Interview: Ayssar Arida - An Edge is Not a Border

  • press cuttingpress book2004.05Podroom, Sarajevo, BHwith Maja Lovrenovic
    interview, Ayssar Arida


    interviewed by Maja Lovrenovic
    1st published in Shizofrenia Culturalis, in Podroom, Sarajevo, Issue 1, May 2004.


    Actively entering the language and concepts of contemporary physics in his first book Quantum City , Lebanese urban designer Ayssar Arida defines a new language for the development of theories for the twenty-first century city, offering a metaphor of far-reaching implications. Elaborating the metaphor on problems of urban design in meeting the realities of urban organism, he leaves it open to other entrances into the organic worldview .

    Podroom: You have recently returned to London from Lebanon, your home city Beirut. The whole world is watching news about the Middle East, the current war on terrorism and everyday violences, but there are seldom news about the strains imposed by those on the old Levantine world that lays beneath the journalist label ‘Middle East', already shattered by decades of wars and destruction. What are the implications of this for Lebanon and Beirut?

    Arida: It's an interesting question to raise, and it is one that is difficult to answer objectively. I guess like many people in the ME - sounds like Middle Earth, doesn't it - I find myself torn between anger and fatalism. The question is, how does one relate the media coverage, the current situation on the ground, and ones own experiences past. I grew up in Lebanon, in a war-torn environment that permitted nevertheless moments of great peace and happiness, even a relatively good education, and at many levels, a ‘normal' childhood. My family was lucky not to have lost any of its members, in spite of involvement in some of the political, journalistic and military events. This was thanks to one crucial factor: the relative freedom of movement that we had, allowing us to flee problem zones or even leave the country whenever things were too dangerous. If we hadn't had that choice - we moved between more than nine localities in the fifteen years of war - I think we would have had a much more bleak experience of those events. I am raising this issue of freedom of movement, because today you watch the events in the Occupied Territories, and you realise that whatever you think, however horrific and murderous a suicide bomber is, nothing is more horrific than a whole population confined to a few meters square of ever-shrinking land, constantly in danger, with no outlet, no education, no economy, nothing. A wall twice the height of the Berlin wall is slowly encompassing these people, squeezing them in, while their very life space is being reduced daily, either through buildings being bulldozed or imposed curfews, even their cultural history is being eradicated. It is a shame, a real shame, that the so-called Western world is unable to intervene more forcefully to make a change in the Occupied Territories before things are absolutely irreversible. I do not want this discussion to turn into politics, but I am talking from a purely humanistic point of view. Forget that I am Lebanese, and from the Middle East, and that I am expected - that most ridiculous and hypocritical concept of all - to feel solidarity with the Palestinians because they are fellow ‘Arabs'. I grew up during a war that almost wiped out my country, and where those same Palestinians lead by Yasser Arafat and others played a very destructive part, along with the Israelis, the Syrians, the Iranians, or the Americans, in addition to all the different Lebanese factions. If we are unable to feel solidarity with the Palestinians because they are fellow ‘Humans' first and foremost, then there is no way we can advance the state of the world. The problem is, it is almost impossible to even come close to comprehending their experience without having lived anything similar. It is fascinating that perhaps the only people who should be able to understand it is the Jews that have survived the horrors of history, yet today we have people like Ariel Sharon totally destroying all the moral bases of the Israeli state, and others, like religious fundamentalists - from Bin Laden to Bush, revelling in a worldview where you have to be “either with us or against us”.

    The simple fact is, the world is going through another Dark Age, where there is no room for dissent, and where we are in the middle of a religious war between the zealots of all three monotheistic religions: the Christian empire, now represented by Mr Bush, who proudly proclaimed a ‘crusade' on terror, the Ultra-Orthodox Jewry strongly influencing the Israeli government, and of course Fundamental Islamists, an entity impossible to reduce to a single person. This is perhaps part of the cycles of history, but the result is, to use your word, immense schizophrenia at all levels of the different cultures and peoples involved. The USA claims democracy and freedom, yet the perception is all but that. The Jewish Diaspora claims some of the most influential and enlightened, and secular people in the world, yet here is the perception that they are helpless to make any change. And then you have the Muslim world, which is far from being the homogenous simplified world that Mr Bush needs his electorate to believe, being given every excuse in the world to turn to Fundamentalists. Look at the Arab world alone: there were historically three people with extremely high national pride and secular values, the highest number of higher degrees per capita in the world, and an unbridled cosmopolitism: the Lebanese, the Palestinians, and the Iraqis. Instead of preserving these values, everything has been done to reduce them to irrelevance.

    Lebanon has theoretically finished its ‘war' more than 12 years ago, but the regional instability, the different waves of influence continue to affect its day-to-day running. There is like a heaviness in the air that people seem to be in constant denial about. Beirut is perhaps the queen of denial when it comes to the reality of things. If you visit it today, you will see the incredible vibrancy of a city in continuous physical growth. But in fact, this growth is endlessly suspended by economic and political factors, while human growth - in numbers and in ideas - is, well, negative: more than 33 percent of the population, mostly 18-35 year-olds, have left the country in the last 10 years in search for better prospects. What is left is a volatile mixture of nouveau-riche kids and extremely poor families, vying for co-existence on the same few square kilometres, and ending up in mutually exclusive ghettos, one getting more and more secularized, the other more and more religious. The Lebanese party twentyfour hours a day, seven days a week, and Beirut is conspicuous consumption central. It all makes for an incredibly exciting environment, but I fear that the distance I have taken in the last couple of years has heightened my worries that it is all hot air.

    I must admit, you caught me in a vulnerable state, my general optimism is a bit dented these days - but if we move on to another subject, I am sure we will start to see some hints at a more constructive attitude.

    Podroom: Your Beirut - Oxford experiences seem crucial in becoming an architect and later formulating concepts you develop in Quantum City . In the introduction, you write: “I thought the order of things here would teach me how to ‘fix' the chaos in my home country.” That was the beginning of your Quantum City journey. What happened?

    Arida: You mean my becoming an urban designer. I had chosen to be an architect for very different reasons. But it is true, trained as an architect, I naively did believe the problem with Beirut was its ‘untidiness' of sorts, and that aligning its buildings up would really solve its problems. Don't forget that like many developing countries, particularly ex-colonial ones, we were raised to think of places such as the Hausmanian streets of Paris as the ultimate in urban planning beauty and perfection, not to mention the romantic reminiscence of the French period streets of the Beirut city centre destroyed during the war. Mind you, these streets have been refurbished since the end of the war, and they cannot claim half the vibrancy of the other - chaotic streets of Beirut.

    In a way I was lucky to be finishing my architecture studies in the early 1990s just as the war was ending and the reconstruction debate was raging. It created a very powerful awareness in me towards the importance of urban identity and the link between culture and architecture. Watching your hometown being destroyed creates an incredible link between you and the place - you can feel that organic relationship whenever you talk to any Beiruti who was there during the three-month Israeli bombardment and siege of 1982. The post-war ‘reconstruction' recreated this same danger, only without human casualties.

    Unfortunately, things moved way too quickly for us fresh graduates to make any real difference, and I had to go through the first few years of my career as an architect with increased numbness, until I finally decided that going for a Masters in urban design in Oxford would do the trick in providing me with new weapons with which to fight the reconstruction war. Bizarrely, I found that the educational system was even more out of touch with reality than I imagined, and that whatever skills we were taught were in fact useless in dealing with the complexity of the issues I hoped to understand. I am sure it is a very common disillusionment process for those of us who think they have an ambition that goes beyond a mere commercial career. As I write in the introduction to Quantum City , I felt literally betrayed - both by that western education system I was raised to idolise, and by the very conceptual language I had been learning throughout the years since I started studying architecture and urbanism. Of course missing my friends in Beirut while being stuck in an empty Oxford during the holidays did nothing to appease my feeling of betrayal - but it reminded me how personal and how subjective the real experience of urbanity could be.

    It was by pure hazard that I started reading at that point a book called Great Ideas in Physics by a wonderful writer called Alan Lightman, more famous for his best seller Einstein's Dreams , and where I discovered the amazing concepts of quantum physics, and the conceptual revolution they caused in the world of science. It was fascinating in its transformation of the worldview from an object-based one to a relationship-based one, and allowed for the co-existence of so many seemingly incompatible realities. The philosophical and theoretical implications were many, and I delved more and more into the accounts and different interpretations of the ‘new sciences' and their effect on our relationship with information.

    It wasn't long until I realised that here was the key to a fantastic upheaval in the world of urbanism and other disciplines related to the city, and I discovered with great enthusiasm that effectively, every single person who has learnt about the subject reacted with a similar sense of enlightenment. It literally felt as if a new world of possibilities, a new language, a new culture had opened itself to me - it is no wonder some people saw parallels between quantum concepts and eastern philosophy!

    Podroom: You mention the betrayal of conceptual language offered through present day institutional educational system. It is interesting to notice that similar problems with our current conceptual languages arise in other areas too; for example, if one tries to approach the Bosnian-Herzegovinan cultural and historical heritage as a whole, the current conceptual languages say it is several different, separate cultures, ‘entities', meeting on a ‘crossroads od civilizations'. However, if one takes a closer look at the artefacts of these separate ‘entities', monuments and especially historical urban structures themselves, it is noticable that they ‘communicate' with each other on various levels, through form and structure, and even through time, and it becomes almost impossible to fully comprehend the one without knowing and the existance of the other. This problem is exactly what got me interested in the possibility of the new conceptual language you are suggesting in Quantum City , especially shifting the view from an object-based one to the relationship-based one. Twentieth century physics suggests that such a shift is not only a philosophical matter of metaphysics. Could you, please, explain more?

    Arida: You have put your finger on the most extraordinary aspect of the ‘new physics'. It is effectively this re-discovery of interactive relationship as the basis of all existence. You see, ever since Galileo, Descartes and Newton triggered what I call the Objective Revolution in science around the 17 th century, the western world was set on a course of fantastic technological advances that nevertheless left it philosophically, spiritually, and ecologically drained by the end of the 20 th century.

    At the heart of objective science was the need to simplify the world, to throw out any quality that is not quantifiable or measurable, as irrelevant to knowledge. In other words, sight, sound, taste, touch and smell, as well as emotions, intentions, soul, consciousness, sentiments and beliefs, even aesthetical sensibility and value, culture and identity - all become taboo subjects that science cannot breach. The result is a world where human experience cannot be trusted, where only scientific experiment sets the validity of any opinion.

    Scientific experiment in turn required the breaking down of problems into smaller, more manageable pieces, which eventually lead to the ever-atomization of disciplines into more and more mutually exclusive expertises… which brings us back to your question. Because every different discipline, whether it's in art or in science, is a different culture with its own language that no other discipline would understand. Add to this the competitive territoriality of those involved in each expertise, and you can get a pretty grim idea as to how ineffective we had been at putting back the pieces together and finding truly comprehensive solutions.

    What is clear is that our educational systems, our culture itself, has been very strongly influenced by our scientific knowledge. This is nothing new, every thing we had ever done, written, designed, or even made, had been a more or less direct translation of our worldview. I like to believe that the Objective Revolution, which created a mechanical worldview, was but a parenthesis that is almost closed, thanks to the upheavals in the world of knowledge that happened throughout the last century.

    Einstein's Relativity theory, Quantum physics, chaos and complexity theory, fractal geometry, DNA research, the new science of emergence, etc., have unveiled a world of much higher complexity and dynamism than we had been lead to believe for more than 300 years! Perhaps the most extraordinary of these discoveries was that the world inside the atom - the building blocks of our universe - is not even made up of quantifiable objects. According to quantum physics, which is the study of the subatomic world born in the 1930s, down there, at the very heart of matter, nothing exists! Instead, there are tendencies for things to exist. Instead of finite objects to measure, there are only complex side effects of interactions between potential particles and their potentiality waves.

    One of the interpretations of the discoveries of quantum physics is that reality itself does not exist but through the interaction with the mind of the observer - in other words, objective reality is meaningless without the subject: the single most important caveat of the Objective Revolution is destroyed! Chassez le naturel, il revient au gallop : the Subjective Revolution in science was triggered by the recognition that mind and matter are one, in spite of what Descartes postulated.

    The history of scientific ideas and their philosophical implications is a fascinating journey by itself, but the bottom line is that today we can claim that what I call the quantum worldview, replacing the mechanical worldview, can help trigger a much needed revolution, particularly in education, in analysis and in cultural production.

    The quantum worldview has dawned, yet our education is still lagging behind. I believe the way to help things change is to develop a new conceptual language that can bridge the gap between the different relevant disciplines. I mean, look at you and I now, if we didn't both speak English, we wouldn't be able to converse here and share ideas. Your points about history and mine about urbanism, or about science, would not have been able to meet.

    In Quantum City , which I wrote as a reaction to the limitations of our current technical and conceptual languages to meet with the complexities of reality, I tried to develop such a language. A meta-language, or a background metaphor that can be generic enough yet potent enough to be adapted to almost any discipline or any scale. By extending our conceptual vocabulary, it becomes easier to communicate our most intrinsic insights, which are, more often than not, the most real, because they represent our human experience. For example, instead of failing to frame hybridity as a form of identity, by using the new language we can begin to better comprehend complex, emergent identities that are more than a simple juxtaposition of diverse identities. The reality of such concepts becomes second nature, because we can now feel secure that if we need to express them, we actually can do it.

    I believe that anyone who learns about the incredible new way of seeing the world that quantum theory has introduced will be equally shaken. The last thing this world needs is another religion, but there is something extraordinary about the new knowledge that makes you feel like you've just had an epiphany you want to share with as many people as possible, as if you wanted to ‘spread the word'. I challenge anyone to read about it and not feel a sense of enlightenment - and of betrayal of the sort we were discussing: why haven't we ever been told about this before! The new language like any knowledge is empowering and inspiring, and that is why I believe it can make a radical change in our understanding of ourselves in this world.

    Podroom: In Quantum City , among other most interesting terms of the new conceptual language you propose is the threshold generation , and also diventity . What would diventity be in light of the new knowledge base that has already become a part of our everyday lives? Is threshold generation a new one that has to claim its worldview based on its own experiences of this new knowledge?

    Arida: Our system is constantly bombarded by information from the outside world, our internal world, and the virtual world in the form of spaces, architectures, shapes, colours, smells, sounds, media, the internet, social relations, political propaganda, personal beliefs, our subconscious and so on. In this world of noise, we need to be able to recognise identity even in the most hybrid of information. Unfortunately, and largely due to the mechanical paradigm we were talking about earlier, our education and our conceptual languages force us to create Either/Or categories for these sets of data. This clashes with our most intuitive recognition that the world is not only not black or white, but is much more than shades of grey, even much more than mere colour, and this clash in turn leaves us in a perpetual malaise and crisis of identity - and identification.

    I coined the term diventity to refer to that nameless quality that allows certain information to be recognised in all its Both/And glory. Diventity links the concepts of identity, diversity and density into one construct. Here's how it works: as human beings, the need for a sense of identity, whether individual or group identity, is crucial. We also like to recognise identity in places, or in social patterns. Yet my own identity can only develop in relationship to the other - to other identities. So identity is meaningless without diversity. Now diversity is about more than one different identities being near enough to be able to interact.

    What I mean by ‘near enough' is not necessarily purely geographical. In keeping with a worldview where society-space-time is one continuum of interaction between events and identities, then, this proximity can either happen through a physical (geographical) proximity; or temporal proximity (for example two events/cultures/identities succeeding each other on the same geographic area); it can be a social proximity, where a minimum of human interaction is necessary; or even, in our current interconnected world, a virtual proximity: where interaction can happen independently from space-time and geography, through information stored or shared over the internet for example.

    This is measured by density: in low densities, identities are too far apart, they cannot interact, cannot form a relationship of diversity, and eventually they wane out and become meaningless. In too high densities, the different identities are ‘too close for comfort', and the vital space for each identity is endangered by the other, leading either to clashes or to complete assimilation/dilution of one identity into another, so again, the risk of obliteration of some or all of those identities.

    Somewhere in the middle is an optimal density that is relative to every context in space, time, and society, that would allow the different identities to co-exist and thrive in a constant dynamic that is beneficial for all. When that optimal density is reached, and a new identity emerges from this new system, then that system has diventity. The new emergent identity can then in turn form relations of diversity with other identities, leading to another layer of diventity and so on. So, diventity is that quality that allows the continuous emergence of identity from optimal densities of diversity.

    Diventity a powerful new construct that is generic and scalable enough to allow comparative studies of otherwise seemingly unrelated systems and aspects, such as a particular environment, geography, demographics, a series of events, aesthetics, socio-economic class, ethnicity, volume, patterns, sensorial stimulus, function, landscape, morphology, meaning, typology, texture, language, politics, choice etc. Let me frame this in a few examples that show the powerful scope of such a concept.

    When diverse musical notes (each its own identity) are set up in such a way as to become more than mere cacophony, we can speak of a musical arrangement (an emergent identity). Let's say this arrangement is played by a guitar, so it's the ‘guitar' track, with its own identity. Confront this identity to the tracks of the ‘bass', the ‘drums', the ‘horns', and the ‘voice' of a singer, and a new identity emerges: the ‘song'. If the product of a music band is recognizable as a ‘song', then that band has diventity. A symphony is the emergent identity of a composition with diventity. A composition without diventity produces a cacophony that cannot be recognized as ‘music'.

    The European Union is a new identity emerging from the diverse identities of its constituent nations: it has diventity that it is trying to sustain. The former Yugoslavia was based on an ethnic and cultural diventity that was difficult to sustain, so the system blew apart into its constituents, which are now trying hard to redefine each their own lower level diventity. Similarly, my own country Lebanon has had uneven successes with its confessional diventity (eighteen different confessions on 10,000 square kilometers, that is quite a density!), yet that is what came to give it its demographic identity, while its geographic diventity (a highly diverse topography and ecosystem on the same 10,000 square kilometers) gave it its territorial identity. The uniqueness in the context of the Middle East of these demographic and territorial identities born in diventity, gave Lebanon its national identity.

    A jungle is a system with diventity based on a certain density of diverse species that make up its fauna and flora; it is precisely that density and diversity that differentiates it from a forest. An ecosystem can only thrive if it has diventity; an economic system cannot function without a dense presence of diverse capitals. While many small towns or suburbia might look or feel the same, it is rare for two major cities to have similar identities.

    You can probably think up a hundred other examples where such a simple yet powerful concept can help better understand and describe the world around us. I have successfully used it in Quantum City to develop a whole new way for dealing with hybrid living environments, starting from the simple basic caveat that any intervention in the city should be targeted at developing and sustaining diventity. I can easily imagine it adapted to art history or politics or even ecology in a way that would lead to wholly new solutions.

    As for the threshold generation , it refers to what I perceive to be the current generation of 30 and 40-something year-olds that are taking over positions of responsibility and power. This is the generation that grew up during the development of the major technologies and media that shape our information paradigm today and that has experienced life without them: TV, video games, the PC and the internet, the Hubble space telescope, the wireless networks, etc.

    You know, the ever increasing amount of knowledge is nothing new, it has been happening for millennia. What is unique about the world we live in today, is the immediacy and the accessibility of this knowledge. While previous generations needed the input of their parents or ancestors to sustain a continued transmission of information, today I can connect to an incredible database of knowledge through my internet enabled mobile phone and download any information I need. I might be giving a talk at university and a young member of the audience would connect through a wireless hotspot to the internet and check or challenge the knowledge I am trying to share with him or her…

    To paraphrase A. N. Whitehead, we are the first generation in human history where our own access to practical knowledge can bypass the wisdom of our parents. This is the last generation of the old paradigm and the first generation of the new paradigm. This is the one theme that is common across every discipline of our arts and sciences: the threshold generation is taking over. It is its role and responsibility to actively understand, teach and apply the relational language of the quantum paradigm, so we can bridge the gap between the old and the new worldviews, and between our different cultures and disciplines. We can either give in to the “you're either with us or against us” vision of the world, or develop a conciliatory, productive, and most importantly, creative attitude. It is the only way forward.

    Podroom: How can this shift from Either/Or thinking to Both/And thinking affect politics and social life? Also, how would you answer to possible critics who would argue that this Both/And paradigm would be just another relativism. For example: can we say “Auschwitz both happened and didn't happen”?

    Arida: It is quite clear that such a way of thinking is one of the most crucial keys to a more conciliatory approach to politics and concepts of identity and nationalism. The Both/And logic is based on complementarity, in other words, on the acceptance of the Other as not only Different, but also, and this is the key - as Essential to the very definition of my own difference. And I am not talking here about mutual exclusivism, i.e. the typical solution that has created more issues than it has solved, of active multi-culturalism, which, although good intentioned, is little more than a ghettoization of cultures. I am talking about a middle ground between the so-called melting pot, and the so-called mosaic of cultures. It is one that is much more nuanced, and much more dynamic.

    As for the issue of relativism, well, I think Einstein's relativity theory was at one point misquoted as an excuse to revive relativism. In reality, relativity theory has nothing to do with that, and even less does quantum theory, and thus I hope it will not also be used to excuse relativism.

    The crucial nuance here is that while relativism seems to imply that ‘since every thing is relative, then all truth is valid', the quantum metaphor says: ‘every bit of information is relative, thus no single truth is enough to understand the whole picture'. So, to use your example, of course Auschwitz both happened and did not happen: for some it happened and is accepted as truth and lived as truth, for others, whether through denial or sheer bad intentions, it did not happen. The quantum metaphor says, instead of adding a mutually exclusive layer of morality on top of this sentence, we must try to accept that these two visions co-exist, and try to understand the reason behind the two visions, not simply shrug one away as irrelevant - or irreverend.

    In the new paradigm, reality - truth - itself is put in doubt, and what becomes more important is the actions and interactions of events. So perception is more important than reality in that perception in the end is what drives our actions: I can sit here and shout for ages that Auschwitz did happen, this will not stop anti-Semites from continuing their actions in any way. Similarly, Bush can claim a million times that he has liberated Iraq and brought freedom and peace to its people, on the ground every single Arab will still think of him as a butcher and an invador. Perception is everything, and you can only affect that by changing the way we see the world. It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who once said, if I remember well, “change the way people think, and things will never be the same again”. It is time to change the way we think.






    Ayssar Arida is an architect, urban designer, writer and entrepreneur based in London, where he runs multi-disciplinary consultancy Q-DAR LTD. He is currently preparing a second book, Quantum Environments: Architecture in the New Paradigm for Birkhauser/Testo&Immagine, the “IT Revolution in Architecture” series. He is available for comments/discussion/etc., at .


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