Urban Crossroads #7

            Aerial view of the Beirut Central Business District. (Solidere)

            Aerial view of the Beirut Central Business District. (Solidere)

I recently had the opportunity to visit Beirut. It was my fourth visit to the city, which I first saw about thirty years ago. Although I have had the chance to see it at various stages of its recent development, my impressions of it remain those of a visitor rather than a resident.

Those of us born before the early 1960s recall Beirut as a great cosmopolitan center that "connected East and West." It was a city where Arabs, Westerners, and others all could feel at home, but also get to experience the "other." It was a center of commerce, finance, culture, and tourism. Unfortunately, the Lebanese civil war, which extended from 1975 to 1990, greatly undermined the city's stature. During the decade and a half that have passed since the end of the war, however, Beirut has undergone a massive reconstruction effort that has aimed at regaining some of the centrality within the region it previously enjoyed. This is neither a simple nor an easy task to accomplish since the region has changed considerably on the economic, political, and cultural levels since the heyday of Beirut during the 1950s and 1960s. Also, a number of cities in the region, ranging from Dubai to Amman, in their own ways have filled a good part of the vacuum resulting from Beirut's marginalization during the war. A great deal nonetheless has been achieved in Beirut during the postwar period, specially in terms of modernizing its infrastructure and upgrading various components of its service sector.

Beirut today is a vibrant and lively city that leaves numerous powerful impressions on its visitors, both positive and negative. Its driving and parking habits are even more chaotic than Amman's (something hard to imagine). Its vehicles, however, seem to cause less air pollution than the vehicles of Amman, mainly because of the restrictions placed on the types of fuel that may be used there. Its system of cars that simultaneously function as taxis and part of a public transportation system similar to Amman's "service" system is almost impossible to understand by visitors, but seem to work well for the city's residents.

A fascinating aspect of Beirut is the tremendous diversity it contains. A variety of areas, each with a distinct character, may be found in the city, all within a relatively compact spatial zone. The Central Business District (CBD), which had been badly damaged during the civil war, has been developed since the 1990s under the control of the public share-holding company, Solidere. Although the project has been the subject of considerable controversy, it nonetheless conforms to high standards of architectural design and urban planning. In fact, the CBD has the same feel as the fashionable urban upgrading projects taking place in a number of the affluent cities of the world. The CBD development project also has provided the city with much needed open public spaces, which previously had been confined primarily to the Corniche promenade. Other parts of Beirut, such as neighborhoods of the Ashrafiyya district, remind one of pleasant urban areas in southern European Mediterranean cities. On the other hand, the previously fashionable district of the Rauche, located along the sea, has become rather dilapidated, and clearly is in a need of a facelift. In addition, the city's southern parts now are dominated by sprawling low-income informal settlements, which stand in strong contrast with Beirut's more affluent districts.

Beirut is a city of many tastes where polarities come together. If you examine its eating and entertainment establishments, for example, you will find at one extreme coffee houses with yellow plastic chairs, red plastic tables, and music glaring out of large speakers. At the other extreme are the striking experimental restaurant and club buildings designed by the Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury, which are featured in numerous international publications as powerful examples of cutting-edge architecture.

A very positive aspect of life in Beirut is the richness of its street life. The high price of land in the city has made the free-standing, single-family residence economically unfeasible. Many of its neighborhoods since the 1950s therefore have been dominated by apartment buildings of six or more stories. In many cases, these buildings include shops along the ground floor (and possibly offices above them) with the apartments on top. The residents of these apartments only have to go down to the street to find most of their daily needs within walking distance: grocery stores, restaurants and cafés, shops selling everything from clothes to books, ... etc.

Beirut even has a wonderful sizable urban shopping mall, located in the Ashrafiyya district. The mall fits perfectly well within the dense pre-existing urban fabric of the area in which it is located. Most of its parking facilities are located below the mall, rather than around it, thus avoiding the common anti-urban mall prototype where the mall building is a massive structure located within a large sea of parking spaces that isolates it from any surrounding urban fabric. All this provides for powerful urban experiences that we sorely miss in Amman.

Mohammad al-Asad

June 3, 2004