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The rush to rebirth

The rapid pace of reconstruction in Beirut, still scarred by years of civil war, is bringing a vision of cultural wholeness to the city.

December 29, 2003|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Times Staff Writer

Beirut — Beirut

Only a decade ago, it was impossible to think about this city without pain. Once known for its aura of sophistication, Beirut had been torn apart by Lebanon's calamitous 15-year civil war. Many of its streets were in ruins. The twinkling shoreline had become an enormous garbage dump, its scent wafting over the capital with the afternoon sea breeze.

But if this city's surviving inhabitants have yet to fully recover from the psychic damage the war caused, the rapid pace of its physical reconstruction has since transformed it into one of the world's most fascinating urban experiments. Its colonial-era core has finally been reopened after a decade-long restoration effort. A long list of architectural luminaries -- from the New York-based Steven Holl to the Paris-based Jean Nouvel -- have recently been given major commissions here. Even the garbage dump has been bulldozed; it will form a landfill for a new 150-acre development, including a marina, high-end housing and a seafront park.

The importance of these moves extends far beyond issues of urban planning. They are the basis of a vision rarely seen today: a city of often contradictory values that nonetheless retains a sense of cultural wholeness. Together, these projects promise to revive some of Beirut's former glamour. They are also reminders that conflict can be a creative tool, one that expresses the richness of metropolitan life.

The center of the new Beirut is a roughly 100-acre development at its historic core. This was once a section of the green line -- the battle-scarred strip that divided east and west, Christian and Muslim. During the civil war, which began in 1975 and lasted until 1990, the area's streets were barricaded with abandoned cars and sheets of corrugated metal; snipers pockmarked the buildings' facades with machine-gun fire or blasted them apart with rocket-propelled grenades. It was also a death zone: More than 100,000 people were killed in Beirut during the war. The city's scars were evidence of an enduring contempt for human life.

Today, many of the old buildings have been restored, and the area has the sterile, well-scrubbed feel of fresh construction. A quaint limestone-clad clock tower anchors the district's central plaza, dubbed Place de l'Etoile. From there, a series of pedestrian streets radiate outward. A main axis runs north along Rue Allenby, which extends down toward the site of the future waterfront development.

The development was begun in the early 1990s by Solidere, a mammoth public-private partnership spearheaded by then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was already a billionaire businessman when he was appointed to lead the country in 1992.

It is a fairly accurate reconstruction of an existing neighborhood whose roots lie in the ideas that reshaped Paris during the mid- and late 19th century.

Where Paris' vast plazas and boulevards were designed to reflect its place as a center of imperial power, however, Beirut's version is more intimate. Its structures evoke the lazy sensuality of a seaside city. Instead of Paris' boulevards, one finds narrow cobblestone thoroughfares.

The semicircular arches of the porticos that flank the French capital's Rue de Rivoli have a platonic order; here, the arches are more elongated, a gentle nod to traditional Arab architecture.

But the real precedents are not Parisian but American: the shopping arcades of Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace and San Francisco's revamped Ghirardelli Square.

Like these earlier developments, the Solidere project is fundamentally about consumption. Its covered sidewalks are lined with the kind of homogenous, high-end boutiques that cater primarily to affluent tourists. Its second- and third-floor offices -- now mostly vacant -- are meant to attract the global business set.

A sanitized past

The sense of a sanitized past is also visible in subtle changes in the articulation of the architecture. Most of the restored buildings are made of a soft local limestone. Traditionally, such surfaces were covered in colored plaster to protect the stone from wear. Here, the stone facades have been left bare. Their surfaces have a rough, chiseled quality. The idea is to create a feeling of authenticity more real than the real -- a denial of the past.

It is this sanitized version of history that troubles many in the city's cultural and academic communities. Bernard Khoury, a 35-year-old Lebanese architect who has become a vocal critic of Solidere, sees the result as part of a calculated agenda.

"It is about turning Beirut into a sort of postcard," he says. "What they want is something safe and romantic, like Switzerland in the Middle East. But the real social issues are still buried."

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