Melissa Hope Matlins

Activating the Landscape
September 26, 2007, 7:02 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Middle East, Travel, Urbanism

Architects like the term activation. It makes them feel like putting up buildings, which essentially create permanent boundaries, maybe isn’t such a static, heavy sort of enterprise.

Jerusalem can be a heavy place. It is architecture heavy. Lots of stone, lots of people worshipping stone. What a delight to happen upon the Soundscapes exhibit at the Tower of David Museum one evening. I was able to observe and learn a lot about what activation really means in an architectural context, and in a museum context.


An entire automated orchestra is installed in the courtyard of this ancient citadel. Moving prongs pluck a harp, wired sticks beat on drums, and 15 foot high guitar strings reverberate in arched doorways. The space was truly activated, with both adults running about like children to observe the mechanical instruments at work. It was a welcome respite from all of the heavy sightseeing we did that day.


The colored lights that accompanied the music meshed beautifully with the city landscape, visible from the ramparts of the Citadel.

More information on the Soundscapes exhibit available at: Design Interact


The City We Choose To See
September 25, 2007, 12:31 am
Filed under: Architecture, Middle East, Travel, Urbanism

As important as it is to observe the architecture that a city chooses to build, it is equally important to observe the architecture that a city chooses to see. After visiting Beirut, and returning to New York City on the eve of September 11th, I realized that both cities have a few architectural ‘elephants in the room’ that natives don’t seem to be seeing.
The relics and remainders of Lebanon’s seemingly endless civil war would seem to be the most obvious. My hotel room in Beirut boasted both a lovely view of the coastline and port, and a more ominous view of a few destroyed skyscrapers, former hotels that were bombed into oblivion by competing factions in 1987. Twenty years on, enterprising Beirutis have reconstructed the adjacent beach club, which thrums with techno music all weekend long. The legal issues of responsibility for the cleanup, and ownership, are too complicated to wrangle, they say, and so the shell building continues to blight an otherwise lovely coastline.

After taking a few pictures from the street, we are shooed away by people that I assume are police officers. They lack uniforms, but do not lack automatic rifles. No pictures here. Noted. Don’t they know that we can survey the scene quite clearly from our hotel, and from the swank new Intercontinental Hotel across the street?

After twenty years of looking at these buildings, however, have they started to look normal? An entire generation of Lebanese are unaccustomed to the hotels looking any other way. Call it willful ignorance, or at worst a coping strategy, but, if acknowledged at all, they are generally perceived as a bit of a downer. The desire for reconstruction again stalled by fears of unrest, in another twenty years they may just melt into the sea.

I retained a rather judgmental attitude towards Beirut and its white elephants until I read a short piece in The Architect’s Newspaper on the woes of 130 Liberty Street, the former Deutsche Bank building, near the Ground Zero site. After the destruction of the World Trade Center towers nearby, this severely damaged skyscraper is being slowly deconstructed. A recent fire in the empty building claimed the lives of two firefighters, tragedy on tragedy, and work has halted to determine who is to blame. In the interim, 130 Liberty Street will remain shrouded, as it has been for the past six years. Meanwhile, the latest round of plans for the Ground Zero site have been released, and it warrants hardly a whisper among friends, some of them architects. Even New York City has its white elephants. I flash forward to a future, only ten years on perhaps. Wrangling continues at Ground Zero while adjacent areas, such as Battery Park City, forge on with their brash optimism, boasting expansive parkland and luxury green buildings with “city views” that include the stagnated site. I think of Beirut and somehow their willful ignorance of the destruction around them doesn’t seem so antiquated, or even so Middle Eastern. Maybe we all only see the city that we choose to see. There I was taking photographs of the destroyed, abandoned buildings of Beirut, and I have yet to take one picture of 130 Liberty Street, or Ground Zero, my own backyard.

(picture above: Matt Chaban for The Architect’s Newspaper)

Gone Swimming
September 16, 2007, 6:46 pm
Filed under: Middle East, Travel, Urbanism

It’s funny how something as simple as swimming can really shed some light on a culture. In Beirut, we stayed at a perfectly lovely boutique style hotel. But the hotel pool, we were told, was “under renovation,” although it appeared from the view out of our hallway window that for all intents and purposes the construction of this pool had been halted.


It was August, and it was hot, so we figured the least we could do is watch other people swim. As we walked along the promenade by the sea, we observed two types of swimmers, those with plentiful resources, and those without.


Expensive beach clubs along the shoreline feature large pools, thumping techno music and women in bikinis. Not to mention that this particular club was ringed by some of the largest concrete bollards I had ever seen. I don’t think that they have a problem with shoreline erosion here, so I can only think that they must be expecting a pretty significant invasion by sea. But for now the party continues.


Most Beirutis were hanging out on the natural rock formations below the promenade, fishing, getting some sun, or daring each other to jump from rocks that are too high into water that is too shallow. By most Beirutis I mean men. The few women I saw out and about were sweltering in burkas on the shade free walkway.


Towards the end of the route, the promenade, which was mostly rock and sand to begin with, became entirely sand and a bit difficult to slog through. Nature seems to have reclaimed the shoreline of this part of the city, at least temporarily. At dusk, the view of the half-built skyline is  spectacular.

Beirut Recycles
September 15, 2007, 6:34 pm
Filed under: Green, Middle East, Sustainability, Urbanism


Dear New York City, Why can’t you be more like Beirut?

Their municipal infrastructure has been severely crippled by over 20 years of civil war, but the Lebanese people have their priorities straight. These jumbo-size recycling cans on the street where one of the first things we saw on our walk through Beirut.

Beautiful Children
September 5, 2007, 7:22 pm
Filed under: Middle East, Travel, Urbanism


A proposed solution for peace in the Middle East, discovered on a wall near Dizengoff Circle in Tel Aviv. This simple sentiment reflects a central problem of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the larger web of sectarian conflicts in the region (well-described in Tom Friedman’s New York Times editorial today) change won’t happen as long as each faction hates the other more than they love their own children.

A place of wonderment, spiritual enlightenment, natural beauty, vitality and dynamism, I found the Middle East to be practically everything but peaceful! More to come on my travels.