The Politics of Non-Erasure
A research project and proposal into the complex history of post-war reconstruction and production of space in Beirut through the comparison of two post-destruction reconstruction projects: the Central District and Haret Hreik in the southern suburbs.
Until recently, Beirut's Central District was emblematic of a neutral space bordered by many subgroups, serving a variety of functions without being controlled by any one group. The square was a commemorative space, an entertainment center, and a transportation hub. Existing as a “border between different communities,” the center served as both “separator or buffer between rival communities,” and “their meeting place.”1 During the civil war, the Central District became a no man’s land for the same reasons, and the city became more divided than ever. Public spaces and services suffered and public life became polarized.
The civil war left the city center overwhelmingly destroyed. The Saint-George hotel, which had been a destination for the international community from its construction in 1929 until the civil war, went up in flames in the Battle of the Hotels. Through a process of expropriation, a private company, Solidere, erased individual claims on space and reconfigured the territory for the flow of global capital rather than mediator among Lebanese. Solidere was selective in retaining religious buildings and erasing modernist buildings, modifying the city’s spatial history as one formed primarily by religious and sectarian forces. Additionally, Solidere's treatment of waqfs redefined mosques as monuments rather than spaces integrated with the economy of daily life by removing the infill from the icon. After the war, Solidere cleared Martyr’s Square except for a few buildings and the commemorative statue. In 2005 and 2007, it became the site of massive political protests, first anti-Syrian, then anti-government.
Hezbollah reconstructed Haret Hreik after the 2006 Isreali war and bombing that left 265 buildings destroyed and over 1300 damaged.2 The quick on-site resettlement was a landmark in the history of the city and the project was praised as an alternative to the Solidere model of reconstruction. However, Hezbollah prioritized “memory of place” to rebuild the neighborhood how it was before as possible even though the neighborhood had problems like traffic, and lack of sidewalks and playgrounds.3 Most improvements were in the private space of the dwellings. The reconstruction neglected common space and held private property to be the most important metric of value. The project reduced a complex spatial history to an aggregate of individual property claims and did not offer a neutral public space in which to defuse tensions and reduce division.
Since the war, the owner of the Saint-George hotel has attempted to reconstruct only be have efforts consistently thwarted by Solidere. In 2001, Solidere took control of the marina around the Saint-George and built a seawall, effectively erasing the hotel’s waterfront access. The hotel has become a symbol against Solidere and today serves as a buffer zone between Solidere, non-Solidere, the Corniche, and Zaitunay Bay.
The proposal for the Saint-George uses the program of the pre-war Martyrs’ Square as a model to recreate a neutral but active meeting and memorial space where active programs, public space, circulation, and economic activity are all woven into space of non-erasure. The building as an icon of pre- and post-war Beirut and as a site of activism against Solidere meets the active infill of restaurants, cafés, a cinema, a nightclub, a public square, a bus station, a hotel, and an open air souq market dedicated as a waqf. The preserved wall functions as both a memorial to Hariri and as a didactic apparatus about the conflict. Moments where active programs intersect and cross the damaged wall put the project in contrast with the fantasy of erasure in the facing Zaitunay Bay project. The volume on the upper level allows visitors to see out from a vantage point used in the Battle of the Hotels in the context of new high-rise hotels, the central district, the old shoreline walk, and Zaitunay Bay. The shifted grid forces the hotel rooms to angle out towards the sea, away from what was coastline but is now Zaitunay Bay.
Professor: Mark Waisuta.