Crossroads between three continents. Gateway to the East. Paris of the East. The conglomeration that goes by the name of Beirut seems to have a built-in capacity for stimulating the word mint that pre- dates globalization. As of late a new label is becoming increasingly popular for the capital of Lebanon: “Las Vegas of the Med”. Everyone seems to agree: a new hedonism has found hospitality on Lebanese shores. Is this hedonism a reflection of Beirut’s mythical joie de vivre? Or is it induced by Beirut’s new urbanism? Is it possible to theorize such parallelism? And, if so, to what ultimate metaphor does it aspire? Parallelisms are always problematic yet the scale at which the phenomenon is occurring is so overwhelming that it must mean something. Could Beirut be the final arena of the cultural disconnect between words and what they imply? Confusion between languages, references and constituencies that beget greater semantic confusion? Or rather an agreed-upon meaning of words such that within the same conglomeration, different people use different words to give a name to the same thing? Is this due to a lack of authenticity? Or to nostalgia for things lost? Or both? Identity gets blurred. Or stripped. What is left?
The conglomeration that goes by the name of Beirut is experiencing a building boom that has been going on for four decades, with dramatic acceleration in the last. Both size and numbers have gone through the roof. It is a boom that has no precedent and knows little pause. Nothing seems to be able to stop it. Terrorist attacks, pandemic viruses, political instability, financial crisis, volcanic clouds: all events that in the first decade of the XXI century were (normally) held responsible for provoking global crisis in the rest of the world have not as yet affected the Beirut building carnage. This makes Beirut a unique case study. Not even civil war managed to halt this feverish activity, which, to the credit of Lebanese resilience and resourcefulness, created a Med paradox: there was more square footage built than demolished during and after the war. To understand the complexity of this phenomenon, it is necessary to examine the ups and downs of recent Lebanese history, which has given rise to a contested space in which all the polarities and contradictions of global society emerge so radically as to permeate almost everything: language, customs, social behavior, human interactions, and the two most important phenomena engulfing the physical and virtual space of globalization - vehicular and data traffic. THE 9/11
There are many reasons for Beirut’s feverish building activity, both local and global. Is this what glocal is all about? The first reason has to do with a dramatic shortage of housing in the face of the enormous demand unleashed by the fifteen-year-long Lebanese civil war, which pitted Christian against Muslim communities in the eastern and western halves of the city and razed to the ground entire sections of the city. The hard facts: two thirds of the urban fabric beyond salvage; completely dysfunctional infrastructure; extreme fragmentation of existing property ownership; and a polluted shoreline irrevocably altered by 15 years of “uncontrolled dumping of the city’s domestic waste, the rubble of destroyed buildings, and the detritus of war”, in the words of Angus Gavin, head of the Solidere Urban Development Division. The second reason has to do with the fact the three Lebanese passport holders out of four live outside the country but want a home in Beirut. The third reason is that Lebanon has little other than real estate to invest in. The fourth reason is not local and is unexpected: 9-11. Uncannily enough, the terrorist strike of September 2001 turned out to be a formidable benefit for the Lebanese economy in the wake of the West’s newfound hostility toward Arab culture in the aftermath of the attack. This redirected much Arab investment to Beirut, setting off feverish urban demand for the many facets of leisure of the Mediterranean lifestyle. As a result, luxury hotels, boutiques, restaurants, night clubs and high-end dwellings have laundered the tabula rasa and its memory and set the stage for shopping in a safe, clean, 24-hour zone with an ancient heart: the BCD (Beirut Central District).
As the geographical and historical heart of the city, the BCD was the main war theater and its reconstruction began as soon as the guns fell silent (1990). A master-plan was commissioned, its program calling for the complete demolition of the historical city center and its replacement by modern buildings and infrastructure. The notion of bulldozing the entire cityscape stirred a heated polemic within intellectual circles: Widespread opposition to the master-plan led to the adoption of an alternate strategy aiming at preserving and renovating what could be salvaged of Beirut’s heritage. A first survey of the architectural heritage listed over 1,500 buildings. The new master-plan was approved and its implementation (in September 1994) was put into the hands of a private share-holding company called Solidere created ex nihilo to manage the entire process of reconstruction and rehabilitation. No decisions for the other areas of the Beirut conglomeration are recorded. The focus on the BCD was because it was the only unaffiliated, multi-religious and multiethnic zone in the city that had the benefit of adjacent land available for expansion. Sandwiched between the profusion of religious edifices, seductive venues and gaudy artifacts of mass consumerism, the area around the Bourj (the most symbolic place in Lebanon) is now the only part of town where a semblance of a vaguely Westernized kind of order is in place. The rest of the urban fabric has been left to flounder amidst self-serving disputes among the various warring sects into which the population is divided. The result is the distressing atomization and fragmentation of a city-region pregnant with contradictions, scarred by successive wars and with diversified, inconsistent internal frontiers. Open season has been tacitly declared on the surrounding landscape. For with the exception of the BCD, urban development is of little interest to anyone in power. No evidence of infrastructural development (highways, traffic lights, railways, subways, buses, power grids, wi-fi, or land line networks) appears to be in the offing or even under the present or imminent jurisdiction of any governing body. A competing plethora of energy and phone providers populate a wild wood of (tacitly) accepted illegality. And there’s no Robin Hood in sight. Not to mention any concept of the (Sherwood) Forest. There is no open public space. “Fifty percent (39 hectares) of planned landscaped open spaces” (with sporadic small gems designed by Vladimir Djurovic) “are located in the BCD, which occupies ten percent of the municipal area and probably less than three percent of the entire urban conglomeration” as Angus Gavin says. Most of the other landscaped areas are to be found on the AUB (American University in Beirut) campus, which may thank its surrounding wall for preventing further construction (besides Machado and Silvetti’s recently completed business school, a building that comes to terms with the layering of Beirut in an interesting, subtle way). Of the over 1,500 structures identified outside the city centre, in the first heritage survey, only 271 have so far been retained. A Save Beirut Heritage group has a FB (Facebook) page in an attempt to prevent the still-standing structures from being torn down. But as they put it: “There are virtually no laws that specifically protect old buildings. But there is nothing that can guarantee the long-term survival of the few remaining traditional homes in Beirut except the tenacity and will of its inhabitants”. Sense of duty, nostalgia, and the idea that everything must be preserved seems to characterize this virtual activity with practical effects.
Solidere stands for Société Libanaise pour le Développement et la Reconstruction du Centre Ville de Beyrouth. By agreement with the government, it enjoys special powers of eminent domain as well as a limited regulatory authority codified in law, making the company a unique form of public-private partnership. Its main functions are the supervision of the government-authorized reconstruction plan, financing and developing the infrastructure, real estate development, involving new construction and rehabilitation of war-torn structures, urban landscaping, and the management of property. Most of Solidere’s investors are European and North American investment firms or Arab investors from the Gulf. The prime minister himself, Rafik Hariri, owned an 8% in the company before his assassination in 2005, and the Hariri family continues to be a principal shareholder. Solidere is a Janus with two faces. Depending on the interlocutor, it is either credited as the most important force behind Beirut’s reemergence as a bustling urban destination or is accused of having swept away the traces of war by sponsoring building projects that have erased all signs of conflict and attempted to create a fiction, namely to return Beirut to its pre–civil war appearance. In other words, Solidere’s master-plan is accused of encouraging the state-sponsored war amnesia that has characterized Lebanese culture since 1990. Things did perhaps become clearer in 2007 when Solidere went international and discovered, to its own bewilderment, that it had developed a brand identity. A lot of people (in the near East) appeared to want what Solidere works with: human scale, a mix of new and old, and restoration of the historical core. A lot of international interest was aroused in the Gulf. The identity needed a formula: post-post modernism. A squared modernism? Place-making, the creation of spaces people like to be in is what Solidere wants to do. Regrets about history’s absence are not a problem. Where history is deemed to be desirable, however, Solidere also manages “to create a place-history where history does not exist”. What that means is that Lebanese developers think they can build vast projects of artificial memory that restore a temporary sanity to an insane world by doing, in any given undertaking, what city builders would have done before the industrial revolution. The Nachleben, or survival, of the vernacular, properly done. For them, this is the reverse of pastiche, captured until recently by the following motto: “Beirut. Ancient city of the Future”. The motto is based on a conceptual model that perceives urbanism as an object to be historicized and therein transformed in an endless temporal continuum.
The ancient-future dyad has disturbed many. It has virulently disturbed one Beirut-based architect with a critical conscience: Bernard Khouri, who uses the motto to clarify where he stands. Khouri describes himself as an Arab living in the present, namely, the one element left out of the ancient-future formula. He is interested in Lebanon’s present and its recent history. It is therefore not surprising that he stands out today as the only Beirut-based architect showing a poetic and cultural resistance to the global development logic a-critically implemented in the BCD. Khouri finds the motto emblematic of a more general attitude: the inability to see things for what they are, the inability to make head or tail of one’s own identity, the inability to deal with the country’s past, the inability to ask uncomfortable questions and, even worse, provide answers that might be equally uncomfortable. What Khouri wants to do (via architecture) is connect his country to space, time and cultural issues. Despite the recognition gathered elsewhere for his work in the Beirut area, this stand and the fact that he is Lebanese has prevented him from entering a private game reserved for the “pop stars of architecture”. Only a shortlist of selected foreign star-architects is allowed to be part of the BCD’s fast-track expansion that is rapidly becoming an open-air collection of iconic buildings famous before their inception, preceded by the fame and aura of their authors. Ten architectural firms are invited for each specific plot. The same names keep cropping up. A Zaha building is planned for the North Souk, a Nouvel and a Foster are being designed, while (sic) a Libeskind is threatening to arrive.
Beirut is an ancient, “layered” city containing the remnants of some twelve distinct civilizations, from the Bronze Age on. Solidere is very sensitive to a particular form of layering: street names, alignments, and frontages, which have been retained to the greatest extent possible. The street predominates in the BCD. Is this the comeback of the idea of one of the most notorious anti-modern concepts? The concept has proved powerful enough to warrant extension on the adjacent landfill of the “Avenues to the Sea”, defining view corridors and guidelines for the placement of tall structures. In short, “the street takes precedence over individual plot development” as Angus Gavin says. Perhaps the ensemble of Beirut souks embodies this more than any other recent undertaking. It shows how a seemingly coherent, rational aspiration may fail to recreate the intended sense of authenticity. The souks have always been at the commercial heart of Beirut. They were frequented by Lebanese and Europeans alike since they housed fashionable boutiques and haute-couture houses as well as the biggest fruit, vegetable and flower market. The souks were, however, too damaged to be saved. Razing them to the ground left a gap in Beirut’s identity. Solidere sought to bring them back with a new build in keeping with the original Hellenistic street grid that characterized the old souks and the area’s historical landmarks. It is one of the key projects of the entire BCD that has raised enormous expectations. Designed mostly by Rafael Moneo, the new Beirut Souk is dubbed (in the official annual report) the “crowning” of the whole undertaking. Name, identity, urban plan, and architectural character are “derived” from the (razed) history of the site. The choice was made to play down architectural expression and allow variety to be created by the retail activity itself, at the same time, integrating the archeological finds into the design. After much struggling, it was decided that the building should remain open to pedestrian circulation at all times, confident that the street pattern would be powerful enough to bring life to the place. All the proper decisions seem to have been made, including the size of the building volumes, the placement of a generous garage (two-thousand parking spaces), restaurants, office space, and even thirty-six dwelling units. The architectural character was left to the nature of the cover and the numerous skylights whose shape is derived from their dimensions and structural systems. The end result is that all the global (and powerful) fashion brands have a shop there, arguably because they are the only ones who can afford the rent. Accordingly, more than half of its visitors think that the Beirut Souks is more a “fashion outlet” than a souk.
THE FAREWELL PERFORMANCE OF UP?
The undeclared ideology of avoiding inconvenient matter mixed with the imperative to preserve, restore, and even rebuild what had not been there in the first place stands as further confirmation of the global confusion about terminology. Preservation has become a political issue, and heritage a right. The Beirut Souks project documents our period of acute semantic chaos. The hedonist urbanism being implemented in Beirut stands in sharp contrast to the “generic urbanism” that most of the world is becoming familiar with. While the latter has no layers, the former shows a tendency for indulging in vast projects of artificial memory generating an unforeseen amount of (fictional) layering that looks like an aging Hollywood star artificially sustained against the law of gravity. But their genius (and their end result) is similar: they mesmerize citizens into equating shopping with an amnesia-inducing drug that makes them live as if there’s no tomorrow. Beirut’s hedonist urbanism powerfully shows how urbanism (and architecture) can today easily fall prey to the various demands of private development. It also shows the inability of the design field to formulate any form of resistance to a society seriously wanting in its defense of what is public. Might Beirut be close to embodying an endpoint of a wider urban process? Is Beirut the final arena signaling the farewell performance of urban planning?
Perhaps the new-found metaphor, the “Las Vegas of the Med”, is not the most apt metaphor to describe Beirut hedonistic modernism, which seems more like a mere (urban scale) mirror of the various predicaments brought about by globalization. Like many other cities around the world, Beirut reinforces a model based on a centrality that, besides being the center of political and commercial activity, functions as a resort or playground for leisure activity framed by two marinas (one designed by Steven Holl), and with a cluster of hotels, night clubs, restaurants and the like. After almost twenty years of work in the Beirut area by professional fabricators of memory, the impact of the unwillingness to face the challenges and “inconvenient truths” of the present is self-evident. Hedonist urbanism considers the sustainable development typical of ecological urbanism as a sort of anathema, an alternative, killjoy lifestyle rooted in renunciation. In a word, ecological life is perceived to be less fun; hence the resistance or disinterest. Hedonist urbanism values the theme park model. It replicates reality embracing an aesthetic of accumulation and collage that promises to deliver all the seductive appeals of consumerism that a reality-show nourished society can produce. In hedonist urbanism driving should be fun. Every street intersection should be encumbered by an explosive mixture of metallic car chassis struggling to move forward or park in the most creative fashion, in a permanent and persistent atmosphere of loud honking where each driver appears to be motivated by the notion that the more you honk the more miles you’ll accumulate on your mileage program. This laissez-faire attitude is applied to every aspect of transportation, which is based on an appalling “no rule” model that bothers no one, as it promotes individual skills in bargaining (taxi fares) and driving (no traffic lights). Hedonist urbanism has no problem with a conglomeration of over two million car owners with no traffic lights. Nor is it troubled by an endless series of fictional non-places where human interaction is annihilated. This seems to be the reflective message embodied by the Exhibition Hall, an existing structure that L.E.F.T chose to wrap with custom corrugated, anodized, mirror aluminum panels to “become an index of the city’s growth”. The mirror cladding “refutes shadows to accentuate the placeless nature and put the emphasis on the surroundings”. It is a space for self-reflection that forces Beirut to finally see itself in a mirror…
HEDONISM IN THE SKY
The mirror reflects the images of a TV channel that has created an entire program for the holy month of Ramadan. Something that looks like a UFO is hovering over the BCD: it is “Dinner in the Sky”, Lebanese-style. A rectangular table that can accommodate twenty-two humans or aliens is lifted to a viewing height of up to fifty meters by a crane for corporate or personal events. There are no screens for football matches. Clients can lease the restaurant and select their own caterer, and the sooner they book, the better. At a rate of two sessions per hour, more than 350 people can have access to this exceptional platform (or only twenty-two if you want an exclusive VIP event). Pictures of the video are available on a website. Sky-dining (diving?) guests look aghast. Some of their inner thoughts are somehow being recorded. “Will the crane hold? Will wind allow me to sip my chardonnay? Now I have seen the Mosque up close, when will this ordeal end? Is this the “magical moment that will leave a lasting impression on me” as the ad says? Am I supposed to have fun? Or shall I just say that I’m having fun? Is this my share of infotainment? All I hear are all these cars honking.” Emptiness ensues. “Am I turning into a robot?” Then a new thought occurs, “Gee… if only I could return to the Sky Bar where I can’t move but I can take pictures of my buddies and upload them on my Facebook profile... ” The reality show takes command. conrad-bercah