By Angus Gavin

Framework for Postwar Renewal

During the 1975-90 Lebanese war, Beirut's downtown bore the brunt of destruction with the entire infrastructure and two-thirds of buildings left beyond salvage. Abandoned during the war, many derelict structures were occupied by some 20,000 displaced families. The city center foreshore lay disfigured by 15 years of uncontrolled dumping. The government's finances were stretched to the limit on a nationwide recovery program and the country's public institutions, weakened by war, were not capable of taking on a large-scale and complex project of urban restructuring. In addition, the fragmentation of private property ownership resulting from Lebanese inheritance laws, made renewal through existing ownerships a practical impossibility.

Lebanon's first postwar government was determined to turn disaster into opportunity through a unique form of public-private partnership. Creating a special zone, the Beirut Central District (BCD), the government commissioned its urban planning and formed a private development corporation - SOLIDERE - in which the BCD's former owners and tenants pooled their property assets in exchange for controlling shares, with new shareholders contributing the company's working capital. SOLIDERE was required to fund the relocation of displaced families, undertake the necessary clearances, construct the city center's entire infrastructure and public domain and carry out environmental reclamation and sea defense works on the new waterfront. In exchange for financing on behalf of government all infrastructure and land reclamation, the company was granted ownership of 29 hectares of new development land on the reclaimed area.

The Master Plan goals

The city center Master Plan provides a framework for regeneration based on these underlying goals:

  • To reconnect the city after the trauma of war and recover Beirut's lost regional role in competition with other cities.
  • To replace the traditional model of a single-use, employment-based CBD with a new kind of mixed-use, residential downtown.
  • To encourage a unique regional identity, originating in the context, climate, history and culture of the place.
  • To provide extensive green spaces in the heart of a dense city, re-establishing there the city's meeting point and common ground.
  • To reject the Modernist-inspired city of object buildings and internal private malls and create a city of active public streets and public spaces befitting the Mediterranean climate.
  • To control the massing of development by mandating maximum heights, streetwall controls and other building envelopes. In conservation areas these prescribe a scale in keeping with retained buildings, while elsewhere retaining the form and scale of the street. High-rise development is limited to key gateways or landmark sites that command spectacular views.

    Public Domain: reclaiming the city's meeting point

    In the contemporary city the public domain is widely perceived as under threat and in decline. The regeneration of Beirut's downtown is, however, producing a public domain of the highest quality.

    SOLIDERE was required under its formation decree to build the entire infrastructure and public space of the city center, comprising half its land area, and deliver it to the public authority. The company finalized the majority of the infrastructure in 1996 and continues to work through a rolling program of more than 60 public parks, gardens, squares, pedestrian areas and waterfront promenades. SOLIDERE is also undertaking the integrated design of street furniture, signage and public area lighting as well as commissioning public art for the city center. Public space is perceived to exert a significant impact on land sales, as well as creating a strong focus of attraction for the city as a whole. SOLIDERE is, therefore, motivated to build a public domain of the highest quality. Recent surveys estimate a total of 3 million visitors a year from across Lebanon and overseas, making the city center the most active visitor destination in the country. Key factors are the Mediterranean climate and lifestyle that permit and encourage the social use of public space in ways that are inconceivable elsewhere in the Middle East. Public spaces in the downtown are rapidly emerging as one of central Beirut's unique and differentiating assets.

    Conservation of the multi-layered city

    During the height of excavations in the mid 90s, central Beirut was the largest urban archeological site in the world, its output filling many gaps in Beirut's 5,000-year history. Principal source of funding these excavations, SOLIDERE has developed a strategic approach to the integration of archeological sites within the urban fabric. These past city layers are seen as a significant cultural resource and visitor attraction, projecting the uniqueness of Beirut. Key features of the strategy are the Heritage Trail and the Site Museum. The first stage of the Trail will be inaugurated in 2005. Encircling the conservation area it will link the main archeological sites and heritage buildings on a four-kilometer walking tour, starting and finishing at the ancient Tell [one of the main archeological finds]. Here a museum will be built, to celebrate Beirut's most important finds, the remains of ancient fortifications of the Canaanite-Phoenician city. Other smaller site museums are planned at key historic locations along the Trail.

    As the Heritage Trail is launched, an extensive restoration program of close to 300 buildings is nearing completion. The majority are concentrated in the historic core, with other significant clusters in the downtown's traditional residential districts. About one third of the surviving urban fabric has been salvaged, creating a significant impact on the overall project. As a total environment of conserved urban fabric in a reconstructed public domain of the highest quality, the restoration of Beirut's historic core represents a major urban regeneration achievement on a global scale.

    New Development: a mix of contextual infill and new city landmarks

    Throughout its postwar renewal, Beirut aims to recover the eclectic architectural models of the past, in which new influences from abroad continually merge with existing traditions. The city will stand by its differences, not adopt the collective identity of a global city. Its new architecture develops out of its context - landform, views of the sea and mountains, historical layers, value of the heritage, surviving street patterns and public spaces, local architectural traditions and the individual character of separate city quarters.

    While stimulating for the most part a modest urban architecture of the street and square, the context also reveals landmark sites at key city gateways, focal viewpoints, strategic and waterfront locations. Here a freer planning regime is applied, creating major architectural opportunities intended to appeal to world class designers. This is now happening, with many international architects attracted to Beirut and contributing to the repositioning of the city. In the immediate future new development opportunities will open up on Martyrs' Square and the Grand Axis of Beirut, termination of the wartime Green Line and now the subject of an international design competition. The competition goals are to give this historic place a new, popular identity, drive the repositioning of the city within the region and help reconcile the divisions that polarized Beirut during the war.

    Creating the new city waterfront

    Throughout the war years the downtown foreshore became a dumping ground for the rubble of destroyed buildings and the domestic waste of West Beirut, isolated from municipal sanitation services. By the end of the war the landfill extended 25 hectares into the sea, creating an environmental hazard in the eastern Mediterranean. Turning disaster into opportunity this landfill is being recycled and incorporated within Beirut's New Waterfront District. When completed, it will comprise a city park, corniche and quayside promenades with some 29 hectares of new waterside development land. Many sites will command spectacular views to sea and mountains, snowcapped through winter and spring. The historic First Basin of the port will be integrated within the project, with its new cruiseliner terminal and public activities.

    Altogether some 73 hectares of reclaimed land is now enclosed within a terraced sea defense system designed to withstand centennial storms, its unique caisson structure limited in height to 5.5m above sea level in order to protect sea views from deep within the city's historic core. These sea defenses also provide harbor enclosures to two new marinas, one now operational and containing a public town quay designed to house shops and restaurants, alongside a Yacht Club and residential apartments. The detailed urban planning for the New Waterfront District was carried out for SOLIDERE by a consortium of leading US firms, and won a major New Urbanism citation. The plan will turn the downtown waterfront into the destination and climax of Beirut's citywide corniche system, emphasizing mixed-use and leisure, with landmark buildings framing spectacular views towards the sea and mountains. The street network has also been designed to accommodate a Formula One Grand Prix circuit.

  • Satellite image - Beirut peninsula with City Center outlined
    City Center Master Plan 2004 Public Domain: reclaiming the city's meeting point.
    Public domain: Maarad street and the Etoile historic core .
    Conservation Area/ Foch-Allenby District.
    Landmark Project by Jean Nouvel.
    Beirut Marina.