Looking up, you see the minimalist, black-and-white facade of the D.T. restaurant, its manicured lawn dotted with wooden tables and chairs, all of them empty. Fitting your eyes to the round lenses of the transparent oblong of plastic attached to a metal pole facing the venue, you are transported back 100 years.
A three-dimensional, black-and-white view of a crowded cafe fills your vision. Mustachioed men in white shirts, some wearing bowties and smart jackets, crowd around simple white tables. In the foreground, three children are arranged in order of height, solemnly gazing at you as though afraid to move.
TIMEBOX Beirut is a trail of immersive 3-D images stretching from Hamra to Gemmayzeh, which takes viewers on a journey back in time to 1915. Ten archival stereographs from the Library of Congress in Washington and the Fouad Debbas Collection, showing street scenes taken in Beirut in the early 20th century, have been matched to the exact spot they were taken a century ago.
Media art and film student Razan AlSalah came up with the idea for TIMEBOX Beirut several years ago. While studying at Georgetown in 2008, she was exploring the Library of Congress’ archives when she came across a collection of century-old stereographs of Beirut. Unsure how a stereograph worked, she read up on the old photographic technique.
“A stereographic camera basically replicates the mechanism of your eye,” she explains. “It has two lenses. It takes the right eye view and the left eye view and create[s] two exposures, and when these two images are placed in the stereoscope they come together and make a 3-D image. It’s 100-year-old technology.”
Four years later, AlSalah was in Paris, visiting the Dali museum, when she found a pair of glasses in the gift shop that made his paintings appear three dimensional. When she got back to Lebanon, she printed out one of the stereographs she had seen at the Library of Congress and placed it into the glasses.
“I felt like I was walking in the image,” she recalls, “because that’s what a 3-D image does. It creates a spatial experience. It creates a tactile experience. I got an idea. I thought maybe people should walk through Beirut in 1915, and the only way to do that is to place these stereographs in the street, where they were originally taken.”
AlSalah asked her brother Lotfi, an architect, to help design a contemporary stereoscope that would enable people to view the photographs at the locations where they were originally taken.
“The first thing that came to my mind was to use existing structures in the street and latch onto those in order to place the stereoscopes,” Lotfi explains.
“I thought of using Plexiglas as a material for the stereoscope and from there designed the box in such a way that it’s made up of two interlocking parts that latch onto the pole and carry the images and lenses that form the stereoscope contraption.”
The transparent plastic he used to make the stereoscopes, which look a little like rectangular binoculars, helps the image come to life.
The more light that reaches the photographs, the more immersive the experience.
For the next four months, 10 of Lotfi’s unobtrusive contraptions will be clinging to signposts around town, angled in such a way that the image inside matches the viewer’s perspective of the slice of Beirut it captures 100 years later.
On Allenby Street in Downtown, right next to the high-end shopping center that has replaced the city’s old souks, the naked eye is greeted with a view of a flight of stairs beside a gleaming escalator, and a restored stone building that now houses an elite watch store.
Looking into the TIMEBOX, viewers are immersed into a different world. A father holds his young son by the hand as he leads him through an unpaved square toward the cobbled street. Nearby, two merchants lounge on huge crates beside stalls selling fruit and vegetables. The charming, ramshackle buildings of the old souk, with their arched windows and tiled porticos, meet in an L-shape, where today an escalator turns on its endless loop.
On nearby Foch Street, a vista of old taxis – with running boards, ornate lampposts and tram tracks running the length of the wide street, full of people – has been replaced with a view of imposing buildings flanking a narrower road, empty of all but valets and a queue of slow-moving traffic.
For the project, which was funded by the Heinrich Boll Foundation, Razan originally selected around 35 stereographs from the two collections. She then narrowed the selection down to 10, ensuring that existing urban infrastructure could be used to attach each stereoscope.
“First of all you’re looking for the exact location,” she says, “and secondly you’re looking to replicate the perspective of the image in the positioning of the TIMEBOX. We decided that 10 locations is good. It’s not too little and it’s not overwhelming.”
It takes roughly an hour to walk from the first to the last location on the trail, a map of which can be found on the website. Viewers are invited to share their thoughts about how the city has changed online.
“The intention is for people to be able to physically experience the change in Beirut’s urban public space is the past century, not just see it,” Razan AlSalah says. “The 3-D [technology] affects the same areas in our brain that we use to experience our real surroundings, so it has a stronger impact in terms of realizing how the urban space has changed.
“Hopefully it will create more awareness of the present urban space and [encourage people to] reconnect with the street in a new way, with a new understanding. Our behavior has changed. The people used to own the street, not just by law but by behavior. People used to walk. They walk less now.”
“It’s really up to the viewer to make his or her own judgment, based on what they feel,” Lotfi adds. “I don’t think there is a very rigid statement that the photos make. It’s just like they’re there, and this is how the street is now, and then you can make your own comparison.”