The Heart of Beirut

A yellow helium balloon lifts up from its launching pad carrying passengers into the sky above downtown Beirut. Two hundred yards to the northwest, the remains of buildings blasted by the car bomb that killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri last February are gradually being dwarfed by the shells of high-rises under construction along the waterfront. A few blocks to the east—in a part of the city undergoing massive reconstruction since being decimated by the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990—hundreds of thousands of demonstrators assembled last spring to call for an end to the country’s occupation by Syrian troops.

A landscaped installation by Harvard architecture professor Hashim Sarkis, the ballooning site was one of a series of temporary spaces meant to bring the public back into the central city to survey its redevelopment. Relocated north of the historic core last December to make way for two more towers, the short-lived installation inadvertently witnessed a revolution that transformed the downtown area from a symbol of violence and political opportunism into one of freedom as well as a testament to the value of open public space. “Demon-strators would usually gather close by because it’s near the assassination site, and then they would walk to Martyrs’ Square,” Sarkis says, referring to a nearby historic site. “We tried to maintain its openness so it could be used for public activities—a clearing in the city that is being rebuilt.”

The protests, which led to Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon last April, also confirmed the conviction of private redevelopment corporation Solidere that public spaces set aside as part of the rebuilding process were renewing Beirut’s legacy as the “Paris of the Middle East.” Unlike Sarajevo, whose piecemeal reconstruction by public aid agencies has left it divided a decade after the end of the Bosnian war, Beirut’s controversial strategy of redevelopment through a private corporation empowered with regulatory authority and eminent domain has restored the center as a place of national unity. “Downtown is the common ground,” says Angus Gavin, the British urban-development division manager for Solidere. “The protests demonstrated that. It’s the political arena for the country.”

Until those spring demonstrations, downtown Beirut had become synonymous with the corporation formed to spearhead its reconstruction. Created by Prime Minister Hariri in 1994 to raise funds for the redevelopment of 472 acres of bullet-ridden, bombed-out buildings and reclaimed waterfront landfill, Solidere took possession of the entirety of central Beirut, issuing stocks to compensate property owners and selling additional shares to private investors. As the public sold off their stocks en masse the shares began tanking and large investors, including the prime minister, were able to gain interest of up to 10 percent. To some Lebanese it looked like a bait-and-switch operation designed to turn downtown Beirut into a playground of the rich. Others were simply happy to gain from their investment.

“During the war years it became clear to the government that they wouldn’t be able to finance reconstruction of the infrastructure,” says Gavin, who previously managed a section of the successful London Docklands project. “They could also see that the existing owners wouldn’t be able to sort it out, so they created this real estate concept—initially just for a few small areas. Hariri took the concept and extended it to the whole city center.”

As part of Solidere’s redevelopment plan, 20,000 refugee families squatting in abandoned buildings were paid to leave, and all but 291 historic structures were demolished. Upscale hotels, high-end apartments, expensive restaurants, and brand-name shops slowly began to take shape behind renovated facades and New Urbanist encampments. Swanky new bank buildings were constructed, and a private yacht club and waterfront marina by Steven Holl is scheduled to begin construction this year. But Solidere also set aside 20 percent of the property downtown for more than 60 open public spaces, including waterfront walkways, excavated Roman baths, memorial gardens, parks, and squares. “The idea of common ground is not something a private development corporation would normally talk about,” Gavin says, “but we feel that this project is not going to work unless it re-creates the one part of this country that is of symbolic importance to all Lebanese.”

In 2004 Solidere held an international urban-design ideas competition for Martyrs’ Square, an immensely symbolic site just east of renovated Cath-olic, Orthodox, and Maronite cathedrals, Sunni and Shiite mosques, and a “Garden of Forgiveness,” being built by British landscape architecture firm Gustafson Porter to open in 2007. The square had served as a sort of Lebanese Washington Mall after the Ottoman period—its name refers to the 1916 execution of opponents of Ottoman rule—but it was eclipsed by French colonial planning in the 1930s and almost completely destroyed during the civil war. The corporation put the site’s shifting identity at the forefront of the competition, inviting entrants to reimagine the square as a part of a renewed city center that would reposition Beirut within the region and reconnect the nation’s 18 different religious groups to an active mixed-use downtown.

Then, just as the short-listed teams were preparing their final designs, the prime minister was assassinated and Martyrs’ Square was swept up into a scene of anti-Syrian protests. “A lot of things changed,” says Amira Solh, a Cornell University-trained Leb-anese planner who supervised the competition. “But interestingly enough, our goals and objectives talked about its importance as a place of coming together, and the designs all had to take into account the identity that society gives the space.”

Among the things that had changed was the incorporation of a shrine to Hariri into the site, for now a tent containing his tomb surrounded by posters of the square in full flag-waving revolt. Another thing was the name: Martyrs’ Square had been popularly rechristened Freedom Square. But most remarkably, despite terrorist bombings and political instability, money began pouring in from the Arab world; far from driving away investment, the protests increased property values. Solidere announced the winners of the competition in May—a Greek team—and displayed the finalists’ designs in the Beirut City Center Building, a Mod-ernist icon being renovated by renowned Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury.

“If you look at the history of inner-city renewal, it was thought of as a public-sector effort, and those projects were almost all disasters,” Gavin says. “The city turns out to be far more complex than what was realized. The essential benefit of attracting private investment into urban regeneration is that you’re always adapting to what people want. And what we discovered is that public space is part of the mechanism to sell land.”

Nowhere are those complexities more apparent than in Martyrs’ Square, where the first Virgin Megastore in the Middle East opened in the former Beirut Opera House in 2001. Raided by police who confiscated hundreds of DVDs the following year, it provided free bathrooms during the demonstrations last spring. It was yet another manifestation of classic liberal economic theory: “A revolution of the greatest importance to the public happiness,” Adam Smith wrote in 1776 of the effect of commerce on cities, “was…brought about by…people who had not the least intention to serve the public.”

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