The Silent Room is a site of absence located within the contemporary city. It is designed to be a functional part of the city, existing alongside shops, market places, office buildings, construction sites, traffic. It offers an experience that contrasts with its surroundings and responds to the emotional conditions produced by them.
To be in the city is to be the centre of an unceasing flow of information; whether as worker, shopper, tourist or street-dweller, you are the point at which a vast number of data-rich networks continually intersect. You are subject to a sensory experience that as well as being vibrant, diverse and humanly expressive, can contain elements of overabundance, manipulation, and even violence. It has also been shown that if you’re at the bottom of the economic scale, you’re more likely to feel the worst effects of this inundation: the city’s poorest people live in its most densely populated areas, close to the constant assault of motorways, airports and industry.
The Silent Room proposes a space, available to all, in which the quantity of information present in the city is radically reduced. It frees you to hear, see and touch in a context of extreme spareness. As you enter the Silent Room, you leave the city behind and are returned to yourself.
Future iterations of the Silent Room are to be installed in places of the greatest public accessibility and need. This includes neighborhoods afflicted by excessive noise pollution and currently lacking in spaces of privacy and quiet, and at sites of conflict and trauma.
The Silent room v.02 will be representing Lebanon at the London Design Biennale 2018 at the Somerset House starting the 4th of September.
by Paul Genders
The city is a construction site.
In the narrow street that will soon come to life as a flower market, this cramped gully of convenience stores and hair salons, all-night dens and 24-hour kebabberies, they are setting up their stalls. The flower sellers are blunting the metal frames along the pavement, talking between themselves entirely in urgent instructions, affectionate obscenities. A sweating, overloaded van passes, the driver beating without limit on the horn, lets out of the window an expression too loud to be understood. Tarpaulins are flung into the air, the wind booming inside the stretched sails. A busker claims his pitch beside a pallet of bellowing tulips, sets down his collection box, and, in dusty tuxedo and tap shoes, begins his rendition. You check the minutes, three, four: not a note from him, not a motion. The coins splash at his feet.
The city is a river.
The police sirens wake you from the fathomless sleep that lasted all of a microsecond; they aren’t in pursuit of anyone: they’re simply adding their own brash instrumentation to the carousel, whistling themselves into the fairground that never closes. None of the other passengers bothers turning to look: they’re taken by the blitzkreig flickering through the amplifiers in their ears. Or they’re mid-conversation, mid-performance-of-a-lifetime, making heroes of themselves by cellphone, trashing bosses and boyfriends and the world that’s stacked against them. Or they’re reinventing language, reinventing the self, taking a flint to grammar, to the notion of a settled identity, smashing everything into the jumble, the babble, the numberless tongues of an inescapably private dialogue. You steal another nanosecond in deep space, country without words . . .
The city is a slogan.
This is where they’ve marched to. The plaza erected in tribute to the most famous of national victories. At its four corners: a warrior, an emperor, a beast, and an absence. With their banners and chants steaming above, they’ve spread through the marbled corridors of the city to arrive here. The helicopters have shepherded them; the droning cameras have them intimately surveilled, X-rayed. A mood of festivity: garlands of paper carnations are draped around the unblinking General; the King is being spattered with clothes and accessories, dragged up into clown mode; a girl has mounted the lion and is throwing pamphlets like bonbons to the crowd. At the fourth corner, though, is a void. Here the bustle comes to a stop, no one clambers on to the empty platform; instead they stand and look, a column of hush rising into the afternoon. The banners – you realise – read We Have Nothing to Say and We’re Saying it. The pamphlets are headlined Demand the Impossible – Be Quiet . . .
The city is for sale.
A tide of pressure washer and scooter engine. A trillion bottles emptied into the steel drum of the recycling truck. The street-cleaning robots set their brooms against the day’s disjecta, memories of transactions that will be repeated, in every detail, tomorrow. More styrofoam scented with arabica, more poultry femurs tossed away as if piranha-stripped, more scoured pomegranates. The bazaar snaps itself shut for the night, splits the surrounding tower blocks. A breeze of air-borne irritants comes over from the boarded off dig, where the metal has only just ended its day-long stammering against concrete. The posters on the outer walls are fatigued, the wide eyes and grins of their models becoming bleached, threadbare. A boiler suited man takes up position in front of a woman’s perfect face, begins to roll fresh paste over a frayed smile. You watch the new advertisement take shape, a clean sheet of paper. The stage for tomorrow’s product, the latest indulgence item, which could belong to you, too, if you can find the currency. He steps away, considers his work, but the poster is wholly blank, noiseless . . .
The city is a screen.
You leave by a side exit that the museum itself seemed to have forgotten about. Tiring of panel after panel of prose and distracted by the glare seeping from around the next corner, you imagined you were turning into another gallery, one warmer and less complicated. But now you’re out in the unconditioned air, the street empty except for cars, abandoned at all angles and crimped with artillery wounds. A neighbourhood away but closing in, the sounds of the Victory Day parade, a foam of obsequious chants and maracas. You’d do well to head in the other direction. Past the summer shower of the burst fire hydrants, the office buildings with their faces taken off: wires blown out, crushed bonework. At the street’s end, between a branch of the national bank and a patch of razed real estate, a walkway. Above, powdered here and there with smoke, a single storey of lacquered timber. You climb the steps, the city blacking out behind you . . .
Nathalie Harb is a multi-disciplinary scenographer. Her work explores the history of public and private spaces, with a focus on themes of home, shelter and exile. Her projects have been shown in cities across the Middle East, Asia and Europe, and have spanned urban interventions, film, theatre, interiors and events. She lives and works between London and Beirut.