From Multipli-City to Corporate City in Beirut Central District

Yasmina El Chami:

This project stems from an interest in Solidere’s reconstruction project for Beirut’s Central District (the BCD), a 25-year masterplan undertaken by a private joint-stock company to rebuild Lebanon’s war-torn capital Beirut. 

It is an attempt to analyze and highlight the unresolved conflicts of the city, on an urban and typological scale,  implicit in its new form.

Looking at the proposed urban plan and programmatic structure, it studies the urban conflict that arises from the outset of the project with the erasure of the existing damaged fabric of the site, and the consequences of this ‘tabula rasa’ on issues of scale, social and economic exclusion, and security.

At the typological scale, and read through the analysis and comparison of the old typology and structure of the souks with the new open air mall development which is at the heart of the regeneration strategy, the issues that arise emphasize and reiterate the urban enclosure and exclusivity apparent in the structure of the city. These issues are analyzed in context of the historical and political events preceding and following the Lebanese civil war and are understood as the result of the inability of the Solidere masterplan to address both the ambition to open the city centre to global capital and to redefine the role of the centre on a socio-political national level.

 

INTRODUCTION

In his Architecture of the City, Rossi elaborates a theory for understanding the city through its form, as a man made object composed of urban artifacts. His study is based on the analysis of the city constructed over time; at its basis is the definition of urban artifacts, cultural moments of permanence which embody the idea of the city within their form and typology[i]. In this way architecture becomes essential to the continuity of the city, the preservation of its identity and the shaping of its future. In this reading of the city through its architecture, in order to consider its problems, he naturally refers to “living cities which have an uninterrupted span of development”[ii]; evidently his analysis is mainly concerned with his own knowledge and experience of his natal country, and the richness and layering of Italian and European historic cities. As such an attempt at analyzing “dead cities”, or interruptions within the growth of a city, based on the theories and criteria laid out by Rossi, could initially be deemed irrelevant.

In the case of the historic center of Beirut, ravaged by sixteen years of war and subsequently reconstructed in an ongoing project by the joint-stock company Solidere, and by virtue of the rich history and layers which had formed Beirut’s center prior to the war, the analysis of the new character of the city centre based on Rossi’s theory of urban artifacts allows a questio[iii]ning of both Rossi’s thesis concerning the importance of permanence and collective memory in the perpetuation of identity, as well as Solidere’s claims of preservation through their masterplan for the reconstruction of the city from an architectural and typological perspective.

This second issue is one that has been particularly overlooked in most studies and criticism aimed at Solidere, because of the more obvious political problems and questions the reconstruction has raised. Hence the study of the city through its form becomes essential in attempting to understand the real spatial and urban problems that voluntary and wide acts of destruction and reconstruction create in the natural process of growth of a city.

Looking specifically at the Beirut Souks project within Solidere’s masterplan, this essay seeks to analyze the quality of reconstructed typologies in the renovation of Beirut’s dead center, borrowing Rossi’s criteria as tools for their evaluation. Tracing the transformation of the city’s urban morphology from a public city core to a private moneymaking enterprise, the project is then compared to the archetype of the American Suburban Mall. Ultimately, this urban and typological analysis of Beirut’s new Souks reveals Solidere’s political project; the city indeed becomes the scene for political conflict –or lack thereof- manifested through its form.  

THE ARCHTIECTURE OF THE BCD AND THE PROBLEM OF ‘TABULA RASA’

Historical Premises and Intentions

Although to this date there is still neither an official nor written history of the Lebanese civil war, it is commonly agreed that it lasted sixteen years, spanning intermittent periods of intense strife and violence. From 1975 to 1991, Beirut was divided in two halves, East and West, occupied by religious militias aiming to erase the “other” across a demarcation line that came to be known as the Green Line, owing to the shrubs and vegetation that gradually took over the abandoned buildings dividing the city. This Line ran along the historic road leading from Damascus to Beirut, culminating in the City Centre, which became a ghostly void in the middle of the city. The historic intra-muros city had formed on a protrusion in the sea, on the lowest coastal point of Beirut. By virtue of its topography, it became the buffer space, the battlefield.[iv] By the end of the war the city had readjusted to the loss of its centre, new nodes had formed in each side of the city. What had once been a transportation hub, the seat of government, cultural, entertainment, educational and economic activities and a real common neutral space for all Lebanese had become a desolate field of hollowed buildings, rubble and shrubs. Its resurrection, at the end of the war, was seen as a necessary step in the process of healing the scars of the war, not only economically but also socially, downtown was the only space in the city that had never been reclaimed by one faction, and would always belong to all.[v] However, the damage was too great for the almost bankrupt municipal administration to address it, and in 1991 a law was passed which gave it the ‘authority to create real estate companies in war-damaged areas, and to entrust them with the implementation of the urban plan and the promotion, marketing and sale of properties to individual or corporate developers.’[vi] Thus Solidere (Société Libanaise pour le Développement et la Reconstruction du Centre de Beyrouth) was created, its biggest shareholder Rafic Hariri, then head of Lebanese-Saudi construction company Oger and the man who would serve as Lebanon’s Prime Minister for the next decade.[vii] A new master plan (following various iterations and trials from 1983), designed by Henri Edde of Dar el Handasah was drawn up, and approved in 1992 by the Lebanese Parliament.[viii] Two hundred and ninety six acres (1.2 million square meters) of Land from the historic central district were expropriated by the government for Solidere -the property of about 250,000 Lebanese owners and tenants; as well as 159 acres of reclaimed landfill from the sea north of the site, spreading Solidere’s task over 1.8 million square meters.

The first phase of the 25-year plan focused around the “Etoile” et ”Serail” area, the old radial centre of the government, and the “Souks”, the two most ‘emblematic historic features of the city’s centre’.[ix] Following extensive survey of around 800 existing buildings, 291 were retained in the “conservation area” around the Etoile[x]; almost all the remaining areas of the center were flattened.

The Preservation of Context through Function and Form

The site for New Beirut Souks project forms a large part of the area that witnessed a complete erasure of its existing fabric. Introducing the project, Rafael Moneo -chosen by Solidere following an international ideas competition to design the new souks- described this void as a challenge, and the  ‘dramatic excavation in the ground […] already dug […], a token of the eagerness of the Beirutis and the client to develop this project quickly.’[xi] By many concerned Beirutis’ accounts however, this destruction of a huge area of the center, and the core and memory of their city, left an even deeper scar than the war; Solidere’s ‘reconstruction project has been more efficient than fifteen years of warfare in building a tabula rasa in place of what used to be the old downtown.’[xii] Nevertheless, Solidere’s masterplan, specifically concerning the Souks area, calls for the ‘formation of public spaces, remains faithful to the urban fabric through preserving and restoring historical urban elements, and ensures the harmonious integration of traditional and modern architecture.’[xiii]

From the start then the project sets out to recreate context in the place of void, a challenge that could have been made easier had the ruined fabric been preserved. Still great efforts have been made in the Souks project to reconstruct the spatial and urban patterns of the old Souks.

The architectural solution proposed by Moneo seeks to revitalize the ‘familiar character of a souk’[xiv] with a contemporary retail setting, within the new financial and commercial center of the city. The criteria for reconstruction emphasizes the importance of pre-existing street patterns, the revival of the old functions of the souks, and their form and location within the centre. The pre-existing streets that formed the old souks become the names of the new axes along which the new souks are arranged. These volumetrically recreate the sizes and roles of the old ones.[xv] The site connects to its context through the alignment of the interior souk streets with the city centre’s road network. Volumetrically and formally, the new souks are a spatial reconstruction of the old demolished fabric; however rather than literally reconstructing the past, Moneo’s scheme seeks to reinterpret function and form in an attempt to create ‘good’ contextual architecture. The traditional Lebanese stone arches and the structural rhythm of the old souks are reinterpreted through contemporary methods of construction and provide lighting and ventilation solutions in novel forms and materials. The retail programme is rethought in modern terms to accommodate larger brands and also incorporate parking spaces. Old locations of courtyards and squares become light-wells for the four-story underground parking and rest areas in a dense and unified retail centre. Thus the new Souks, through preserving their characteristic locations, volumes, connections and functions challenge the problem of the ‘tabula rasa’ for the reconstruction of the city and its continuity, and the idea of the city as a progressive construct through time.

In addition to the efforts to contextualize, the preservation of historical artifacts is envisioned as a strong link between the past of the site and its present. The flattening of the area revealed the many layers of archeology that had since Phoenician times shaped the city. In the new master plan they are considered ‘assets than can distinguish Beirut’, as they constitute uncovered ‘historic fabric set in a high-quality, pedestrian friendly public domain [that] are among the features that enable many European city centers to retain their role as “meeting points”.[xvi]

The Loss of Individuality, History and Memory

Despite the strategies to recreate contextual architecture and provide a much-needed ‘traditional’ fabric and historic link to the past of the city, there are major flaws in this conceptualization of the Souks, and many questions about their authenticity and their attempt at preserving the city’s rich history and character. They are inherent to the structure of Solidere and its formation, and concern the totality of the BCD project; they question the kind of  “âme de la cite” that the new central district projects.

In Rossi’s theory of the city, he identifies important values that become the basis for analyzing the character of the city; which seem to escape Solidere’s model. The study of the city is the study of its form, which is shaped by what he terms Urban Artifacts. The quality of urban artifacts describes the character of a city, and this quality is evaluated on the basis of Individuality, Locus, Memory and Design[xvii]. Evidently the tabula rasa at the outset of Solidere’s project is only the start of a complete denial of the potential of most of these values to develop.

Moneo’s scheme centers on the preservation of locus and design, in the assumption that these are enough to maintain history, memory and individuality. In the attempt to recreate the old character of the Souks, Solidere’s master plan naturally presumes that the redesign of a now huge empty plot of land in the image of its past can recreate the life it once had. Form and function become of primordial importance in rebuilding a virtual reality, in the hope that life will closely follow. Arguably, although the new character of the souks is a departure from its old traditional one, still it forms a functioning part of the city, and seems to be able to generate a history of its own in the future, and regain the status of landmark it once had.

Yet this reconstruction of the city on the basis of function and a past image of form is insufficient if the aim is to create urban artifacts and allow a progressive formation and new reality for the city.

At the basis of this discrepancy is Rossi’s theory of type and typology as the origin of the form of the city, and the embodiment of its essence and experience. The classification or planning in the case of the Beirut Souks of the architecture of the city in terms of function reduces its character to a functional one.[xviii] In Rossi’s definition, Type, the irreducible essence of the city, is concerned more with the traditions and ways of life of the city than the actual form of its architecture.[xix] In fact similar traditional rituals and functions can take many shapes in different cities. Hence what is more important in the case of the Souks than the preservation of its old volumes and forms is an understanding of the ways it operated, and the implicit character of the inhabitants and users projected through these forms. The traditional character of the Old souks was intimately tied with the ancient history of Beirut as a port-city; the Souks with time had gained their importance as the place where Beirut’s mercantile population exhibited and traded local and imported resources, products and crafts.[xx] Central to this sort of trade was the familial character perpetuated through particular trades becoming associated with certain families. The variety of trades was synonymous with that of ownership and represented the various classes and groups that inhabited the city. In the new souks this is clearly eliminated, as family names and local crafts are replaced by international and corporate brands that dramatically preclude any notion of individuality, character or locus from the new souks. There is little difference between this new retail area and any other shopping area of the city.

This loss of character is also a consequence of the change in the scale and structure of the land on which the souks are built. The notion of type is intimately associated with the structure of urban real property. The transformation of the shape, size and ownership of the plots of land of a city represent the history of the city’s urban property and the change in social classes and economic structure.[xxi] In the case of the souks, the expropriation of the many plots that formed the Old souks and their incorporation as one huge lot owned by a variety of share holders implies an abrupt change on two levels.

The first concerns the economic nature and structure of ownership displayed in the new souks, in which the direct relationship between owner and customer is completely transformed. This will be discussed further at a later stage. The latter deals with the social consequences of the exchange of property deeds into shares; it highlights the obliteration of the city’s social fabric, as well as its history and traditional modes of occupation.

The site of the souks had served as the commercial and residential center of the city since Phoenician times, through Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Mamluk, Ottoman and French periods.[xxii] The expropriation of the deeds of existing tenants and shop owners in exchange of shares automatically deprives them of their right to return and use their old premises[xxiii], effectively leading to a complete exodus of the inhabitants of the city, a process initiated by the war. This can only lead to an erasure of the site’s character and identity. In the absence of individuality there remains no collective memory to be preserved or perpetuated. This idea of collective memory is an important question especially in Beirut’s context; the city, recovering from sixteen years of division and civil war, can hardly attempt a process of reconciliation and a new definition of collectiveness, without turning to common historic landmarks and preexisting memories of the city. The incorporation of archeological ruins and historical monuments into the design of the old souks, in an effort to conserve the memory of the past and create a richer future is then a futile attempt in a context devoid of collective memory. These remaining structures of a past that is no longer experienced lose their ability to act as ‘propelling elements’[xxiv] and become aberrant artifacts in an otherwise completely new fabric. They constitute ‘pathological permanencies’[xxv] which project their pathological character onto the rest of the city rather than aid in its rebirth. Instead of forming a link to a dynamic past and initiating the revival of the city they enhance a widespread bitterness and nostalgia about a centre to which no one belongs.

FROM CENTRAL MARKET TO SELF-SUFFICIENT MALL

Changing Economies of Trade and Privatization of Public Realm

Although the war lasted sixteen years, and caused the destruction of wide areas of the centre, elsewhere in the city the rate of construction was so high it resulted in the outcome of the war yielding a much higher density of the city, accompanied by the problems associated with haphazard construction and unplanned densification.[xxvi] The city’s mode of living changed completely; prior to the beginning of the war in 1975, Beirut had gained international fame as a modern cosmopolitan city and a leading centre of trade, culture, education and entertainment in the Middle East. By the end of the war in 1991, the modern period was long gone, the capitalist project and forces of globalization in the rest of the world were well underway, and Beirut awoke from its phase of arrested development in pressing need of reconnection with the rest of the world.

Thus the project for the reconstruction of Beirut’s Central District was seen as a necessary step in opening up the city again to the international community. Yet in Solidere’s project the link to the original Lebanese identity and the character of the city was lost.

As discussed previously, the most blatant change in the economic structure of the centre was the transformation of the urban real property structure, in the BCD area, from a historic medieval fabric into a privately owned, managed and promoted real estate property marketed by stock values of land.  The newly formed shares were promoted to potential international buyers, mainly Saudi and Arab investors in an effort to attract capital.[xxvii]  This same mode of thinking was applied in the Souks project, where the new units of retail no longer belong to families and individuals but are rather rented out by international corporations and local distributors. Similarly, these shops begin to cater for a different clientele; the concentration of luxury brands and high-end retail outlets in the Souks lends a very different character to this ‘contemporary market’ than its traditional one. This is further emphasized by the changing relationships between the customer and the vendor; where in the old souks the owner is most often himself the producer, importer as well as vendor and point of contact, in the new souks retail follows the contemporary structure of globalization where there is no longer any relationship between the buyer and the merchant, by virtue of the many intermediaries that interrupt the modern processes of trade from production to selling point.

This renders the character of the new Beirut Souks more akin to that of a mall, and the study of the typological elements of the souks further exemplifies this similarity.

Loss of Context and Transition into Mall

The analysis of the change in the social fabric of the site of the souks has already demonstrated the accompanying change in character of the souks, and its lack of locus and individuality.

Furthermore, the transformation in the structure of plots and the economic processes of trade has similarly highlighted the transformation in the nature of retail and contemporary needs.

Moneo’s design reflects these changes, typologically, and can be read as an example of the adaptation of the archetype of the American suburban mall to a different context.

Based on the typology of European arcades, Victor Gruen’s suburban mall model in the 1950s had attempted to create a new commercial and self-sufficient centre in the empty suburbs of North-American cities, a ‘downtown’ in the empty fabric of suburbia.[xxviii]

One important difference between the pre-existing and the reconstructed souks is the increased scale and size of the new shops, which are more characteristic of that of the mall. Indeed, although the volumes of the old souks are maintained, ‘the major souks, al-Tawileh, al-Jamil and al-Arwam are lined with larger shops that satisfy modern retail criteria’.[xxix]

Programmatically and by their organization in plan they also follow certain configurations similar to that of contemporary Malls: ‘the main body of the project accommodates the traditional souks which are complemented by modern retail needs such as larger stores, a department store, a supermarket and increased vehicular access.’[xxx] Moneo does not attempt to hide these influences on his design, he describes one of the main souk’s street as ‘organized along the model of modern malls, anchored between a large supermarket and store on the southern end and a department store on the northern end.’[xxxi]

In addition to these functional and typological characteristics, there are elements in the planning of the new souks that emphasize its separation from the fabric, and highlight the homogeneity of its form which is uncharacteristic of the old souks. The exclusion of vehicular circulation, although envisaged as a favorable quality and an asset to the marketing of the open spaces of the Souks as public squares and meeting places, in fact reduced the huge area over which the project spans to a single plot, sealed from the rest of the city. Although the pedestrian streets connect to the vehicular road network, this does not recreate the openness of the souks to the city’s pedestrian traffic, so characteristic of the pre-war Beirut,[xxxii] as the scale of the vehicular network in the renovated central district excludes pedestrian traffic altogether, and the Beirutis’ reliance on the car has increased by manifolds since the beginning of the war. The traditional souks incorporated vehicular private transportation networks in the space of the public streets delineating them, as well as the then functioning public tramway. The emphasis on pedestrian circulation in the new souks thus emphasizes their interiorized character and the private nature of the ‘streets’ after which they are named.

Development Comparison: Beirut and Urban Mall Typology

Solidere’s Masterplan for Beirut’s Central District: Comparison of Plotsize, Access, Security, and Stakeholders

Historical Souk Structure and Role in Beirut

Typological Change: Moneo’s New Souks as Urban Mall

Typological Precedents: The Central Hall/Enclosed Courtyard
Typological Matrix

CONCLUSION

This depletion of connections to a real context, evident not only in the Souks project but throughout the Central district as well, and the marked differences between the traditional and local modes of living and experiencing the city and the lifestyle created and promoted by Solidere transforms the existing context into a void. As they target investors and customers which do not reside or belong to the city, their location within the city is not important, and they do not seek to connect to it. The Souks become what Aureli terms an ‘enclave’[xxxiii], within a sea of voided context.

If type is the embodiment of the idea of the city and its character[xxxiv], and archetype the specific model or formalization of political conflict and power relationships within the city[xxxv], then the Souks can be considered a reformulation of the archetype of the Suburban Mall.

They represent the transformation in the modes of urban management of the city from a public space of political conflict and confrontation to a totalizing private space of consumption, in which conflict is eliminated together with the citizens right to political expression and participation in the life of the city. Thus they epitomize the neo-liberal agenda hidden within Solidere’s project[xxxvi], and the primacy of economic profit over the restitution of a real centre for the city. The reconstruction project becomes merely another real estate development project, one of the many defacing Beirut’s character, history and identity.

___________

[i] Aldo Rossi, ‘The Structure of Urban Artifacts’, The Architecture of The City (Oppositions Books, 1984), p.57.  
[ii] Idem, p.60.           
[iii]
[iv] Oussama R. Kabbani, ‘Public Space as Infrastructure: The Case of the Postwar Reconstruction of Beirut’, Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City (Munich, London, New York: Prestel, 1998), p.245.
[v] Idem, p.246.
[vi] Assem Salam, ‘The Role of Government in Shaping the Built Environment’, Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City (Munich, London, New York: Prestel, 1998), p. 131.
[vii] Micheal Stanton, ‘Heavy Matters: Beirut, War, and Real Estate’, Log 9, Winter/Spring (2007), p.94.
[viii] Samir Khalaf, Heart of Beirut: Reclaiming the Bourj (London: Saqi Books, 2006), p. 129.
[ix] Idem, p.153
[x] Angus Gavin, ‘Heart of Beirut: Making the Master Plan for the Renewal of the Central District, Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City (Munich, London, New York: Prestel, 1998), p.222.
[xi] Rafael Moneo, ‘The Souks of Beirut’, Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City (Munich, London, New York: Prestel, 1998), p. 263.
[xii] Rodolphe El-Khoury, ‘The Postwar Project’, Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City (Munich, London, New York: Prestel, 1998), p.185.
[xiii] Samir Khalaf, Heart of Beirut: Reclaiming the Bourj (London: Saqi Books, 2006), p. 131.
[xiv] Rafael Moneo, ‘The Souks of Beirut’, Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City (Munich, London, New York: Prestel, 1998), p. 264.
[xv] Idem, p.264.
[xvi] Angus Gavin, ‘Heart of Beirut: Making the Master Plan for the Renewal of the Central District, Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City (Munich, London, New York: Prestel, 1998), p.220.
[xvii] Aldo Rossi, ‘The Structure of Urban Artifacts’, The Architecture of The City (Oppositions Books, 1984), p.31.
[xviii] Idem, p.46.
[xix] Idem, p.40
[xx] Samir Khalaf, Heart of Beirut: Reclaiming the Bourj (London: Saqi Books, 2006), p. 79.
[xxi] Aldo Rossi, ‘The Structure of Urban Artifacts’, The Architecture of The City (Oppositions Books, 1984), p.50.
[xxii] Rafael Moneo, ‘The Souks of Beirut’, Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City (Munich, London, New York: Prestel, 1998), p. 263.
[xxiii] Assem Salam, ‘The Role of Government in Shaping the Built Environment’, Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City (Munich, London, New York: Prestel, 1998), p. 132.
[xxiv] Aldo Rossi, ‘The Structure of Urban Artifacts’, The Architecture of The City (Oppositions Books, 1984), p.59.
[xxv] Idem
[xxvi] Rodolphe El-Khoury, ‘The Postwar Project’, Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City (Munich, London, New York: Prestel, 1998), p.183.
[xxvii] Assem Salam, ‘The Role of Government in Shaping the Built Environment’, Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City (Munich, London, New York: Prestel, 1998), p. 132.
[xxviii] Victor Gruen, Centers for the Urban Environment (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1973)
[xxix] Rafael Moneo, ‘The Souks of Beirut’, Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City (Munich, London, New York: Prestel, 1998), p. 262.
[xxx] Rafael Moneo, ‘The Souks of Beirut’, Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City (Munich, London, New York: Prestel, 1998), p. 264.
[xxxi] Idem, p.270.
[xxxii] Idem, p.264.
[xxxiii] Pier V. Aureli, The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture (London: The MIT Press, 2011), p.26.
[xxxiv] Aldo Rossi, ‘The Structure of Urban Artifacts’, The Architecture of The City (Oppositions Books, 1984), p.40.
[xxxv] Pier V. Aureli, ‘City as Political Form: Four Archetypes of Urban Transformation’, Architectural Design, Vol. 81, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2011), p.32.
[xxxvi] Mona Fawaz and Marwan Ghandour, ‘Spatial Erasure: Reconstruction Projects in Beirut’, ArteEast Quarterly, (December 2009) <http://www.arteeast.org/pages/artenews/extra-territoriality/254/>
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