The centre of Beirut, devastated by the Lebanon civil war, has become the site of intense arguments about the nature of urban planning and the relationships of built fabric to human life
Originally published in AR January 2000, this piece was republished online in June 2018
Nowhere could have been a better forum for the Aga Khan Award conference on new architecture in changing Middle Eastern societies than Beirut late last year. A decade after the civil war ended, the old city centre is still only very partly redeveloped, though elsewhere the city explodes along the shore line and up into the foothills of the mountains with endless little high-rises and villas. Beirut has become the Los Angeles of the Levant, heartless, directionless and endlessly messy.
But plans have been made to give the city new life in the historic centre, much of which was destroyed in the civil war which ended 10 years ago. In the early ’70s before the war, the old centre (on which layers of development have been deposited by everyone: the Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, French) was still the Central Business District, based on the first foundation by the Phoenicians. But, as in many unplanned cities of the New World, secondary centres had begun to spring up among the sprawl. Of course, these have become the principal business foci in the last 25 years.
In an attempt to restore the centre to its former primacy, and to give the whole conglomerate mess some sort of heart, a private company, Solidère, was set up to plan and redevelop the centre. Half the shares were given to all who owned or leased property in the old centre in return for foregoing control of individual plots. The other shares were sold on the market.
Angus Gavin, Planning Advisor to the Chairman of Solidère, explained the plan’s principles. Though Solidère is private, half the total area will be in the public domain. To counter critics who argued that the planners have behaved like some in Europe after the Second World War, levelling far more than was needed to obtain a tabula rasa, Gavin pointed out that 300 buildings have been saved, 35 per cent of the whole. Development rights have been transferred away from areas in which buildings are to be preserved. But in many ways, the masterplan is intended to be ‘flexible, market orientated, and a means of organic city-making’. One: of its main aims is to have mixed uses: ‘the Levantine pluralist ideal’.
Although the plan will change as it grows, there will be what Gavin called ‘street-wall control applied to all main streets in the historic core. High-rise elements will be set back from the street elevations’. There will be a new public park (previously unknown in Beirut); it is being created on top of a huge mass of rubbish thrown into the sea when public services broke down in the civil war.
Gavin and Solidère were criticized on many grounds. For all the commitment to mixed uses argued Jamel Abed (of the architecture department in the American University of Beirut), ‘the Solidère scheme is isolated by a ring road and is arranged to be visually consumed by businessmen and tourists. Blue collar workers have been expelled’. Gavin replied that rents were to be held in middle range. Surrounding roads were there anyway, and traditional sea facing centres of cities like Boston and Baltimore had been revivified, even though they were partly cut off from the rest of the city fabric by urban motorways.
Abdel Halim Jabr (local architect and lecturer at the university), believed Solidère was necessary, and had produced ‘a fine example of urban design’ within too firm boundaries. But he argued that too many planning decisions ‘were taken for marketing reasons’. It needs a boom to take off, he said, ‘at present it is a siteand-services area for international companies which have not yet come’. Others argued that the new buildings will be examples of American international capitalist mediocrity. Gavin was robust: Beirut’s centre will have ‘an architecture of place and context, with extravagant exceptions’.
Beirut restored tenements
Clearly not everything is perfect in the Solidère area. There is no public transport (its economic and physical infrastructure was destroyed in the civil war) — no proper modern city can exist without it. Extra stories have been added to some of the fine remaining French-Levantine buildings; ancient finds will be lost; a change in government has blocked planning permissions (Jabr proclaimed that ‘we are still playing out our war, but using urban development’).
Yet for all the difficulties, the plan does have promise: flexibility and mixed development, yet attention to place-making; an attempt to control the car and the possibility of public transport in future; a sense of the public realm, so rare in the Middle East, which will be found in the boulevards and squares as well the new park. Gavin, perhaps optimistically, urged ‘if Berlin can do it, so can Beirut’.
Someone criticized the plan for having no soul: ‘We will give it one’, he cried, not specifying how. But it seems, that with reasonable luck, Beirut’s centre might grow a spirit of its own and the services of the soul transplant surgeon will not be needed.