Rebuilding Central Beirut
The war left irreversible scars on the city. The old markets, the "souks," have all been destroyed, first damaged during the war and then leveled by the bulldozers of reconstruction. Many important landmarks have fallen as casualties of this latest conflict.
The "Place Des Martyrs" has become a huge tract of land, desolate except for the pseudo-urban tents under which "exhibitions" are held. This decor has replaced the once ceremonial enclosure framed by the police headquarters to the east, the Rivoli movie theatre to the north, and a souk to the west.
The Project of SOLIDERE
The Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of the Beirut Central District (SOLIDERE) is a joint-stock company incorporated in 1994. It is based on a law that regulates Lebanese real estate companies aiming at the reconstruction of war-damaged areas, in accordance with an officially approved master plan. Its share capital is US$1.65 billion.
The reconstruction project covers 19.4 million square feet (1.8 million square meters), including 6.5 million square feet (600,000 square meters) being reclaimed from the sea. The project will consist of roads, public open space, private development, and religious or state property. It ranks as one of largest contemporary urban development projects.
In 1992, after a government decision to establish private real estate holding companies to speed reconstruction, the Lebanese consulting office, Dar al Handasah, forwarded a concept tailored to this approach.
As in post-World War II Europe, the destruction was seen by planners as an unprecedented opportunity to introduce radically modernizing changes to the urban fabric on a scale that had been almost impossible before.
Coupled with that was a continuation of the tradition of asserting political power through spatial transformation, a habit inherited from the Ottoman and French. Beirut citizens were surprised by the planners new vision of their city.
The concept forwarded by Dar al Handasah was based on formal spatial configuration of axis terminated by monuments, very much in line with Beaux-arts formal urban design ideas. It translated the will of a new post-war government envisioning the center of Beirut as a capital center worth a major role in the region.
After a series of public debates and discussions, primarily questioning the monumentality of the concept as well as its "surgical approach," as described by Jad Tabet, a Lebanese architect and critic, a renewed plan was forwarded. It was more in tune with preserving the memory of the city and providing a framework rather than a rigid and predetermined urban character.
The planning framework included a system of open spaces and promenades with the intention of preserving the city's memory as well as providing ample public space for inter-communal mixing. This framework will allow numerous interventions in the future.
This framework was presented by Oussama Kabbani, the town planning manager at SOLIDERE. He spoke at "Reconstruction of War-Torn Cities," an international symposium sponsored by the Order of Engineers and Architects in 1997.
Today, the reconstruction process continues to progress along a two-phased plan:
Phase one includes all infrastructure and restoration in the traditional BCD. New projects will include the "Souks of Beirut," the "Saifi Village" residential complex, and administrative buildings such as the UN House.
It also involves the renovation of the "Starco" and "Lazarieh" office buildings and the development of hotels, including the Hilton. Finally this phase involves the redevelopment of many sections into residential areas. Important advances will be realized in land treatment, reclamation and marine works, including the development of the Beirut Marina.
Phase two will continue the development of the traditional BCD, finalizing residential developments in "Wadi Abou jamil" and focusing on the areas surrounding Martyrs' Square and UN Plaza.
It also involves the construction of the marina at the eastern edge of the waterfront. Finally, following the completion of land treatment, reclamation, and infrastructure, further developments are planned for the new land.
How to Replace the Fabric?
The debate on how reconstruction should continue hinges on whether the urban environment is defined solely as the buildings or also including the social fabric. Those in charge of reconstruction were at first inclined to preserve only the religious buildings.
It became increasingly evident that the "reconstructors," who serve outsider players, have forgotten the key function of an urban fabric: that of mediation and communication between classes and among communities that once inhabited the city center.
By ignoring the importance of regenerating the urban fabric that existed before the war, the supporters of current reconstruction work in the city center turn their back on the city. This is inherently unjust.
A significant opposition among those whose rights had been ravaged by reconstruction was led by intellectuals outraged by the process.
They popularized terms such as "heritage," "memory," and "urban fabric." Effectively, the different streams of opposition succeeded in bringing the initiators of reconstruction to talk about the city.
The reconstruction supporters sought to lessen the pressure of opposition by opting to conserve 300 buildings. But this did not quiet the debate. Conserving a few isolated buildings, the critics charged, will not reconstitute an urban fabric.
Today the debate is stalled. Opponents of the current form of reconstruction are now targets of both attacks and seduction attempts by the reconstruction establishment.
The opposition is in disarray. However, a resisting core insists that the current reconstruction institutions engage in dialogue about a "minimalist" vision of the urban fabric, while the question of a more "inclusive" urban fabric remains unanswered.
How to regenerate the prewar social fabric, taking into consideration the transformations that resulted during and after? This should be the question that reunifies the debating factions.
Without the unifying role of its center, the city remains divided despite the magnificence of the towers and the uniqueness and dynamism of the social networks associated with the new multinational companies that will come to town.
Heritage Versus Reconstruction
A simplistic view of the debate sees, on one hand, the innovators who herald a vision of radiant and rational cities, and on the other hand, the conservationists, refusing all change and delighting in nostalgic evocations of the past.
Things are never that simple in reality, because the tension between modernization and memory always results in complex situations so that no reconstruction plan, whether modernistic or preservationist, is ever implemented as originally conceived.
In reconstruction, one has to find solutions to a host of problems that had already existed in an urban environment before its destruction, making certain changes inevitable. Heritage is never a fixed entity but is open to a diversity of interpretations and needs to constantly reinvent itself.
Reconstruction plans are never formulated in a vacuum; they reflect the state of urban thinking at the time of their conception, the general conditions of the epoque, the degree of evolution of the society, as well as the dominant value systems and the cultural codes that prevail.
What remains for us to devise is a process whereby we, without destroying or mimicking the forms of the past, can begin to understand the principles that underlie their conception, so we can rise up to the challenge of a new modernity.
Victor A. Khoueiry is an architect and journalist living in Beirut.