“Juvenile tendencies to make things, to elaborate on things, once hidden intentionally – once denominated – artifacts, involuntary surface to the sight of you. “ _Majzoub, Fetish Systems.
HKZ recently talked to Raafat Majzoub, founder of the narrative design studio +236m3. In this exclusive interview Raafat explains more about the manifestations of this studio space, the value of good design and good space on the city and his perception on regional urbanism and architecture.
Interviewed by Liyan Aljabi
Raafat – signs his emails as astronaut – acquired an Architecture degree from the American University of Beirut in 2009. Through +236m3, he published his debut novel, Fetish Systems, and a zine, ThePurple Haut-Parleur. His projects also include the design and construction of residential and commercial spaces in Lebanon and Amman. In parallel, Raafat worked on several projects with colorblind, a branding and strategic planning think-tank. He co- founded The Outpost magazine with Ibrahim Nehme, and is the Creative Director of the publication. Raafat also authors the literary supplements in each issue. He is currently working on his new novel, Khan elThawra. The novel is a weave of reality and processed non-fiction. Its narrative feeds from the tension between the human-scale perception of contemporary Arabia and its canons of identity. Khan elThawra is a venue like Khan elSaboun and Khan elDahab; it is a retail venue for the trade of ‘the revolution’.
HKZ: How and why did you start +236m3 with such an interesting and ambiguous name?
RM: I was somehow frustrated by the fact that the market of space (architecture and construction) was preoccupied with flat area, in squared meters. I measured the volume of my studio, and the outcome, two hundred and thirty six cubic meters became its name. The plus sign is more related to the open-endedness and collaborative readiness of the function of the studio. An interview with Hers Khazeen could be HKZ+236m3, an interior design project for the tech company, Tanasuk, in Amman was titled Tanasuk+236m3, and my recent literary collaborations with The Outpost magazine in Beirut were production-credited TheOutpost+236m3. The name of the studio is part of the formula of its function, not a title or an ornament.
HKZ: Your studio is not the typical architecture studio, what do you exactly do? What type of projects/clients do you have?
RM: I try to select my clients. When I realize I had made a wrong choice, I go design something and add it to my studio space as a detox process. It’s not an ego trip, but I firmly believe that especially in design, the client and the designer must share certain ethics and visions as to what the product should be. If that mechanism clicks, it will push the product into a completely different level, as both parties are completely aware of and are devoted to the importance of making.
I like to think of the studio as a narrative studio as opposed to an architecture studio. We make buildings, spaces and furniture as well as publish zines and books. All these projects are somehow in line with a narrative. There’s always a story. There’s always a way of life being discussed, always something to relate to.
The space, indeed, is far from being just a workplace. It’s both an escape and a life-size portfolio. When a client first approaches me, I make sure we grab a coffee at the atelier, and let the space do the talking. It makes more sense. The space is as close as possible to my design ethics, and that’s all the conversation I need.
HKZ: How did you design the studio space? Did this space affect your projects and design identity?
RM: The space was designed gradually, produced over the course of a year in parallel with different project commissions. As I already mentioned, the space was designed to be a presentation of my design ethics, so everything was custom designed and built within the space with craftsmen I would be working with at the time. Ideally, this is how I think projects should be done. The designer must have a multidisciplinary understanding of the client and the space, and the process must cater to that specific scenario.
HKZ: As someone who experienced the urban, architecture and deign scene in Lebanon, what are your thoughts on this more mature or visually aware scene in terms of projects and clients?
RM: We have some good architects and designers in Lebanon, but we still don’t have the full awareness of the impact of design on the city. Clients on the other hand, don’t have the slightest clue of how design can make their life a happy place. Being visually aware is not enough. You need to be convinced of the value of good products and good space enough to pursue it. I think when good design is sought after, with no compromise, a design community will have to evolve its craft. It also works the other way around. If good design is made available by architects and designers, in such a way that bad design becomes obviously useless, the client-base will ask more of it and hence evolve the craft.
HKZ: Your thoughts on architecture and design regionally?
RM: I think we are all going in an unproductive direction. The institutional control of Arab cities is governed by commercially driven projects and dreams of skylines, and the access and livability of these cities are being compromised. Projects that try to defy that stream are usually microscopic on an urban scale, and as interesting as they may be, still fail to affect the development of the city as a whole.
There’s also the question of how we go about design as a discourse. As opposed to developing local styles and techniques, the majority of local designers are either adopting a ‘heritage’ aesthetic, where buildings just look old and dubbed authentic, or are basing their designs on adopted formworks, templates and rationales. I don’t expect everyone to suddenly drop everything and adopt idealistic ethical values, but I think that it’s the role of academic institutions that teach design and architecture to concentrate on the different scales of context.
Context is not just the piece of land that happens to be the site of a building to be designed. It is constantly the weave of time, pop culture, the client, social conversations, heritage as an abundant research platform, language, prospected scenarios of the future, and a series of devised unknowns revolving around the fact that products on the scale of the city will have lives on their own. They will be used by accidental and unintended stakeholders. They will morph. They will die. And if their death is not accounted for in the design, they will be demolished and disappear to impotently exist in memory. Space needs to be fertile. It needs to make room for more space, not eventually become an unnecessary consumption of the latter.
HKZ: What do you do aside from +236m3? Who is Raafat Majzoub?
RM: I am an architect that is convinced that space is manifested and consumed in different media. I haven’t taken on any construction projects for over a year now, but am rather exploring what different media can offer to the creation and understanding of the lives we live and the spaces we inhabit. I am the Creative Director of The Outpost, a magazine on Possibilities in the Arab World that Ibrahim Nehmé, its Editor-in-Chief, and I founded in Beirut. In each issue we propose a possibility, discuss, analyze and narrate it with a growing network of contributors spread predominantly in the Arab world. The project aims to uncover, incite and communicate the tectonics of positive change and its agents in the region. Apart from that, I am an author. My first book, Fetish Systems, was published in 2010 under the +236m3 label. As my first literary experiment, its aim was to experiment with the medium as a communication platform and as a podium to experiment with language. My later works, namelyConversations With Your Naked, The Perfumed Garden, and L’Origine(s) du Monde take a more narrative approach to writing, experimenting with the possibility of recounting ‘concepts’ in relatable stories. It is along these lines that I am currently working on my upcoming novel, hopefully out next year.