20 Jan The Contemporary Approach to Rebuilding Cities Post-Disaster: The Case of Beirut
Almost 6 months ago, on August 4th, 2020, the city of Beirut was shaken by one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts in history. Leaving the northern side of the capital in ruins, the explosion damaged around 40,000 buildings. New contemporary structures completed recently by local international architects are now facing reconstruction dilemmas, raising existential questions such as: How should reconstruction efforts of “new” damaged buildings look like? Should architects rebuild them as they were before the blast, erasing what has happened or should they leave scars and portray new realities?
In order to explore ideas and highlight different perspectives, ArchDaily had the chance to sit with three architects whose buildings were impacted by the blast. Bernard Khoury, Paul Kaloustian, and Lina Ghotmeh talked about their projects and their vision of the reconstruction of Beirut with ArchDaily’s Managing Editor, Christele Harrouk, alongside Architectural Photographer Laurian Ghinitoiu, who documented in a featured photo series the extent of the destruction.
During the blast, three of Bernard Khoury’s buildings were directly hit by the shock waves: the recently completed Saifi #450 tower, plot #1063 (R2), and #1072, the closest residential buildings to the blast. Strangely, one of those structures had two cannons on top. Generically named after their plot numbers, these very young giants lost their cladding, glass, wood, metal, and aluminum elements along with some structural damages. ArchDaily spoke with Khoury in his office in Beirut about his perception of Lebanese history and his reconstruction efforts.
AD: Three of your projects got affected in the blast. What was the role of these particular structures in the fabric of the city and how did they address history?
BK: These three buildings, plot #450, plot #1063 (R2), and plot #1072, were very contextual buildings in many ways, addressing geography and taking the port’s colors, in order to become an extension of the existing city. Shifting from the dangerous and simplistic representation of Beirut, these structures took on a different tint, different from what some have been trying to give the city. Beirut is not “beige”. My criticism of this monochromatic beige tableau goes way back. It starts with my early reactions towards the Solidere project, the post-civil war reconstruction of the city center carried out in the 90s, and its relationship to history, which stops for some reason at the French mandate. There is no reference to the history that was so much closer to me, the Republic and the Modern Nation. Unfortunately, this take on history is still predominant when it comes to heritage and when it comes to talking about the history of this city. When there are talks about the architectural heritage being hit, everyone immediately points at the Gemmayze neighborhood with its ottoman and colonial houses, but no one ever mentions any other building built post the 1950’s. It’s always the past or the future. It’s impossible to exist in the present, and my definition of present would go as far as the early days of Independence.
Back to my projects, what was particularly interesting in the Saifi #450 is its location at the edge of Solidere that reflects events that some of us are not very proud of, and that we simply don’t want to include in our sugar-coated, monochromatic, and dangerously simplistic history.
In my opinion, with these realities comes the possibility of formulating any sort of consensual, pertinent, relevant history which precedes any reconstruction initiative. This process can eventually lead to some sort of project that allows you to exist in the present. If you don’t do that, you fail politically, you fail culturally, and you fail historically.
The #450 is built as a fortress, taking on cranes, in contradiction with other developments I was also developing at the same time, in more stable areas. In fact, I was saying one thing and exactly the opposite simultaneously. In the initial descriptive text of #450, the port is mentioned in the very first sentence. “Beirut is a port city”. The building addresses honestly the port and the sour past of this very specific neighborhood. This is not a museum, not a memorial or a project that can afford any sort of political stance. This is a residential development for a private developer, and this program allows you to take very radical postures that otherwise you wouldn’t be able to take.
No one is going to hold you accountable for whatever you’re saying therefore you can see whatever you want to say. Beirut forced me to practice architecture as a political act.
My architecture has been very much along those lines, ever since the evolving scars project in 1991, to the very first buildings I executed, B018 in 1998, followed by Centrale in 1999 and Yabani in the early 2000s. Although they were very much post-war buildings, for me war is not over.
AD: How would you imagine the reconstruction efforts in Beirut?
BK: I would take it case by case. When it comes to Mar Mkhayel and to these sectors, I think the reconstruction will be organic. After all, it is not a zone that has been deserted, it’s a totally different scenario from the Solidere project. I also think it will be much faster than we think.
AD: How would you operate on your projects? And Are you already in talks with developers to find solutions?
BK: It’s strange to operate on your own baby. Put it this way. I’ve worked before on older buildings that were not mine, but now these are my own babies and they’re quite young. I look at it as a surgical operation, and it’s definitely very interesting to see to what extent your patient is going to want to totally erase or acknowledge some scars. I’ve already sat down with developers of the most damaged project of the three, the #1072, and we’ve agreed on one thing: It will not be exactly as it was. I think that’s a statement. You would think that after this trauma, people would want to totally wipe out any trace of what has happened, but that’s not the case.
When we started working on this project back in 2009, over 10 years ago, corporate developers had their recipes, numbers that you have to match, specific methods and materials of construction. A large percentage of the cost was in foreign currency at the time. We lived in a financial bubble, the industry was part of it, and developers wanted to work with certain standards. They would for example pay huge amounts for cladding imported from China rather than taking the risk of developing something locally that might cost less but that cannot be evaluated by the book or specified on papers.
Now the skin is gone, and to go back to our former way of doing things will be financially suicidal. What I propose is to replace whatever was damaged by something that is transformed locally. We are currently in the process of assessing the percentage of surfaces that are salvageable, and the percentage of surfaces that are no longer there, and based on that, we will have clearer ideas. We started the discussion purely from a financial and economical angle, but that also could be very political.
I think working with local crafts and local artisans is a political act and it was very much part of my early days also. My first buildings were completely made from transformed material like Centrale, everything was built on site.
Considering that the damages of his projects were minor compared to the magnitude of the blast, Paul Kaloustian was confronted with the realization that a big part of his profession got affected and will never be the same. Seeing his projects in distress, such as the famous Ballroom Blitz nightclub, left a lot of bitterness. ArchDaily sat with Paul in one of his refurbished interventions in the Gemmayze neighborhood, talking about his architectural vision.
AD: How do you think this Blast will impact the architectural scene?
PK: I think the three main events that occurred last year, the economic collapse, the coronavirus, and the blast, gave the Lebanese design community, or the people who are interested in thinking further, time to take a step back, look from afar and reflect on our reality. Actually, I feel that, now, we’re living in limbo outside of reality, the reality being our infected and corrupted past life. We as designers found a way to work in this chaos.
Alain Badiou, a French Philosopher talks about the theory of the event. By event, he actually means a shift in realities, a change that makes things different and without it, no transformation would have been possible. Maybe we should perceive this blast as an event, with a “before” and an “after”. People usually react immediately, especially in our culture, and fix what is broken. They rebuild, and in other words, they go back to the past. What I am proposing for myself is to take some distance to think of new possibilities, of a new world, to take this as an event and not get busy in reconstruction without having the time to invent something new. I’m not saying that I’m going to do a revolution and change the system, but at least our way of thinking should be different. I’m not sure how, but at least it’s about breaking out from this prevailing chaos and start creating outside of this reality.
Re-question everything in order to reinvent, rather than staying stuck in our own version of Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, where we build on false feelings of achievement, fulfillment, happiness, and what we call resilience. This resilience that Lebanese people talk about is misplaced in my opinion, and I can’t help myself to question: are we robots, imbeciles, or superheroes?
Taking a distance and producing something different. Shifting our architecture in a sense that we start thinking of nature more often, of permeability and outside connections, etc., leaving the flamboyant behind. We should get back to our human scale. Our chance is this step back. This is where I am at the moment, it’s not very specific but if this happens on a big scale, there would be some momentum of change. Revolution should be in ideas.
AD: How do you perceive Reconstruction? What should be rebuilt exactly the same and what shouldn’t? How would you save the urban Fabric and the collective memory?
PK: Zumthor takes history as something that is in movement. If he has ruins, he would build on them, creating a new layer. This is quite daring, but also very interesting for us. The formula is easy in terms of restoration, but when it comes to the urban fabric, it’s much more complex, especially that it was already in peril. I believe as architects we cannot resolve this issue, there must be special regulations and policies.
On another hand, buildings cannot be rebuilt exactly like they were before the blast. Even signature buildings. Something should say that this is a different epoch. Lebbeus Woods proposed organisms connected to existing structures for example. Following this same logic, what if we imagine something similar in our case, new additions to our private residential buildings, creating semi-public spaces, and opening up to the city. This shows positivism by injecting what we as architects think is important into the private sector, such as public space, nature, etc. The most important thing is not to fall for kitsch, symbolism, and cheesy romantic approaches.
AD: How do you think this event will change your future conceptual process and your approach to architecture?
PK: Before the blast, I was already interested in a certain new kind of architecture and I was pursuing it through new forms, new space. I was on the right track in terms of vision, but I think I need to take these concepts a bit further.
First, we have to locate ourselves within the planet situation, and the local situation. My direction is a bit more towards going back to the essence of the human, introducing light approaches, creating new perceptions, experimenting with scales, and always ask: why not and how to do it differently? Basically, it’s about making people reconnect with the enchantment of the world. In my opinion, there is no place anymore for dogmas or movements, each architect has the freedom to pursue his own style, going in his own direction.
There is no ideology, everything is possible. The power of humans resides in intuition, creativity, perceptions, in stuff that we cannot explain. I think we should take more advantage of this.
Lina Ghotmeh: The Memory of the Event
Lina Ghotmeh’s Stone Garden project was in its last finishing stages when the blast happened. Barely a mile away from the location of the explosion, the sculpted mass withstood the shock, but all its glass and metal elements were completely destroyed. ArchDaily discussed with the architect the impact of the disaster on her project as well as her take on the reconstruction of contemporary architecture in Beirut.
AD: What projects of yours got affected in the blast? what is the extent of the damages?
LG: I have just completed the Stone Garden project, a tower near the Port and barely a mile away from the location of the explosion. This is a building dedicated to housing and an art gallery dedicated to image and production in the Middle East (Mina Image Center). The project had both an architectural significance and a social one. Architecturally, I intended this tower as an expression of the city of Beirut, its built-scape, its history. It is a sculpted tower, anchored in its ground, hand combed by skilled artisans; it held a positive out-take on the city harvesting nature at the heights of Beirut. All the windows had inbuilt gardens along with the floors. It is a kind of hopeful Renaissance. The building had also a social meaning, the gallery revived Middle eastern photography, image production. Crossing as Beirut civilizations and cultures in its content. The apartments are all different, individualized by their owners. One can escape with freedom here from the typical and prototypical generic apartment plans that continuously dictated a social family structure in the city.
The explosion fell really along my trip to finalize the last finishes and deliver the project. The building with its measured glass façade acted as a bunker. Its massive earthly body was intact. The young trees remained in position at heights. Nonetheless all the windows, the metalwork was completely shattered, the elevators totally warped. The interiors of the apartments all out of place….
The developer already 3D scanned all the building to evaluate the damages. The great difficulty today is the funding, how to finance all the works of rehabilitation. It is very difficult, everyone is on the verge of bankruptcy and no means at the moment…
AD: How would you like to imagine the reconstruction of contemporary damaged architecture in Beirut?
LG: We should give a thought to how we want to reconstruct? What to offer to the city? How to build on the memory of this event? What message shall a trace leave if left?
Maybe there should be a common thread, a physical gesture that we should see repeating in all of the buildings that got damaged. A reminder of the social responsibility of governance. Of the responsibility of generations not to accept and be subdued to the status quo.
The new reality is there and we should integrate it into our rebuilding; I am an archeologist at heart. I like to dig, to trace, to leave the marks of the past, to reinterpret. I think we should build this palimpsest of stories, make this memory physical in a way. It is not about perpetuating drama but about learning from the past and architecture is one of our tools.
AD: Can you tell us more about your philosophy on the issue- on how reconstruction efforts of “new” buildings should look like?
LG: One has to question the public dimension of the buildings, the explosion – as violent it may be – proved that all these structures are interlinked, they got more or less damaged. The question now is what new relation with the public space can we establish and integrate.
I am also questioning this time between the destruction and the start of reconstruction. How can we exploit this ruin?
There is almost the possibility to transform this in-between state of the buildings. What if these structures become Public Labs while waiting for reconstruction, or accentuated havens of green life. I also feel that there is also a poetic aspect to bring into the building’s interior, I am still very much marked with the glass shattering. I keep seeing the interiors all enveloped with glass debris in my mind.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: The Future of Cities. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.