Yon August 2020, some 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate carelessly stored in Beirut’s ancient port suddenly exploded. The blast, one of the worst in world history, released a fireball thousands into the air. In the briefest of moments before the whiteout, it was possible to see silver sparks flying – fireworks, lethally stored in the same depot – through the slowed images captured on mobile phones. The thunderclap was so loud it could be heard across the Mediterranean in Cyprus.
At least 218 people lost their lives and 7,000 more were terribly injured. People spoke of being lifted into the air like feathers, of sudden deafness and hot blood in their eyes. Some buildings stood, unaccountably, while others right next to them collapsed in an instant. The explosion had the magnitude of a small nuclear bomb.
No matter that we were able to see all this happening, almost live, on social media and television; the reality remains at a distance. More than 300,000 people lost their homes. What happened to their houses, what shelter they found for the next night, and the next, was far harder to visualize than what we generally saw, which was the citizens of Beirut valiantly rescuing each other, their government having promptly resigned.
One of those houses has been recreated in all its ruined glory at the V&A in London, and I doubt anything could take you quite as close to the material devastation as The Lebanese Housean installation by the French-Lebanese architect Annabel Karim Kassar and her Beirut studio AKK.
What you see is the recreation 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 that one is completely blown out and the others are partially gone. Wooden joists hold up the empty window, like giant matchsticks propping an eye. Walk through the gaping entrance, its door destroyed, and the rooms that might have existed off the hall on the other side have simply vanished. It is like a stage set.
Some of the marble and sandstone fragments of this intricate facade are from a real house that Kassar was restoring when the port of Beirut exploded. In the hall, Lebanese craftsmen have laid tiles from the actual floor. Patterned with Venetian trefoils and Arabic stars, damaged and blaze-blackened, some of them even bear traces of a nameless red substance that resembles dried blood.
The installation also includes a reinterpretation of the traditional liwan, a small salon in the halls of these old Beirut houses. Here, on striped silk cushions, you can watch specially commissioned films about the explosion. A barber, blown through 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 blew off. The street staggered and swayed.
The recreation of a rare old building may seem almost irrelevant given the devastation of huge areas of modern housing in Beirut. But The Lebanese House is a door to empathy. It is also a chance to marvel at such beauty, far away in London, brought to us here and now in three dimensions as a symbol of Beirut’s heroic endurance.
A case of ancient glass objects – Roman, Byzantine, Islamic – toppled and fell in the Archaeological Museum of the American University of Beirut, 4km west of the port, that day. Only two vessels survived, miraculously intact. But more have been salvaged from the millions of glass shards, and eight have been pieced back together by conservators at the British Museum, where they are on temporary display as Shattered Glass of Beirut before being returned to that city.
Blue, green and gold lustre, transparent and ribbed, elegant and shapely, they mainly date back to the first century BC. Ancient light once shone through their glass and light shines through again now, thanks to the conservators’ breathtakingly 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 of the technology has barely changed.
A few galleries away from The Lebanese Housethe V&A has a show, Industrial Sublime, of Maurice Broomfield’s magnificent photographs of industrial production from the 1950s and 60s, where the people, often silhouetted dark against light, working with molten glass, liquid steel or massive weaving looms, seem to stand outside time. Broomfield (1916-2010) studied photography at night school, eventually escaping his day job in a Derby car factory to become Britain’s foremost industrial photographer. He has an insider’s knowledge of these scenes.
A fountain of sparks whirls around the steelworker in the Woolwich foundry. A man examining a colossal roll of paper at the Bowater factory appears like a surfer at the bottom of a great, cresting wave. A white-coated technician testing fluorescent tubes at the Philips factory in Eindhoven is shot from below, looking deep into the glowing loop he holds, one of many dozens circling through the blackness like abstract sculptures by Dan Flavin. It is like a scene from art’s future.
Broomfield staged his productions with enormous care and creativity. He is known to have painted factory workers’ boots white to make them stand out. One of his masterpieces shows a Glasgow shipbuilder poised on a high platform to perfect the balance of a giant propeller on a hull. The great object, buffed and gleaming like watered silk, was described by the artist as “one of the most beautiful and tactile pieces of industrial sculpture”. All of his photographs of him aspire to the same condition, making beauty out of labour, alas so much of it now redundant, in a collective honoring of the work of those who have built the world around us.
The Lebanese House is at the V&A, London, until 25 September
Shattered Glass of Beirut is at the British Museum, London, until 23 October