The built environment of Beirut is rapidly changing, and this transformation is destroying much of the city’s rich architectural fabric. Surrounded by the new towering Beirut is the unique and heavily scarred structure of the Egg.
Built by the Lebanese architect Joseph-Philippe Karam in 1965, and dubbed “the Egg” due to its curved form, it is the only surviving building in the downtown area from Lebanon’s vibrant avant-garde movement. Much of the rest of this heritage was destroyed during the civil war (1975-1990), a legacy marked on the outer skin of the Egg.
The Egg, after surviving the war, may not survive the recovery. Beirut’s booming real estate market is resulting in the removal of Beirut’s unique built heritage to make way for the ubiquitous skyscraper. The threat of the Egg being destroyed sparked a wave of emotion among many Lebanese increasingly distressed at the continued demolition of their architectural heritage. There has been substantial online activism and media attention to stop Abu Dhabi Investment House, the owners of the site, destroying the Egg. The activists are also vexed by the fact that it is a company from the Gulf that will decide whether the structure will be removed or not. Comments such as “Our identity and culture as Lebanese is not for sale for Gulf millionaires,” capture the frustration.
The Egg is at the centre of a battle over the future of Beirut and the type of city it should become. Beirut has a wonderful and prolific architectural heritage, as does Lebanon as a whole. Although the city has been plagued by successive urban planning failures, a quality urban fabric of Ottoman and French colonial-style buildings did establish itself. As an independent Lebanon entered the 1950s a layer of significant modernist buildings was added. This continued into the 1960s and Beirut, by the end of that decade, had a internationally significant and unique body of modernist architecture. This rich heritage, built mainly by Lebanese master builders and architects, is being squandered.
The “Paris of the Middle East” is increasingly becoming a “Dubai of the Levant”. Even after the global financial crisis, Dubai remains the city to emulate in Lebanon. This change in the character of the built environment is being pushed mainly by speculative property developers and the Lebanese business community, and resisted mainly by architects and civil society activists. Currently, it is the former that is winning the debate.
The result is that the city is being turned into a series of suffocating canyons. Outdated planning laws mean there are no formal height restrictions. If your building is set back far enough from the street then the sky is the limit. Some developers have taken this apparent challenge all too literally. In Beirut’s Ashrafieh district, in the east of the city, a 50-storey building, named Sama Beirut (Beirut Sky), is being built, replacing four-storey French mandate art deco buildings. This pattern is being replicated all over the city. Historic buildings are ripped down for unplanned and ill-proportioned skyscrapers.
Many of those pushing for a Dubai-style environment point to Solidere as an example of how Lebanon is preserving its architectural heritage and economically progressing. Solidere, founded in 1994 by the late prime minister, Rafik Hariri, has been rapidly rebuilding the centre of Beirut that was completely destroyed during the 15-year civil war which ended in 1990. The Solidere project covers an area of 472 acres of land and has at great cost artfully and painstakingly reconstructed the Ottoman and French colonial style buildings that were turned to rubble during the civil war.
The total reconstruction of the historic core of downtown Beirut was a powerful political statement but a weak architectural one. The architectural community in Lebanon is very uneasy about what Solidere has recreated. The Solidere project is often described as a “Disney Downtown“. Critics are also increasingly indignant of the focus of Solidere on recreating the Ottoman and French-style buildings that previously existed. Meanwhile, real existing Ottoman and French mandate buildings elsewhere in the city are torn down for more profitable skyscrapers.
A genuine history is being destroyed while a fake one is being built. The Solidere project has clearly illustrated in its reconstruction of the downtown area that once this heritage is gone it cannot be rebuilt. This process is creating a battle over what some are calling the “soul” of the city. As Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury protested: “We’re not Dubai – we have a soul.” This may not be so for long.