Returning to Beirut, An Architect Has Designs on Its Future

The Wall Street Journal

Returning to Beirut,
An Architect Has
Designs on Its Future

Bernard Khoury’s Plan
In Restoring a Building
Is Not to Forget the War
June 25, 2004; Page A1

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Bernard Khoury stared up at an egg-shaped building,
half of it sheared away. A tangle of broken concrete, rusting girders
and bent steel rods stuck out the side. What remained was pocked with
bullet and shell holes. But for the Harvard-trained Lebanese architect,
here was something to behold. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “Like Beirut is

Slated for destruction as recently as last year, the Beirut City Center
Building is among the last structures in Beirut’s once war-torn downtown
that still bear the scars of the war that raged off and on here until
1990. The building, constructed in the 1960s, has been empty since 1975,
when the conflict first broke out in the city commonly called the Paris
of the Middle East.

Beirut went on to suffer a decade and a half of shooting and shelling by
ethnic clans, religious fanatics and the Israeli, U.S. and Syrian
militaries. Since the end of the war, much of the area around the City
Center building has been restored through a monumental, and often
controversial, renewal effort led by a private development company,
Solidere, whose biggest investor, Rafik Hariri, is now Lebanon’s
billionaire prime minister.

Tourists once again fill downtown Beirut’s pavilions, which are lined
with Italian, French and Mediterranean cafés. The downtown renovation
has erased almost all signs of the war. Assem Salam, a prominent
Lebanese architect and Solidere critic, says it “has been done with a
total disregard for the memory of the city.”

But in a region where strife is again on the rise, the City Center
building’s path to preservation shows how Beirut’s turbulent past
continues to intrude on its present — and future.

Although Mr. Khoury, 35 years old, grew up in Beirut, he barely
remembers the distinctive egg-shaped dome from back then. The war
started when he was 7 years old. Downtown was especially contested
precisely because it was the area where the city’s ethnic and religious
hodgepodge — Druze, Maronite Christians, Shiite Muslims and
Palestinians — mixed each day and held competing claims. It became a
fearsome no-man’s land, divided by a “Green Line” demarcating the almost
completely Christian east side from the mostly Muslim west. Though
Christian, Mr. Khoury’s immediate family lived on the predominantly
Muslim side of the city, separated from relatives in the east.

Mr. Khoury left Lebanon in 1986 to attend the Rhode Island School of
Design, and then Harvard University’s architecture school, where he
became interested in the reconstruction of his hometown, just getting
under way. He returned with big ideas, mostly for the monumental
architecture he figured would mark the effort. But after more than a
dozen attempts to win major commissions, he came up empty. Solidere was
meticulously rehabilitating downtown, but largely in a refined French
Colonial style. Mr. Khoury bristled at this “postcard image” of the
Middle East. “There was just nothing here for me,” he says.

But after moving to New York in 1997 — for good, he thought — Mr.
Khoury was asked by a friend to design a dance club back in Beirut. The
project wasn’t exactly what he had aspired to, but he agreed to do it.
The site for the new club, eventually named B018, had a long history as
a refugee camp: Armenians congregated there around the first World War
and Palestinians in the early 1970s. In 1976, about 1,000 Palestinians
were massacred on the spot just after the beginning of the war.

Mr. Khoury says that kind of history can’t be ignored, even for a dance
club. So he designed a dark, bunker-like underground space with a
retractable roof and a dance floor studded with benches clearly designed
to evoke coffins. Criticized by some as utterly macabre, B018, named for
the number of an apartment where the club owner threw parties during the
war, attracted a big local and international following. It also won Mr.
Khoury a measure of acclaim in architectural circles.

That led to bar and restaurant commissions from Beirut to Berlin,
another city struggling to integrate its past with its present and
future through architecture.

Meanwhile, Solidere continued with its multibillion-dollar recasting of
downtown and frequently hired eminent architects and urban designers.
Despite long delays and financing headaches, the project helped put
Beirut back on the international bon vivant circuit. What was once the
local opera house is now a Virgin MegaStore. Officials talk of bringing
Formula One auto racing to town.

The next big phase of the project was launched earlier this month with
an international competition to design what’s known as Martyr’s Square,
a once bustling plaza where ethnic groups mixed more than almost any
place else in the country. It is now a barren swath of land. But plans
to revitalize the square have forced a confrontation with one painful
result of the war: Balkanized into sectarian enclaves, Beirut is still a
long way from the mixing pot it once was. Solidere planners want a
rejuvenated Martyr’s Square to help remedy that. “It’s the only place
where all the groups in the city really came together. That has to
happen again,” says Angus Gavin, who manages the urban development
division of Solidere. “If [downtown] works, it means the idea of a
multireligious, multiethnic society is back in business.”

Overlooking Martyr’s Square is the wreck of the Beirut City Center
Building. It was designed in the 1960s by Lebanese architect Joseph
Philippe Karam. At the time, Lebanon was coming into its own two decades
after gaining independence from the French. Beneath the large white
dome, which housed a theater and exhibition space, were six underground
floors of shopping and parking.

The war brought a long period of neglect. In the early ’90s Lebanon’s
finance ministry eyed the building as a headquarters, and even
constructed a foundation and four basement floors for a new tower next
to the egg before aborting the project. At first, Solidere recognized
little special about the building and planned to demolish it. But as
Solidere Chairman Nasser Chamma squired celebrity architects around town
in the past year, many were struck by the odd-shaped building next to
Martyr’s Square. “I’m glad we didn’t do anything to it,” Mr. Chamma

Having decided to spare the building, Solidere officials didn’t know
what to do with it. But they did know who might: Mr. Khoury. He jumped
at the chance.

Classic restoration, though, isn’t what he has in mind. He plans to
surround the distinctive dome in huge red scaffolding that spreads out
over the whole property, giving it the permanent feel of a construction
site. The surface of the building will be left as is — bullet pocks,
mortar holes, crumbling plaster and all — wrapped in wire mesh. A
pavilion below the dome will be studded with windows onto the
subterranean floors, which will house gallery and exhibition spaces.

Solidere officials say they’re excited, and they especially hope the new
City Center will attract more young residents downtown. So does Mr.
Khoury. But if it does, he points out, the attraction will be the way
Beirut’s past and future intersect in its present. “It’s a complicated
situation, and I like complicated situations,” he says.

–Farnaz Fassihi contributed to this article.

Write to Bill Spindle at [email protected]