Architecture & Urban Design
An architect-led initiative is building playgrounds throughout Beirut following the city’s devastating blast—and you can help
Walking the streets of Beirut in the wake of the August 4th, 2020 blast—one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history—architects and urban planners Etienne Bastormagi, Sandra Richani, and Nada Borgi experienced unthinkable heartbreak—but also, they say, remarkable moments of resilience. Thousands of buildings, including over 140 schools, were damaged in the event. However, Bastormagi tells us, "The kids we met on the street continued to find places to play in between the destruction. We thought, if they could find their place and space in-between all this chaos, so could we again.”
So the three launched Let’s Play, an initiative aimed at transforming these damaged schoolyards into safe spaces for play—and healing. The project is being funded, slowly but surely, by a selection of NGOs and a GoFundMe campaign; the playgrounds are designed and constructed by volunteers from a variety of fields. By the end of this month, the Let’s Play team expects to have four playgrounds completed, with another six in the pipeline to hopefully open before September, when students—who’ve been studying remotely for over a year now due to Covid—may be able to return to schools. They hope to build hundreds more.
“We believe that kids playing is the purest form of resilience,” the organizers have noted. “They propose through play the most creative, rebellious, and therapeutic approaches to deal with trauma. They have the ability to transform everything into a toy… We plan to transform the school playgrounds in the affected area into a place of adventure, newness, and play. A new scene, for a new start.”
We sat down with the cofounders to learn more about this powerful project—including how to support it.
Can you tell us a bit more about how the Let’s Play project came together?
The three of us were devastated after the explosion. We knew that we wanted to help but we were not ready to start immediately. Also, we wanted to help through what we do best: design.
While most initiatives and NGOs responded to urgencies, mainly shelter and food, we wanted our input to have a therapeutic effect through play and fun. The idea developed when we accidently entered a school during our field visits. We were shocked by the destruction. Covid had kept students away from school, but we thought of the day when they would come back to their school. We decided to create a happy surprise for them.
We believe that kids playing is the purest form of resistance. They propose through play the most creative, rebellious, and therapeutic approaches to deal with trauma. They can and do play everywhere, but appreciate the additions—the colors, the tools. They have the ability to transform everything into a game, and this is what we wanted. We believe that this initiative started from a selfish desire to recover [ourselves], to believe in our agency in the city again, and to make a difference.
We all need to relearn to occupy places again, and organize and grow while playing in our city. We believe serious art and serious revolutions come from the paradox of serious play.
What is your design approach for the playgrounds? Is there a particular pedagogical approach in mind?
Beirut is a very dense city, with very little public space. We believe school playgrounds are where we can all learn to play, negotiate, and interact together.
However, integrating play as a main part of education was never broadly adopted in Lebanese schools. While play-based learning is slowly being introduced into the education system, its physical manifestations—which would translate first in the playgrounds—are barely visible. Almost all the school playgrounds we visited in the damaged areas have bare concrete surfaces. It does not encourage kids to interact, imagine, or intervene.
So, our [playground designs] are not meant to dictate one way of play. On the opposite, we perceive our interventions as initiators of imagination, tools for experimentation, with a great focus on collective play. We believe that we are continuously designing topographies for youth to occupy. We are not interested in individual types of play, such as swings and slides. Our additions are always large enough to allow many kids to run, climb, jump, and drift together.
Is the project relying fully on NGOs and crowdsourcing for funding?
Yes, when we started the initiative, we started with an online GoFundMe campaign, hoping to get international interest. To our surprise the response was insufficient. One reason might be the fact that we started the campaign weeks after the blast. Many had already donated. The other reason might be the fact that playgrounds do not look like an urgency, not like food or shelter.
However, many NGOs working in Lebanon understand that public spaces—including playgrounds—are urgently needed to help the community recover. Now [some of] our playgrounds are funded through five established NGOs in Lebanon. We also hope our crowd-funding campaign will cover more playgrounds.
What do you most hope people will take away from this project?
We want this project to grow. We want communal play and the feeling that youth have a right to the city to become part of our way of life. We hope that all that the country and the world is going through doesn’t transform us into bitter, helpless residents that accept the status quo. The youth are our hope. We want to make sure that they continue to grow happily and with an awareness of their rights to occupy the city and transform it. Let’s Play is an attitude—not only an initiative.
As for us, we hope to recover from the explosion, the damage we saw happen to our families and friends, and make peace with all the injuries we experienced physically and emotionally.
So how can people best support Let’s Play?
Funds remain the main obstacle for our initiative’s growth. Each playground costs between $15,000 and $20,000. The more funds we get, the more playgrounds we design, in schools and in the slivers of public space the city has.
Thank you so much, Etienne, Sandra, and Nada. ◆