Beirut: From City of Capital to Capital City

Yasmina El Chami:

This thesis investigates the potential of architecture to shape and acquire political agency in the context of the city. Specifically, it looks at the role of architecture in the construction of the capital city, and questions its ability to both form and signify the state. This is particularly problematic in the case of Lebanon, a weak quasi-state that – twenty years after the end of the civil war – is still coming to terms with sectarian divisions and political corruption, and is exacerbated by the privatization of the centre of its capital by real estate management company Solidere.

Considering the state’s continuing failure to form a Lebanese statehood, the project proposes to reverse the architectural notion of nation building – commonly considered the project of the capital city itself – and rethinks the construction of a functioning state as a process of developing a regional economic role for the city and a productive political identity for its citizenry. The premise for such a reversal is the identification and understanding of two related processes, the ‘symptom’ and the ‘symbol’, as representational dimensions of power in the architecture of capital cities. Political power can be examined after the fact, as a symptom of a specific policy or rule, or before the fact, as an intentional projection of the identity and ideology of a state.

This distinction becomes instrumental to rethink the idea of the city not as a composition of symbolic urban gestures but as an articulated space of negotiation and decision-making in which the state is not an abstract ideological entity but a protractor of values and rights aimed at the formation and sustainability of a political identity.

Power is operative in the city when its representative dimension is symptomatic, and a strategic articulation of the space of the city and the productive political engagement of the citizen within it.

What arises from this analysis is an idea for the nation based on the education and formation first of its citizens in order to rebuild a functioning state.

Building on the contemporary shift in the development of capital cities less as government centres and more as concentrations of human capital and knowledge, and reinterpreting this shift in a Lebanese context, the project proposes to redefine the idea of the capital centre as a public-private cultural government campus, in which both the future state and to-be citizens are formed.

Timeline of Successive Foreign Influences and the Corresponding Roles of Beirut

Up to 1920, Beirut had always operated as a quasi-independent city-state within the region, a self-sufficient sea-port which had more links to the outside world than the Mount-Lebanon hinterland. Successive foreign rulers influenced the morphology of the city in different ways, but the prevalent identity of the inhabitants remained, through time, that of an open and mixed mercantile society.

The Political Foundations of Lebanon: A Weak Sectarian State

The formation of modern Lebanon brought together various religious communities within one state that previously had been geographically and politically independent. Beirut, inhabited historically by Sunni and Orthodox merchants, suddenly became the capital of a much larger territory, encompassing the Mount Lebanon range which had been home to the Christian Maronite and Druze communities, and the larger areas north and south in which Chi’aa immigrants from the neighbouring countries later settled.

The Growth of Beirut 1870-1975

The growth of Beirut as the capital of an entirely new territory gave rise to a completely different set of political sectarian relationships. New groups migrated from the borders of the country to the centre resulting in a fast and unbalanced urbanization.

Regional Political Change

At the same time, the independence from French mandate and retreat of foreign colonial powers from the rest of the Middle East following the end of the Second World War changed the political landscape of the region completely, and gave rise to new political ideologies. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and ensuing expulsion and immigration of large numbers of Palestinians into southern parts of Lebanon laid the foundation for the beginning of sectarian conflicts to become internationalized.

The Beginning of the Civil War in Lebanon

In the early 1970s, the expulsion of the Palestinian Liberation Organization from Jordan and their subsequent move to Beirut lead to growing tensions between (mainly chi’ite) supporters of the liberation cause (and its increasing association with the Pan-Arab movement of Abdel Nasser in Egypt) and the Christian factions in Lebanon, who saw the operations launched from Lebanon on Israel as a threat to sovereignty. Christian militias began to train and conflicts between both groups escalated, culminating in a series of incidents on April 13, 1975, and the massacre of a bus of Palestinian refugees by Phalangist Christians that came to be known as the official beginning of the war.

Division of the Capital, Beirut as Battleground

From 1975-1976, battles occurred between the PLO and the Phalanges, turning the heart of Beirut, which held both parties’ headquarters into a battlefield.

The Greenline

Quickly the centre of the capital became a war zone, divided between both groups and the corresponding communities redistributed away from the centre, in the two sides, splitting the country in two, and causing waves of migrations across. By the end of the 16 year war, 25% of the population had been displaced, and another 20-30% had permanently fled the country, leaving a very different communal distribution in the country.

The City as Sectarian Enclaves after the Civil War

By the end of the war, new suburbs of displaced families had grown north and south of the capital, creating a series of misery belts. The privatisation of the city centre at the end of the war and the expropriation of its land also expulsed large numbers of families that had historically inhabited and constructed the centre. After the war, the old neighbourhoods on either side returned to normal life, their demographics however slightly changed, but the centre and the suburbs exhibited a different landscape.

Anti-Syrian Protest in 2005 Following the Assassination of Rafic Hariri and Pro-Syrian Demonstration in the Centre (2006-2008)

The war ended in 1989 with the signing of the Tai’f agreement, calling to stop the violence and redistributing the arrangement of power in the Lebanese confessional system. Hizbollah was the only militia allowed to remain armed, in the cause of protecting the southern borders of Lebanon. Syria remained in the country as an invisible all-controlling power, until February 2005 when late Prime Minister Hariri, who had expressed his wishes to end the Syrian involvement in internal affairs earlier that year, had been assassinated in a car bomb in the centre of the capital. The ensuing expulsion of the Syrian forces from Lebanon and return of exiled warlords Aoun and Geagea suddenly made visible again the same tensions that had started the civil war. What has become clear since then is that the conflict has remained, and that the claimed reconciliation had never happened, especially in light of the fact that the state remains quasi non-existent.

The Empty Centre (2009-present)

Today the centre remains largely empty, the site of violent political conflict, without any space for peaceful reconciliation or the reconstruction of a unified state. Its privatisation exacerbates the retreat of the state, and similarly the weakness of the state allows neo-liberal capital to prevail over all matters of public decision making and urban questions.

Proposal Site in the City Centre (Martyrs’ Square

Research Question: How can architecture acquire a political agency towards the construction, in the centre of the capital, of a secular and productive structure for a Lebanese State?

Designed Capital Cities

The paradigm of power representation in architecture is the capital city. In designed capital cities, architecture operates as a symbol, a prior form of representation of the image of the state newly formed. The urban plans of new capitals rely on highly geometric compositions and monumental scales that represent the power of the new government.

Architecture as Symbol

The buildings composing the urban plans also become symbols; their architecture relies similarly on the inclusion of unique and representative elements, whose meaning however lies outside the building itself.

Historic Capital Cities

Historic capitals on the contrary exhibit no clear articulation of monuments on the urban scale.

Architecture as Symptom

Successive leaders leave different marks on capitals, and each project becomes a symbol of the corresponding ideology of a specific ruler. For example, Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s percees in Paris were instrumental in creating the monumental avenues that symbolise today the grandeur and identity of the capital, yet in themselves were symptomatic rather than symbolic of Haussmann’s ideology. They only became symbols afterwards, when their function was experienced and understood. The symbolic here, however, unlike in newly designed capitals, does not rely on the direct representation through new forms and structures constructed on a plain field, but through the disruption, modification or insertion of new forms within an existing context, to which the relationship is as telling as the forms themselves.

The Domestic Public

Similarly, the older construction of the place des Vosgues in Paris by Henri IV symbolised the move from a religiously led nation to a monarchy concerned with secular identification and the economic production of the city. Consequently the architecture of the square is primarily defined by the domestic row houses defining the empty space of the square, themselves providing the economic means through their rent for the existence of the square. Only the function of the central space is ceremonial and ‘symbolic’, but the form of the intervention is symptomatic, only understood through the analysis of its reasons.

Power and Space

Although capital cities are a direct expression of the power of the state, their structures do not necessarily exhibit or practice the represented power as a function. However, historically, some paradigmatic structures have been analysed in terms of their space as tools to control people, exhibiting power in less symbolic yet more operative way. Michel Foucault’s analysis of the panopticon, based on Jeremy Bentham’s model prison is the beginning of an understanding of the way in which architecture itself can become powerful.

Discipline and Education

Thomas Markus, similarly, looks at the degrees of freedom and control in different building types, and especially at the relationship between control and its disciplinary and educational functionality. The analysis of behaviour becomes important to determine the function of the architecture as spatial mechanism of control. Thus schools and colleges were important spaces for the formation of identity, behaviour, and social subjects.

Education in Lebanon

Today universities and schools are understood more as economically productive and socially open environments, and although their educational aspect remains important, rigid and traditional structures of learning and control have waned. In Lebanon, education was historically promoted and disseminated through foreign missionary colleges and schools that trained students in both religious and scientific subjects. These schools were established on grounds around the historic centre, and became vehicles for the urbanization of the city around their premises. Today however they have become enclosed fortresses within the city, losing their role in the promotion of education as a social and cultural factor in the development of the city.

Educational Divide

Repartition of schools in the capital shows a division by area of Christian and Muslim private schools, which reflects the religious identity of the neighbourhoods and their social class.

Typological Question: Can the idea of the capital city as a representation be redefined instead as an operative framework in which rather than symbolising a non-existent state, future citizens and their productive identity are empowered and formed? How can the educational model of the enclosed campus be rethought as an articulated open campus type that is capable of assuming both the functional and representative role of the capital city?

The Private Centre: Security Mechanisms and Inaccessibility in the Centre Today
The Investment Centre

The masterplan for the city centre devotes 48% of the land for housing, and promotes the construction of large high-end towers and housing blocks overlooking the square and important landmarks, privatising the character of the historic public spaces of the city.

Urban Question: Can the capital campus become instrumental in the articulation of privately funded public spaces that negotiate between the scalar, economic and security constraints of the privatised centre and its public role on a national and local scale?


The analysis of the city centre of Beirut through its dominant type – the Lebanese central hall – and its reinterpretation by Solidere’s reconstruction project of the centre as an expired symbol of past French mandate-era glory, leads to the search, beyond architecture’s representative agency, for a reconstructed type that is capable of shaping both an operative strategy for the reconstruction of the city and a renewed symbolic identity for the state.

Transformation of the City and its Dominant Type: From the Arabic to the French City


Central-hall Type: A Porous and Directional Grid


Typological Transformation: From Central-hall to Directional Frames

This instrumentality of type is tested in a counter-project for a new capital centre around the historic Martyr Square and its surrounding archaeological sites. The political and economic identity of the city and its citizens is reconstructed through a public, cultural and educational campus, which includes private housing. This public-private framework acknowledges the commercial, exclusive and financial strategy of Solidere, and addresses the need for a new public common ground functioning beyond sectarian identifications.

Site: Martyrs Square, a Central Strip between the Reconstructed French Centre and the Highway


   Strategy: The Square as Central-hall at the Scale of the Nation, linking the Centre and the City


A Central Spine at the Neighborhood Scale


The Souk: Series of Central Strips at the Block Scale

Building on the contemporary concept of the development of capital cities less as administrative centres and more as concentrations of human capital and knowledge, and reinterpreting this shift in the Lebanese context, the domestic central hall type that formed the historic merchant port-city is reassessed and redefined. It becomes the basis of a new cultural campus, which operates through a hierarchy of scales and frames the city and its citizens.

The New Centre: Series of Multi-scalar Central-halls in different Directions


Ground Floor Plan: Porous Fabric linking Martyr’s Square and the City


   Cross-section: Square, Spine and Souks


View of Model


The New Martyr’s Square

Detail Model (Secondary School)
(a) Public ground, (b) First transition: Public institutions, (c) Institutional and second public layer, (d) Private residential layer

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