TIMEBOX, an Urban Trail of 20th Century Beirut

TIMEBOX Installation
TIMEBOX Installation

Short of creating an actual time-traveling machine, old photographs and video footage are all we have to ‘re-live’ our ever-changing city. If images of Beirut in the 50s and 60s make the city look like a radically different place, what would images of 100 years ago look like? TIMEBOX Beirut puts us one step closer to satisfying this curiosity.

TIMEBOX Beirut, the brainchild of Razan AlSalah (concept, research and photography) and Lotfi AlSalah (product design and installation), produced in cooperation with Heinrich Böll Stiftung – MENA, is described as “an urban trail of early 20th century 3D images on the streets of Beirut.” Each TIMEBOX holds one archival stereograph at the location where it was originally taken 100 years ago. Passersby experience that same street a century back in 3D. TIMEBOX is latched on 10 different street poles across the city.

The Map of Beirut where TIMEBOX is Present
The Map of Beirut where TIMEBOX is Present (click for larger image)

Who are the two siblings behind the project? Hummus For Thought sat down with Razan AlSalah. She described herself in rather poetic terms: “I love growing the imaginary within existing places; images within everyday spaces; fantastical stories within slow observations of nature. This collision between the physical and created worlds, mind and matter, particles and poetry, allows me to glimpse the essence of things I’m fascinated by in the world,” says Razan, a Fulbright MFA candidate in Film and Media Arts. As for Lotfi, he “completed his Bachelor of Architecture and minor in Art History with distinction at the American University in Beirut in 2013. He is currently working at Bernard Khoury Architects, DW5. His interests span several fields and include photography, writing, interaction design and community service.” (I’ll ask for some poetry from his side).

The way it works is rather simple. In Razan’s words, “the box is a modern plexiglas stereoscope specially designed to mount on a street pole. It’s comprised of two superposed images that give a three-dimensional effect when viewed through the special lens.

Each TIMEBOX places the viewer’s point of view within the perspective of the original stereograph, instigating an instant visual juxtaposition between past and present – and possibly a glimpse into the future?”

The TIMEBOX placed
The TIMEBOX on Foch St…

“Creating cultural and historical interest on the streets, TIMEBOX places each archival 3D image in its original context to provoke a sense of how Beirut’s urban public space has changed in the past century. The act of walking through the trail of 10 boxes around Beirut or simply stumbling upon a TIMEBOX, aims to reawaken our experience of Beirut’s public spaces and highlight the contrast of how it has changed.

TIMEBOX is an urban toy; a pleasant surprise; an interesting way of reconnecting with the street and with the image. Looking into the TIMEBOX, the viewer is immersed in scenes from the 1900s. One viewer with one image, an intimacy often lost in our photo-sharing world. The transparency of the media used enhances the illusion of depth but also allows a layering of past and present. An illusion and disillusion. It aims to maintain a nuanced observation rather than enchantment; it is rather a disenchantment from the collective nostalgia for the days of tramway Beirut and a realization that things have changed and are still changing.

...and how it looks like when you see through it.
…and how it looks like when you see through it.

How did it all start? “It all started in DC when I was doing an exchange program at Georgetown. We went for a field visit to the Library of Congress and to my surprise I found a beautiful street photography collection of Beirut taken by American missionaries in the early 1900s. But some of the images were very bizarre: each image comprised of 2 almost identical images stuck to each other. After some research I discovered what stereoscopy is:

“Wince left, now wince right, now do it fast. That’s what a stereographic camera does: it has two lenses that replicate your eyes, creating two images of the same scene, like this one! Your left-eye view and your right-eye view. The 2 images come together in timebox to create a 3D image. This is a 100-year old technology! Can you guess where this was taken?” (As explained on the Facebook page)

“I understood it theoretically, but it wasn’t until I tried it that I was struck by the stereoscopy bug. In Paris, 5 years later, coming out of the Dali Museum into the souvenir shop (and I hate souvenirs – this was the first one I ever bought and I bought a lot!), I found a set of glasses which revealed Dali paintings in 3D! Dali paints in 3D so imagine looking at them in physical 3D. Curious as I am, I looked into the mechanism of the glasses and they held 2 almost identical images of the same scene! Yes, as soon as I got home, I replaced Dali’s painting with the early 20th century Beirut street scene; it felt like I was walking in that street. And I wanted exactly that: to walk through 1915 Beirut. And that’s how TIMEBOX came to me: I had to place these archival stereographs where they were originally taken, in the street, for people to physically walk through 1915 Beirut. I proposed the idea to Lotfi, my brother, and he came up with the amazing TIMEBOX design, a modern Plexiglas stereoscope that latches on a street pole.”

Figuring out where the stereographs were taken was an adventure in itself. Razan explains: “Old Beirut has been effaced by so many happenings. Earthquakes, wars, urban expansion – you name it. I had to work with clues in each stereograph combined with historical research to try and locate them. I have been able to narrow down most of the images to the exact location were they were taken; others are accurate to the street or area but are general street scenes that could have taken place anywhere on that road or in that area of Beirut. The featured stereograph (above) is a good example: the biggest clue were the tramway lines..but the clue that narrowed it down was the caption of the image as documented by the American missionary who took it: “One of the modern streets of Beirut.” There were 2 “modern” streets that were paved anew at the time: Foch and Allenby. I compared it to other images and found out that this is Foch! (Yes. I had a lot of fun doing this!)


Some Key Dates

  • June 1st- 6:00PM: TIMEBOX Beirut is launching at Beirut Design Week launch party, Gold Souk, Beirut Souks. Follow a trail of footsteps from the party venue to find the first TIMEBOX location.
  • June 2nd- 12:30PM: TIMEBOX Beirut creator Razan AlSalah speaking at the Beirut Design Week International Design Conference at Cinemacity.
  • June 6th – 4:00PM: Join the artists behind TIMEBOX on a walking tour of the 10 TIMEBOXes around Beirut starting at Saifi Village Ferrari showroom.
  • TIMEBOX is running until October 1st, 2015.
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