We speak frequently and anxiously about architectural failure: buildings collapsing under climate change (the Surfside condos in Florida come to mind); or material negligence at Grenfell Tower in London. Failure, it seems, constitutes an oversight, an accident—often, it’s not until decades later that some architectural breakdowns are deemed strategic. Public housing in the United States is an apt example; for urban planning, we now see slum clearance as a policy of destruction deployed at a massive scale. These are choices that signify a particular type of politics—the politics of neglect. At Montreal’s Canadian Center for Architecture, filmmaker and video artist Joyce Joumaa explores an urban planning failure in her home city of Tripoli in Lebanon. Her new film, كیف لا نغرق في السراب /To Remain in the No Longer, examines an abandoned urban scheme for the Rachid Karami international exhibition site located near the Lebanese coast. Designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, the project is presented in the film not as a failed design intervention but as a symbol for the ways that architecture can be weaponized in such a sinister political dogma.
Niemeyer designed the Karami site between 1962 and 1965 on a 173-acre plot on Tripoli’s Western edge. However, it remains unfinished: The development’s construction was halted—and ultimately unfinished—in 1975 at the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted until the early 1990s. Though not complete, what does exist is startling: Auxiliary buildings on the site reflect Modernist design tropes—gargantuan long and low rooflines that shade corridors, geometric repetitions within porticos and colonnades, and minimalist concrete shapes. A grand arch, akin to the St. Louis Gateway, overlooks an outdoor theater. Recently, UNESCO heralded the unfinished development as an international collaboration between on-the-ground Lebanese architects inspired by Brazilian Modernism.
The 38-minute video artwork includes contemporary and archival footage of these spaces. Time feels oddly deployed: Generous garden shots feature thriving cacti, a breeze rustles blooming flowers, and grasses tremble. These images, full of life, contrast interior shots heavy with abandonment. Joumaa’s footage reveals plant life growing through tile, the unfortunate cracking and crumbling of concrete all pointing to the structure’s current, distressed state. But the film importantly contextualizes this ruinous condition in the country’s larger history of failure and neglect.
Set against long and slow cuts of the city center and the Karami site, all stories are told by several unseen narrators, shaping the film into a video essay that braids together reflections, personal memories, and recountings of events. There is no storyline to follow, only a plurality of voices who speak about their experiences or analysis of the state of the country; many are vague and offer few specific details. The first narrator opens the film with broader observations on what he notes are, the “politics of disaster management”—ongoing neglect or ignoring crucial economic and socio-political problems through which the Lebanese government created a reliance on foreign loans and aid. Later, another narrator speaks generally about Tripoli’s historic designations, which resulted in such stringent and expensive renovation standards that people were evicted from or abandoned homes in crumbling buildings after owners could not maintain them. Another narrator speaks of participating in the 2019 Whatsapp tax and resulting protests—stemming from the controversial charge on the voice call and messaging service—wherein he discovered that many of the protesters were not in attendance over the tax itself, but to criticize ongoing economic crises and government corruption.
Though they vary widely in topics, these stories foreground a critique of the Karami site itself, which according to another narrator, employed annexation as a tool for building; the city annexed orchards from private landowners in order to build the exhibition’s spectacular Modernist treasures, spurring class divisions under the guise of attracting outside investments and increasing tourism.
Joumaa’s film distinctly connects the Karami site’s failure to a broader history of the colonized mind, one that utilizes European and Western methods of urban planning, construction, and customs in a place with vastly different cultures and values; though the site's design is arguably beautiful in its Modernist simplicity, we forget at what expense such an investment was made. These costs as seen through the Karami project itself—the loss of culture in favor of UNESCO’s proclaimed “tak[ing] part in the universal process of modernization”—becomes a lens through which we can view the costs of choosing what to build and what to neglect.
What is most startling about To Remain in the No Longer is not the sight of Modernist masterpieces in decay, nor the stories of neglect; rather, it’s how familiar the politics of neglect and disaster management are, even halfway around the world. I often think of instances in which systemic neglect intersects with massive attention and investments for the ultra-wealthy: the 11 people who died in New York after their basement unit apartments flooded—a massive policy and infrastructure failure—in what will likely be one of many climate events, only a few years after Hudson Yards phase one opened. Or, in my own city, Chicago, where decaying lead pipes leech their poisons into children and go unreplaced, while $2 billion Tax Increment Financing dollars have subsidized our own megadevelopments, Lincoln Yards and The 78. We neglect what belongs to us all—rights to safety, bodily health, and emotional well-being—until the systems that maintain those rights crumble. At what point in ongoing abandonment will other choices be made by political actors, whose powers to intervene in such deterioration could be turned toward repair?
But Joumaa’s film doesn’t end in despair; through this crumbling, one narrator says, a veil is lifted. Akin to novelist Arundhati Roy’s 2020 essay “The Pandemic is a Portal,” the film's narrator claims that these crises—or ruptures, as Roy calls them—reveal truths. They divulge not just who we are as individuals, but the systems that created the preconditions for disaster. With such clarity, we can make other choices, perhaps ones that will prioritize communities in lieu of politics of crisis management.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.