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“Do you want to go to Solidere?”: Architectural reconstruction and post-war reconciliation in Beirut

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At two decades after the end of the Lebanese Civil War, the reconstruction of Beirut’s downtown is approaching completion, with the opening in the last couple of years of the new Beirut souqs and considerable advances towards the waterfront. This has been a gradual and contested process. Some said that there was no point in spending a lot of money to recreate the war-torn center when the city, after fifteen years of civil war and residential segregation along sectarian lines, already functioned around a number of hubs.[1] A more intelligent approach, they suggested, was to invest in Beirut’s new polycentric nature, in urban nodes like Dora and Cola for example, which would make more sense in terms of transportation and functionality.  Yet the decision was made to rebuild the center, a deeply political and symbolic choice, just like in post-Second World War Warsaw. The old center of Warsaw was faithfully rebuilt to its pre-war image, brick by brick, an island of ‘old’ in a city mostly reconstructed along modernist lines. This was a statement to repair Hitler’s destruction of Warsaw. The reconstruction was an act of legitimization and continuity for Polish post-war authorities, just like Beirut’s was one attempt to build a bridge to the Paris of the Middle East of the pre-war times. City centers are highly symbolic, they are supposed to give a city its identity. The slogan ‘an ancient city for the future,’ which was chosen for the downtown reconstruction project, reveals the political intention to use the new-old image of Beirut as a catalyst for growth. Beirut was the economic hotspot of the Middle East before the war started, and it could be put back on the map with a reconstruction project that would highlight both its heritage and its dynamism. A sophisticated, cosmopolitan historic urban environment would offer just the right comparative advantage over Dubai’s sheer modernity. The reconstruction project was also intended to highlight Beirut’s remarkable diversity, the coexistence of communities in the same urban space for centuries.[2] A reconstructed center would symbolically bring together a society divided by a bitter war into one common space. After two decades of reconstruction, we can now reflect on how the reconstruction of the city center of Beirut had an impact, if any, on the country’s post-war reconciliation.

The main actor in Beirut’s downtown reconstruction process (Solidere: the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of the Beirut Central District) is a joint-stock company which was established in 1994. The creation of Solidere is the result of political will and was facilitated by the ad-hoc drafting of law 117 of 1991, which provided the legal framework for establishing Lebanese real estate companies for the reconstruction of war-damaged areas.[3] The choice of having a real estate company rather than a government agency was connected to Rafiq Hariri’s vision for the reconstruction of Beirut. The state invested Solidere with many powers, including that to expropriate property owners in the destroyed city centre and convert this ownership into shares in the company.[4] According to Solidere, this way it was assured that the reconstruction would come as an integrated, comprehensive plan, rather than piecemeal actions, restricted by the financial power of individual owners. Throughout the process, Solidere has acted at the same time as a planner, a developer and a manager of the city center.[5] The chosen reconstruction plan aimed to recreate the pre-war environment in the area centered on the Place de l’Etoile, originally built during the French Mandate, as well as to design modern developments in the surrounding areas. By using as a reference point the urban layout and architecture introduced during the French Mandate years rather than other layers of the city’s history reflects the desire to recapture the glories of the imagined Paris of the Middle East.

The reconstructed downtown of Beirut, both in Solidere’s discourse and in its current appearance, mirrors the buzzwords of contemporary urban design—mixed-use developments, a commitment to public spaces (increasing of public spaces by 30%, having 50% of the entire downtown area as open/green space), the respect for heritage (integrating archaeological vestiges, preserving the past), and place-making (providing an identity as ‘an ancient city for the future’).[6]

Yet in the process of creating this immaculate urban environment, there was space for many contestations. First, there were the property owners, some of whom were disgruntled. Then came the outcries over the demolition of still-standing structures in the center. There were estimates that more buildings were destroyed to make space for the reconstructed center than during the war itself. In 1995, Elias Khoury, a novelist and journalist, wrote that “Beirut attempts to regenerate itself by recycling garbage and destroying its own memories.”[7] While the city center was rebuilt in a ‘historic’ style, and new quarters such as the Saifi Village were erected using a pastiche of traditional architecture, areas largely untouched by the war like Ashrafieh experienced the demolition of many heritage buildings and their replacement with office towers.

If there is talk about the Lebanese communal societal amnesia about the war,[8] urban space still tells the story of destruction. This is much evident along the city’s former Green Line of separation. Even after two decades of reconstruction, at the edge of downtown sits the huge expanse of Martyrs’ Square, awaiting its turn for reconstruction. One new building appeared after the war, a source of much contestation among academics and taxi drivers alike—the allegedly Rafiq Hariri-sponsored Sunni mosque, an answer to a famous Istanbul landmark, is much oversized in relation to the heritage churches and mosques of the surrounding downtown. Noting the contrast between the building of this mosque and the aim for reconciliation, some suggested that in order for reconciliation to take place and for animosities to end, Martyrs’ Square should receive on its empty, desolate margins an equally large Maronite basilica, a Greek Orthodox Church, and a Shia house of worship, among others.[9] Solidere does not mention the new mosque as an unbalance between religions; however, it points in its discourse to the importance of its Garden of Reconciliation project. Found just some hundreds of meters away from the mosque, this is intended to reveal the many layers of Lebanon’s past, from the Phoenician to the Greek and Roman, to Byzantine, Umayyad, Ottoman, the French Mandate, and independence. The garden is designed to be a place for meditation and reflection. Solidere prizes the Garden of Reconciliation as an attempt to deal with coming to terms with the past.  [10]

The Garden of Reconciliation is an attempt to symbolically remove the walls between the city’s religious groups. Yet other walls emerged during Beirut’s downtown reconstruction—physical walls in the shape of concrete blocks were placed in the name of security around the downtown. At each entrance to the downtown one can also find uniformed guards. Solidere’s representative declared that the concrete blocks would be removed at some point; however, the guards are there to stay. “The entire world needs more of this security system,” he stated. While London has its CCTV cameras, Beirut has its “human cameras.” [11]

Beyond the concrete blocks and the guards, in the highly designed urban environment of the new downtown one can find luxuriant shops and posh cafés. Coffeehouses abounded in the old city center as well, being places for meeting and mingling. The post-war cafes, however, are posh and exquisite, and with their high prices, they are not seen as welcoming by many Beirutis.[12] Similarly, the apartments and shops all belong to a certain, higher, category of prices.  Brochures and promotional materials from Solidere are not shy in proclaiming that the new downtown is actually designed to be exclusive: “TSC is going to be an exclusive shopping store offering the finest food from all around the world, with focus on top quality, unique variety, and exceptional service.”[13]

This exclusive nature is felt by many Beirutis. Many of them often refer to the reconstructed area as “Solidere” rather than the city center. Some will say that they are not “going to Solidere,” as it is seen as the reserve of rich Arabs of the Gulf and maybe of some of the Lebanese elites. The former buy property there or simply come to shop and dine. The common Beiruti seems to have not appropriated the BCD as the center of their city, seeing it rather as a playground for the rich. Similarly, the Beirut souqs have more the atmosphere of a shopping mall than of traditional souqs. They purposefully portray the image of modernity and sophistication, attracting in this way only the segments of society who feel comfortable in such environments.

Solidere’s rebuilt downtown comes across as being a closely watched urban environment dedicated to the enjoyment of the few. Yet the reconstructed center of Beirut can be understood differently when put in the context of the entire country or other cities in similar situations. While Solidere oversaw the systematic reconstruction of the central district, in the rest of Beirut reconstruction has been piecemeal and fully privately-led. The municipality did not conduct any significant work, although some plans were drawn, albeit never realized, like the Elisar plan for the southern suburbs. The municipality legalized the buildings erected during the war, forgiving planning abuses. Heritage buildings are now being torn down in areas not affected by the war. Uncontrolled development from the times of war and after, consisting of constructions of various sizes, heights, materials and colors, colonized the hills and mountains, the coast and the river valleys, resulting in a large sprawl along the Mediterranean and on the foothills of Mount Lebanon. It is impossible to picture how the city center would have looked like in the absence of Solidere, but its proponents often point to the severe problems in urban planning in the rest of Beirut to hint at a possible scenario.

Then you have cities that experienced similar levels of destructions in recent conflicts but folowed different reconstruction paths. In Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina), also a city peopled by Muslims and Christians speaking the same language,[14] the equivalent to a green line still stands in grim ruins. The Bosniak and Croat segments of the city lack a common vision and some even argue over the desire to have one. In the case of Sarajevo, the government of Republika Srpska also did not collaborate with the one of the Bosnian Federation to find a common vision for the city, and East Sarajevo in Republika Srpska has undergone significant reshaping into a separate city, with a separately designed ‘downtown’ and a different urban life from the Federation’s Sarajevo. There is no common urban vision yet, and no common places have been designed as such after the war. In the similar post-conflict context of Beirut, the fact that the reconstruction did create a common urban space, at least in intention, is quite different and unique.

Despite its shortcomings, Solidere did produce a high-quality design; moreover, it produced a streetscape and buildings that with time and the right policies and changes in attitudes might support different types of social activities and become a welcoming place for all. Architect Robert Saliba considers that Solidere introduced a high level of design practices that became an inspiration for others, and that it can thus be seen as a catalyst for urban change. [15] Parisian grand boulevards, so much loved today, were born as ways to advance control over Parisians and limit their capacity for social unrest: they were cut through traditional neighborhoods and caused the demolition of homes and the evictions of many. Time has tamed this urban environment and appropriated it to the city’s residents. Beirut’s center has been now rebuilt, and the result is an urban environment that is of high quality but is beneficial only to a small segment of the city population. The reconstructed downtown would become a much better vector for healing the post-war trauma if it was given back to all the residents.

Encouraging social mixing rather than exclusivity would be a good start. A 2009 event celebrating Lebanon’s pride in hummus[16] brought together young and old, Muslims and Christians, rich and poor in the neglected public space of Martyrs’ Square.  After twenty years, the hub of pre-war Beirut still lies in desolation, far removed from the dynamism of the times before the war. Yet it did not need to be a designed public space in February 2005, when people took the street and congregated in Martyrs’ Square after Rafik Hariri’s assassination, reminiscent of Arendt’s vision of public spaces as places of political action. They came here time and again, for political purposes, pop concerts or hummus pride events. It is in getting people to mix and exchange ideas that many societies reconcile differences and find common goals and paths. The reconstruction of Beirut’s center is almost complete, but the finishing touches might give it a new edge.


Gruia Badescu holds a BA in Geography and International Studies from Middlebury College and a MSc in City Design and Social Science from the London School of Economics. Gruia has researched in Beirut and Sarajevo with a Young Explorer Grant from the National Geographic Society, comparing the uses of architecture in post-war reconciliation in the contexts of Lebanon and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 


 

[1] Yegenoglu, H. (2000), ‘The Torn Metropolis - Explorations in Beirut’, Archis 1: 12-23.

[2] Interview, Nabil Rached, Public Relations and Communication Responsible, Solidere, April 15th, 2009.

[3] Gavin, A. (1996) Beirut Reborn: The Restoration and Development of the Central District. London: Academy Editions.

[4] Interview, Nabil Rached, Public Relations and Communication Responsible, Solidere, April 15th, 2009.

[5] The debates over reconstruction in Lebanon do not stop with Solidere and the rebuilding of the downtown: the bombings of 2006 prompted a new wave of thinking and practices to deal with the ruins of South Beirut.

[6] Interview, Nabil Rached, Public Relations and Communication Responsible, Solidere, April 15th, 2009

[7] Sawalha, A. (2002), Remembering the Good Old Days: The Reconstruction of Urban Space in Post-war Beirut (CUNY PhD

thesis in Anthropology). CUNY: PhD Thesis Services.

[8] Samir Khalaf, quoted in Barak, O. War and Memory in Lebanon (review), The Middle East Journal, Vol. 64, no.4, Autumn 2010, pp. 669-670.

[9] Beyhum, N (2009) Le role du symbolisme dans la planification urbaine: le cas de la place des Canons

In Conquérir et reconquérir la ville, l'aménagement urbain comme positionnement des pouvoirs et contre-pouvoirs, Ziad Akl et Nabil Beyhum (Ed.) ALBA.

[10] Interview, Nabil Rached, Public Relations and Communication Responsible, Solidere, April 15th, 2009

[11] Interview, Nabil Rached, Public Relations and Communication Responsible, Solidere, April 15th, 2009

[12] Sawalha, A. (2002), Remembering the Good Old Days: The Reconstruction of Urban Space in Post-war Beirut (CUNY PhD thesis in Anthropology). CUNY: PhD Thesis Services

[13] Solidere Quarterly, p. 7, October-Deceber 2008

[14] Officially called in Mostar either Croatian or Bosnian, depending to whom you speak, or, vaguely “our language” if not the old “Serbo-Croatian”.

[15] Interview  Robert Saliba, October 28th 2009.

[16] Lebanon wanted to enter the Guinness World Book of Records for the largest plate of hummus and tabouleh in 2009 in an attempt to make a statement about the Lebanese origin of these products. Subsequently, in the Israeli city of Haifa, a larger portion of hummus beat the record established in Beirut.

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