January 31, 2007
“Beirut: a thousand times destroyed, a thousand times reborn” is a saying popular enough to have once graced the posters of Lebanon’s national airline. Except for the bombing of Beirut airport and important infrastructural arteries, however, forthcoming architecture projects in the capital city have emerged unscathed from the recent tension between Lebanon and Israel.
Prior to the Lebanon-Israel conflict, Beirut’s most comprehensive rebirth was begun under a reconstruction campaign spearheaded by the country's late prime minister, al-Hariri, through Solidere, The Lebanese Company for Development and Reconstruction of the Beirut City Center. Established in 1994 following a 15-year- long civil war, Solidere commissioned leading architects to give a new face to the city, once feted as the Paris of the Middle East.
The plethora of Solidere-sponsored projects includes the city’s new marina, designed by Steven Holl and L.E.FT and for which excavation just began; completion is expected by 2009. The project is overwhelmingly significant for a nation of seafaring merchants: It is conceived as an urban beach of public spaces; its centerpiece building, which will include apartments, a yacht club, shops, and restaurants, comprises staggered volumes to recall the lapping of waves.
The London-based landscape design firm Gustafson-Porter is also playing a large role in the Solidere operation with Shoreside Walk, a redesign for a stretch of former shoreline, and the Garden of Forgiveness, a green space emphasizing the common ties of people seeking reconciliation after civil strife. Neil Porter, a director at Gustafson-Porter, speaks with passion about working in the city: “While it may be an environment where money is not so easily found, awareness of essential principles such as design integrity and ecological sustainability make working in Beirut a challenging and rewarding experience.” The Garden may take on new meaning as cross-border tolerance is debated; meanwhile, the recent spate of violence has delayed realization, perhaps to 2009.
Jean Nouvel, much acclaimed in the Middle East for his Institute of the Arab World Building in Paris, is the architect of a cutting-edge multi-purpose development currently being built in downtown Beirut. The $200 million complex, due to be completed in 2008, is expected to become an icon, its 40-story campanile-like tower soaring above the city center. Limestone-colored like the country's historic architecture, the tower will be sheathed in perforated aluminum shutters, recalling the latticework of the traditional Arab house that also inspired the IMA entrance facade.
Not all design luminary–linked projects have been commissioned by investors like Solidere. Vincent James Associates Architects (VJAA) has designed a soon-to-be completed student center for the American University in Beirut, a century-old institution that is also the patron of a building by Zaha Hadid that will open in 2008. “It's an opportunity to deal with critical environmental and energy-saving-related issues, while catering to the needs of a really dynamic society and reflecting the lifestyles generated by the Mediterranean climate,” VJAA principal Jennifer Yoos, says of the project. The VJAA design features carefully articulated masses interspersed with open courtyards to capture hillside breezes, and it provides students with a mix of common spaces, including the rooftop terraces that define the local quality of life.
Many of the heavyweight architect-planners working in Beirut, such as Boston-based Hashim Sarkis, currently working on TK, and L.E.FT founders Makram el-Kadi, Ziad Jamaleddine, and Naji Moujaes, have deep-rooted ancestral ties to Lebanon. And although their designs have weathered the most recent storm, like the rest of their resilient compatriots, they're holding their breath for fear of renewed political instability while engaging in that quintessentially Lebanese tradition of awakening the phoenix.