imagine this is the painstaking filtering of images and text for news about home towns, neighbours and family members.
The film is reminiscent of a song. There’s the lulling effect of a steady rhythm (the circadian rhythms of daily life on the construction site) and the brief crescendos which arrest our attention (the footage from tanks as they crunch their way through debris of Syrian towns and cities) before a plunge into quiet respite (underwater scenes of wartime debris off the Lebanese coastline). The song envelops both Syria and Lebanon, periods of destruction and construction, linking places and times in visual and aural motifs. We are left with a sense of inevitability, of being trapped in a cycle. The construction workers don’t explain how it feels to live this life. Kalthoum gets us to feel it, before we’ve even thought it.
By dwelling on the movements of migrant workers in Lebanon, Kalthoum signals the reliance of reconstruction efforts on continued conflict in Syria. By gaining access to the building site, Kalthoum shows us that which threatens our sense of linear progress out of wartime and into peacetime.
Of course, this relationship is not inevitable. People, corporations and governments stand to gain from it, and do what they can to hide the uncomfortable truth from publics. However, these characters are conspicuously absent from Kalthoum’s film. At least, they are absent in human form. But inequality is felt in the atmosphere: the expansive view of the city’s coastline from the top floor, the bright lights from digital billboards which illuminate the night, gesture towards another way of life that is completely inaccessible to the migrant workers who are not allowed outside after 7pm. In the Q&A, Kalthoum dwelt on the powerful actors implementing these rules and facilitating the continued inequalities which trap people. Kalthoum himself had to navigate them: he only gained access to the building by pretending to be making a positive film about the developer’s ‘beautiful building’, having been refused access to other sites several times.
However, something does tie these people – migrant workers, elite purchasers, developers, residents of Syria and military men – together. Cement is the material that intimately connects lives across the divides, international and social. In Kalthoum’s film, cement is multifaceted. It is hard and liquid, immobile and unfixed. This, I believe, is where the hope is supposed to lie. In his focus on cement, Kalthoum is saying there is something that is not inevitable about the cycle that traps places and people. In cement, there is chance, change and choice. And that is what we, as planners, architects, residents of cities, need to remember. Film, as a critical art form, leads the way for thinking about and simultaneously outside of the frameworks that seem to define places as contested, in conflict, or emerging out of war.
With thanks to the Development Planning Unit at UCL and the RELIEF Centre for funding the screening rights to Taste of Cement. Taste of Cement was screened as part of the DPU’s Urban Transformations [https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/development/research/urban-transformations] and State & Market [https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/development/research/state-and-market-development-actors-and-roles] research clusters’ initiatives, and the RELIEF Centre’s film series.