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Rebuilding Musa Dagh in Lebanon

Vartivar Jaklian has followed his muse to Anjar

December 23, 2019  |  by Creative Armenia

Vartivar Jaklian, City of

We sat down with Creative Armenia Network member, Venice-based architectural photographer, and architect Vartivar Jaklian to discuss his new project of documenting the architectural heritage of Anjar, Lebanon. 


CA: You are an architect trained at IUAV Università in Venice with work experience in design and photography. What aspects of architecture do you explore in your photography? Does photography help in design or vice versa? 

VJ: The photographic and documentation work I conduct focuses predominantly on areas touched by political or social conflicts. Both my Armenian origin and Lebanese background have contributed to the preference of such architectural projects or urbanscapes. The war-torn image of Beirut of the 1990s, our collective memory of our Armenian past, are a few of the elements which have shaped my thinking and interests. Inevitably all of these are reflected in my work.  

Architectural photography is a very unique branch of photography. Most architectural photographers are trained architects who later specialize in photography. Being a practicing architect allows me to see beyond the graphical composition of an image—it allows me to read the building or the built environment. It is an extremely precise instrument to analyze the urban landscape—something which a good architect usually does prior to designing.

CA: You have documented several urban and architectural projects, among which are the Sanjak Armenian refugee camp in Beirut and Oscar Niemeyer’s International Fair in Tripoli. Tell us more about these projects and how the ideas were conceived.   

VJ: The Sanjak refugee camp, built in the late 1930s, was the last of the many Armenian camps located in the Northern Beirut. My intention was to photograph and document the built environment in which Armenians started a new life. Sanjak camp was among the places I wanted to photograph and I managed to photograph it in two sessions—one in 2009 and another in 2012. Unfortunately, the camp has been completely demolished in recent years to make way for a real estate speculation and the Armenian authorities did not realize the importance of this place for the collective memory of Armenians not only in Lebanon but worldwide. To explain this, I would like to quote an Armenian lady who recently contacted me and wrote the following, “I found your images whilst trying to find information on Sanjak Camp. My Grandmother and mother lived there after leaving Iskandar in the 1930s-50s. Just trying to put pieces of my family history together. We haven't lived in Lebanon since 1968... Anyway, your photos capture what I had thought the places looked like. They are very moving. I read that the area is going to have a new building complex. I hope they at least leave some remnants or tangible access to history. Thank you.”

Unfortunately, no trace of the camp was left. 

Niemeyer's Tripoli Fair is quite a unique project for Lebanon. It is probably the only project built by an international master architect of the 20th century. The Fair was conceived in the early 1960s. The design was complex—building the curved pavilions in concrete was not a simple task for the local contractors. Works got delayed and by the time the Lebanese Civil War started, only part of the project was built and to this day, it remains incomplete. In 2007 and 2011, during two visits, I was able to get a permit and managed to photograph the project.

CA: You identify yourself as Italian-Lebanese of Armenian origin and of “plural identity.”  How does the plural identity affect your work in architecture? 

VJ: I arrived quite young in Venice, therefore, my cultural and professional formation is Italian. I remain, however, strongly connected to both my Lebanese background and Armenian origin. This helps me bring the knowledge acquired in Italy to projects like the ones mentioned above. The concept of documentary work is something little known in the Middle East. This is mainly because little value is attributed to the architectural and artistic heritage, therefore the need to preserve and document them is not felt. Projects like the ones mentioned above also aim at raising awareness about the need to document one's cultural heritage.  

CA: Let’s talk about your new project, Anjar 1939-2019, Rebuilding Musa Dagh in Lebanon, which records the architectural legacy of the town Anjar in Lebanon. How did you come across the idea? What were the challenges along the way?


VJ: A few years ago, together with architect and filmmaker Hossep Baboyan, we discussed the idea of starting a series of documentary projects about architecture involving the Armenian community in Lebanon. The idea was to merge our specializations and together conceive a photographic project and a documentary film around a single Armenian subject. We thought that combining our two lenses would allow us to narrate a more comprehensive story of the chosen subject, whether that was a building or an entire town. Hossep proposed Anjar as a pilot project. Architecturally speaking, it is unique as it represents the only example of a New Town in the country. Furthermore, Anjar is a positive example of refugee-crisis handling in times when, closure rather than inclusion, has become part of the shameless propaganda of today’s political discourse. We decided to produce a photographic book and a film mainly to document the architectural history and reality of Anjar. We also approached Susan Paul Pattie, a cultural anthropologist who researches and writes about Armenians in the diaspora. Susan contributed with a beautiful piece about the notion of forming communities of Armenians in the diaspora, something which we felt would constitute an important opening for a book on a town where re-forming communities was one of the major generators of its master plan. Susan’s forward is a great addition to the book.

The biggest challenge for non-commercial projects like this is funding. For the first few years, we self-financed the project but fortunately, we were later able to get some financial help and secured the printing costs of the book and the production of the DVD but we are finding it difficult to convey to Armenians about the importance of recording their past and present. We have lived in Cilicia for centuries but little documentation remains about our cities, our built environment. The importance of our work is not necessarily crucial for the present generation but it will be for future ones. 

CA: The trailer of your documentary film seems to present a solitary and abandoned town. Is that how you want to portray it or is this an objective view from a distance? 

VJ: Throughout its history, the town of Anjar faced different waves of demographic changes that affected its social and economic life. Usually, most of the town’s neighborhoods are residential hence quite tranquil. The city plan was conceived with agriculture at its epicenter. This led the division of the estate into an urbanized area and agricultural lands. Most of its commercial activities occur along one street leaving plenty of residential space immersed in lush greenery. This could easily give an initial impression of an abandoned space until one is welcomed into the vibrant inner social life, usually not visible to an occasional passer-by. This impression becomes even more pronounced during the town’s cold winters and dry hot summers. 

Regardless of this, the main aim of both the film and the photographs was capturing the pure architectural ethos of the city. This led Hossep sometimes to totally isolate buildings as the main subject of a scene, particularly evident in the scenes with the French Houses. Unfortunately, many of the remaining examples have already been lying scattered like relics around the town. It is, however, true that for the purpose of this work, in many scenes, Hossep chose to isolate the built environment using nature’s sounds as the sole background.

CA: We know that you have launched a crowdfunding campaign to take Anjar 1939-2019, Rebuilding Musa Dagh in Lebanon to its next step. Until when can people back up the project? 

VJ: Unfortunately, we were only able to partially fund the project but we decided to go ahead anyway. We had secured enough funds to print the book and produce the DVD, but we still need to cover production costs and expenses for the years’ work. This is why we created a crowdfunding campaign explaining the project through a video. We are preselling the book and the DVD hoping we can cover some of our initial costs. We have also created rewards including original silver prints—high quality black and white photographs that last a lifetime—which could be purchased at a reduced price only during this campaign. The campaign is up and running on Kickstarter and you will be able to back it until January 15, 2020. The book will be published by Hatje Cantz, one of the best international publishers in Germany and will be distributed in forty countries. It is produced with the highest standards of printing. We hope you will like it as much as we do. 

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