Raze and Repeat: Masterplanning modern Beirut

Beirut has an infinite ability to redevelop and undergo metamorphosis, best illustrated by changes in the city centre. Its identity has changed from medieval “bourj” to Ottoman provincial fort; French colonial place des canons to post-independence Martyr’s square; and ultimately an ultramodern global cityscape. Rim Chouaib gives valuable insights into the master planning of post-war Beirut, both as a symbol of national recovery for Lebanon, and at the same time the object of post-civil war critique. 

You stay where you are and [Beirut] travels. Instead of you travelling, the city travels […] It’s as if we circled the world in ten or twenty years. We stayed where we were and the world circled around us. Everything around us changed, and we have changed.
— The Journey of Little Gandhi (1994), Lebanese author Elias Khoury

During the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), a clear line divided the street battles under the command of religious and ethnic militants. This “green line” passed through the heart of the Beirut: from Martyrs’ Square, along Damascus Road separating eastern Christian Beirut from western Muslim Beirut. While the militia ravaged streets, buildings, and souks, planners, architects, and politicians were arguing different points of view on the city’s post-war rehabilitation. Various master plans were proposed in the post-war period, eventually leading to the most influential Solidere adopted in 1990. The master plan and ideas behind it offers insights into the forces that are shaping Beirut today. 

Selected Area from Beirut, Green Line , 1975-1990. Source: Al Mashriq, Photograph Michael Habib (provided by author)

Selected Area from Beirut, Green Line , 1975-1990. Source: Al Mashriq, Photograph Michael Habib (provided by author)

In 1977 the government department Council of Development and Reconstruction (CDP), in partnership with French firm L’atelier Parisien D’Urbanisme (APUR), suggested the first plan. The plan was characterised by retention of the traditional contours and the reestablishment of the old centre. It was envisaged that occupants could return and reclaim past activities. These efforts were suspended with the Israeli invasion in 1982. In 1983, after the retreat of the Israeli forces, OGER Liban, a private engineering firm, the Lebanese prime minister and an influential billionaire (assassinated in 2005) assumed the regeneration project and later delegated the task to the Arab consultancy group Dar al-Handasah to design the new master plan.

Consequently, a number of demolitions were carried out in 1984, affecting neighbourhoods like Souk Al-Nouriyeh, Souk Sursuq, and large sections of Saifi. This was a $16.5 billion project, spanning over a period of 9 years. It was once again suspended due to the renewed conflicts in 1984, and by 1988 the destruction was excessive.

Postcard of Martyr's square before the war, facing north. Source: Saree Makdisi

Postcard of Martyr's square before the war, facing north. Source: Saree Makdisi

Martyr's square after the war but before the Solidere demolitions. Source: Saree Makdisi

Martyr's square after the war but before the Solidere demolitions. Source: Saree Makdisi

In 1990, the Rashid Karame government issued the law 117/91 commencing the reconstruction of Beirut. This law embedded the principle of compulsory purchase and granted the Beirut municipality unique jurisdictional powers to expropriate properties of existing city-centre owners. Furthermore, the law 117/91 nominated Solidere, “Société libanaise pour le développement et la reconstruction de Beyrouth” [the Lebanese Company for the Development of Beirut Central District (BCD) in English] for the restitution of Beirut’s city-centre. Beirut’s politically connected, shareholders from Europe and North America, and individual investors from the Persian Gulf owned considerable shares in this uniquely incorporated public-private partnership company.

As soon as the company was established, it was met with public demur. A new Master Plan team was set up with a brief similar to previous master plans: reinvigorate the centre with local activities, but this time with a more defined attention to international image and attractiveness. In 1992, the new prime minister had a vision of Beirut similar to present-day Dubai – glassed wall towers, privatised marinas, and skyscrapers –, which was controversially accompanied by bulldozing through large parts of the historic centre. 

Following the public outcry, Solidere officially launched a new plan in 1994, entitled Horizon 2000. The vision: “to create an active, residential and mixed-use city core that is both the living heart of the capital, its major visitor destination, historic and cultural focus as well as the focus of the national economy”. Solidere is not only a real estate company, but it also acts as a property owner, manager, and operator. Solidere could achieve this vision through transferred development rights, making quality streets and spaces, and advancing ‘contextual design’.

A 3D urban design plan that defines street form, building envelopes or control surfaces and maximum development heights. Specific areas are planned for low density, other appropriate areas for high density. Buildings must be designed to fit within defined envelope limits. Source: Angus Gavin in Area Arch

A 3D urban design plan that defines street form, building envelopes or control surfaces and maximum development heights. Specific areas are planned for low density, other appropriate areas for high density. Buildings must be designed to fit within defined envelope limits. Source: Angus Gavin in Area Arch

Almost two decades later, Beirut has been resurrected from a war-torn city to an international financial, cultural and tourism centre. Even though 265 buildings were recovered and repaired, 80% of the ‘old city’ was irrecoverable and demolished. Affected property owners were remunerated though shares and stocks in Solidere, amounting to $1.8 billion. However, once reconstruction started, public participation was side-lined, and the project was increasingly riddled in public debates confronting what they describe as political nepotism in order to reclaim Beirut’s lost heritage.

Post-war Beirut is an example of global urbanism and the way cities are increasingly spaces for market-oriented economic growth and elite consumption practices, which has negative impacts on the public sphere from its social dimension. This is demonstrated by the use of private security firms and their power to decide who is allowed to enter public spaces within the development area of Solidere. Furthermore, exorbitant rent prices drive shops, street cafes, and restaurants to become too expensive for the average Lebanese customer. 

Stop Solidere sign on the St George Hotel. Once a symbol of Beirut’s golden age, the St George hotel today is but a hollow shell at the centre of an epic real estate battle pitting its owner against powerful developers. Image Source: Facebook posting, unknown source

Stop Solidere sign on the St George Hotel. Once a symbol of Beirut’s golden age, the St George hotel today is but a hollow shell at the centre of an epic real estate battle pitting its owner against powerful developers. Image Source: Facebook posting, unknown source

A new shopping mall, “Beirut Souks”, is developed with the aim to “reconstruct” Beirut’s market area (souks), and is supposed to, according to the marketing booklet, “recapture a lifestyle formerly identified with the city centre and recreate a marketplace where merchants prosper and all enjoy spending long hours.”

The second part of the project, featuring an entertainment centre and department store, are conceived by Valode et Pistre (French) with Annabel Kassar (Lebanon) for the entertainment centre, and Zaha Hadid (UK-Iraq) with Samir Khairallah and Partners (Lebanon) for the department store which are still under construction. The shops planned are mostly international chains such as Zara, DKNY, Carolina Herrera, and aimed at attracting wealthy spenders. A paradox emerges: While the rich day spent in the “souks”, between the movies and dining, spending around $30 to $50, the rest of the city is cut off from opportunities, since their minimum wage per month is $400. 

Today many developments are stalled due to the political situation in the region and the Syrian conflict. Beirut is listed as a dangerous city to visit. The aftermath is a stagnation of sales and a delay in project completion caused mainly by the withdrawal of investments from Sheikhs. Nevertheless, these situations have not stopped the building of high-rises, such as Norman Foster residential building’s 3 Beirut Complex which reached now 120m in Mina el Hosn, Herzog de Meuron’s Beirut terraces is still under construction. Future projects such as 315m glass tower by Renzo Piano in a 120m area, or Jean Nouvel’s tower, still on hold, will lead into creating a wall around the bay, blocking the sea view for those benefiting from it for years.

Beirut Souks. Source: Wikimedia commons

Beirut Souks. Source: Wikimedia commons

Assem Salam, a prominent urban expert, argued that the exclusivity of the Solidere reconstruction could have been overcome by policies aimed at: restoring a link between Christian and Muslim communities, maintaining a common memory of the city, finding a connection to the past, and persuading previous residents to come back to the places they had deserted during the war. 

The reconstruction of downtown Beirut is a controversial subject. For critics it represents an example of a radical regeneration accomplished by an entrepreneurial urban policy and market orientation. Urban structures were fractured in exchange of a quick execution and privatisation of the reconstruction. It resulted in the gentrification of the society and in a modern sterile downtown. Nevertheless, the project drew an image of Beirut and placing it on the global map as a cosmopolitan capital accommodating all that is accessible in an international uniqueness and its accompanying lifestyles. And so, as Elias Khoury aptly wrote, “We stayed where we were and the world circled around us”. 

About the author:

Rim Chouaib is an architect currently enrolled in the MSc City Planning and Real Estate course at University of Glasgow. She has participated in a number of international workshops: Dessau, Germany in 2010 (“Home is everywhere”- Garden Shed XXL - Bauhauss), Helsinki and Turku, Finland in 2011 (YTK/IFHP Planning and Design Summer School), and Brussels, Belgium in 2012 (Urban Workshop, UCL, LOCI, ALBA). Rim has an interest in inclusive urban regeneration, creating quality spaces, and revitalising urban culture. 

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