Beirut is a city preceded by its reputation. Torn by years of civil and foreign war, it is haunted in international perception by the potential for continued strife to send the country back into a spiral of self-destruction. When I learned that UC Berkeley’s IASTE (International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments) was holding one its amazing conferences in the city, and that its organizing theme—utopia and tradition—was right up my scholarly alley, I confess to feeling a twinge of ambivalence. On the one hand, presenting at that conference and visiting the cosmopolitan capital of one of the world’s most historically complex nations struck me as the opportunity of a lifetime. On the other hand, one of that nation’s prime ministers had been blown up relatively recently, and the announcement of the results of a UN tribunal expected to finger a powerful political party as the culprit were expected any day. Things could get dicey.
Within a few hours of deplaning in the “Paris of the East,” however, I felt challenged to the point of amazement by how normal everything was. The occasional tank barrier, bullet-ridden façade, and Kalashnikov-toting soldier felt out-of-place in this city of friendly and open sidewalks, profuse Christmas decorations, Häagen-Dazs, KFC, and a multitude of well-heeled, fun-loving youngsters…a couple of whom I witnessed wading through throbbing Saturday-night automobile traffic on stilts.
In one of the city’s central public spaces, the French Mandate Place d’Etoile—where only fifteen years ago tractor trailers had been rolled down the streets to create apocalypse-grade barricades that make revolutionary Paris look like Branson, Missouri—I heard church bells and a muezzin call to prayer erupt simultaneously, almost in harmony, while kids dashed about blowing bubbles and elderly couples cuddled amongst the café tables. It is easier to find a good warm meal, a genuine smile, and a crisp local beer in the wee hours of the night in Beirut than it is in Providence, where I live. Or most of Boston, for that matter.
Of course, it also easier to find evidence of catastrophic artillery damage in Beirut than it is in Providence or Boston—but even this is changing. The city has been subject over the past few years to one of the most extensive redevelopment schemes I have seen. Shattered ruins are being replaced by gleaming new office buildings, many of them tall towers, or meticulous reconstructions of pre-existing traditional urban fabric. A few old monuments have been lovingly restored, and a few new ones have been added, including a very nicely done new mosque interpreting the Ottoman style, courtesy of architect Azmi Fakhuri. Roman ruins have been excavated and left exposed to create archeological parks and gardens. New souks—by Rafael Moneo, Rafic Khoury, and many others—glisten with diamonds and designer handbags, as well as a scale model of the new and improved downtown-in-the-making. Perhaps most touchingly, during all of this reconstruction the rubble left in the wake of the civil war was carefully pushed into the sea to make up the foundation for a new waterfront park and several blocks of harbor-lined real estate—truly a poetic statement of renaissance.
Yet there is irony in that statement, as poetic as it might be. Beirut’s downtown redevelopment is being led not by the individual landowners who saw their city smashed into ruins twenty years ago, but rather by a single government-connected private company called Solidere, whose presence in the city has become so powerful that people have begun referring to the geographical center of Beirut simply asSolidere.
The helping hand of this company has at times also been a heavy one. Downtown landowners are expected to sell to Solidere, and those who resist often find their properties intentionally cut off from the sea, canyonized by towers, or otherwise offended. And it seems that not all of the rubble making up the foundation of that new waterfront park needed to end up in the sea after all: a large number of the old buildings that were dusted up in the rubble of war could have been saved, some needing only minimal restoration and some requiring none at all. Instead, they were razed for convenience and profit under the cover of Solidere’s monopoly on “national healing.”
To be fair, Solidere is not the only company tearing down Beirut’s beautiful, durable, unique, lovingly ornamented small-scale structures and replacing them with starkly anonymous office or condo towers. Such short-sighted profiteering has been happening all over the city, populating the streets of Beirut with parking ramps and blank walls and consequently leaving them less useful and less pleasant for locals and visitors alike. Many Beirutis have had enough: protesting the relentless spread of voluntarily ugly redevelopment, several groups have mobilized, including Save Beirut Heritage and APSAD, the Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings in Lebanon. These architects and historians and concerned citizens have marched and petitioned decrying what they call the “Dubaification” of Beirut, even going so far as to produce a powerful TV spot that puts the façades and lifespans of lost buildings on gravestones, in a cemetery overshadowed by ominous condo towers. They eventually achieved a measure of support within the government. But in a tragic blunder, on the eve of their increasing power, a list of the buildings they hoped to save found its way into the hands of landowners. That night, it became a hit-list. A frenzy of demolition commenced.
In the districts of Hamra and Gemmayze, the sidewalks buzz night and day, shops both large and small keep goodly hours, and Beirut lives a life defiant of both its tragic past and its uncertain future. In the parts of downtown where Solidere has done good or even great work, the core of a world city seems to be slowly coming back to life. One cannot help but be amazed at the sheer quantity of money that has poured into this town—the architecture says, both literally and figuratively, “Beirut is open for business!” This is a palpable testament to how much many of its residents and financiers long for lasting peace, for they up the stakes with every glassy façade.
But the revitalized heart of the city cannot be seen as evidence of national healing—at least not yet—because it is not the product of neighborly reconciliation and cooperation among its previously diverse residents and landowners. It is the product of an almost autocratic authority, of usually benevolent but nonetheless monolithic power, and the methods have sewn new conflicts even as they repair the visible evidence of the old ones. At the heart of it all is a battle not merely for the remains of Beirut’s past, but for its present and future. As the city loses ever more human-scaled, ornate, durably built, memory-laden traditional architecture, it increasingly alienates many of its citizens, some of whom find that while they cannot bear the idea of waking up to renewed fighting in their city, they also despair at the increasingly tangible possibility that they will soon wake up to a city no longer worth fighting for. They are losing it, not one block at a time—as happened when the frontlines crept and groaned through the city during the civil war—but one building at a time.
In the meantime, however, in much of the place, it is not hard to find comfort. In Beirut, comfort sometimes seems like a national sport: in the food, in the drink, in the small and great kindnesses of its people, and in the nooks and crannies where all the above come together. Beirut is a good city. May it outdo its deceptively simple reputation, now and forever—in Hamra, Gemmayze, and yes, even inSolidere.
-- Nathaniel Walker