“We have generated a space that allows people to imagine new possibilities of what Beirut could be.” This is how Lebanese architect Salim al-Kadi described his latest project, a digital 3-D model of Beirut, the first to be made publicly available. Speaking to The Daily Star from his basement studio in Hamra Friday, Kadi spoke of the “limitless possibilities” that the model could provide to students, activists, architects and environmentalists alike.
The model, Beirut 001, was published on Jan.1 after three years of tireless work by Kadi and his team.
The construction process began with a 2-D horizontal plan of the Lebanese capital, extracted primarily from Google Maps – currently the most accurate map available.
Then came the lengthy process of creating the vertical axis of Beirut’s cityscape. Kadi and his teams took to the streets, counting one-by-one the floors of thousands of buildings.
The finished model allows users to explore the details of every bridge, road, tunnel and building in the capital and then zoom out to study its skyline from all possible angles.
“There’s always something very different about seeing something in 3-D,” Kadi said.
It is no coincidence that the model’s publication coincided with Lebanon’s ongoing anti-government protests. The country has entered an era of self-reflection. Over the last 100 days, countless lectures and round-tables have been held in public spaces across the country, discussing how protesters can most effectively bring about change and build toward a better future for Lebanon.
“The revolution has provided a space … for people to reimagine their city, and this map is their tool,” Kadi said.
For the architect, the most intriguing part of it all is that he does not yet know where the project will lead.
The potential applications of the map are infinite: from simulating micro-wind patterns that spread harmful pollutants emitted from diesel generators to mapping the extensive network of CCTV cameras that keep watch over Beirut’s residents. “There are things that you can see in the model that you cannot see in physical space, and vice versa. This lag between the two worlds is where change can potentially happen,” the architect said.
Kadi zoomed in on Nijmeh Square, the site of some of the most violent confrontations between protesters and security forces, hinting at the map’s potential to pinpoint locations for future demonstrations.
“Protesters can start understanding the strengths and weaknesses of this urban morphology,” he said. As he spoke, new concrete barriers were being erected just a few kilometers away at entrances to Nijmeh Square and the Grand Serail.
Because the map is accessible to the public, it could also be exploited for less revolutionary purposes, Kadi posited. Politicians, for example, could identify spaces in the city where their posters would glean maximum exposure.
Nevertheless, Kadi is adamant on the importance of keeping access to the model open to all.
“Who am I to hoard it? It needs to proliferate, it needs to be editable, it needs collaboration,” he said. So far, it has been downloaded more than 1,000 times, he said.
The model was released in coordination with Daleel Thawra, an activist-run online directory that lists events, initiatives and projects that support the protests.
Kadi decided to introduce Beirut 001 in this way because it “positions the model outside the spheres of power.” In theory, he said, government institutions would be responsible for creating such a map for urban planning purposes.
“But like everything else in this country, you need to do it yourself,” he said, citing the state’s failure to provide its citizens with drinking water and round-the-clock electricity.
“I’m an architect so I need to intervene. I need to make something.”