Central London is a city of many layers. The Romans, Saxons, Normans, Tudors, Georgians and Victorians have all left their mark, as one period has built on the remains of another. Often the street patterns remain but the buildings change. The multiple layers are a result of the destruction of the city after the Roman occupation, the Great Fire and the Blitz, as well as of the unsentimentality of both the Victorians and the post WW2 reconstructors.
In this regard we are pretty unusual compared to many European cities which have tended to protect their old towns more rigorously. But I was interested to find even deeper layers of underlying civilisations when I visited Beirut recently. The levantine city has seen off the Phoenicians, the Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and the French. It has also been damaged by wars as well as natural disasters.
The civil war of 1975-1990 killed many and laid waste much; the eye of the storm was the boulevards and buildings of the centre of the city where Muslims and Christians from east and west Beirut respectively attacked each other across this urban killing field.
The area was traditionally a meeting point for Lebanon’s multi-faith society - Sunni and Shia muslims, Maronite christians and Druze - and their mosques and churches remain the heart of the reconstruction project for the central area which has been carried out by the public/private development agency Solidere over the last two decades.
Brit Angus Gavin - formally of the London Docklands Development Corporation - was responsible for the masteplan. Gavin retained much of the street grid and view corridors from before the war, opened up some of the Roman remains, restored key landmarks and hired a bevy of international names to design new buildings.
I have to admit that I had been under the illusion that much of the work by Solidere was pastiche recreation of the French Mandate city, but discovered that many of the buildings, reduced to bullet pock-marked shells in the fighting, had been convincingly restored. Set in pedestrianised areas - a massive relief from the utter chaos of Beirut traffic - the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ has come back to life (although retail is suffering as the Syrian war deters high spending tourists from the Gulf). Rafael Moneo has designed the Beirut Soukh, a modern interpretation of the old markets on the site. My companion, a local architectural historian, was unimpressed, taking the view that the Virgin megastore and high end jewellers that now occupy this mall are no substitute for the small trading families that would have inhabited the soukh before the war.
One of the most impressive contemporary buildings is the headquarters of the Audi Bank designed by Australian Kevin Dash with polite and clean cut facades using the obligatory sandstone cladding and internal galleria with artworks collected by the bank’s owner. Robert Adam has designed a new office building with an unusually exotic reinterpretation of traditional Ottoman and Islamic forms.
Moving away from the restored heart we find 3Beirut, a collection of towers by Foster and Partners, and Beirut Terraces by Herzog and de Meuron with characteristic cantilevered balconies and lots of greenery. Across the Marina is a yacht club by Steven Holl, not one of his best buildings. Renzo Piano is building a museum on one side of Martyrs’ Square and Allies and Morrison a residential quarters on another. Jean Nouvel produced designs for a remarkably out-of-scale tower which seems to be on hold and is unpopular with the locals.
Looking at photos of the city from the early 90s, it is evident that what has been achieved is impressive. As a piece of city making the restored streets are more successful than the high rise apartments, which offer little to the public realm. But why so many overseas architects? There are some good Lebanese architects like Bernard Khoury, Nabil Golam and, from the younger generation, Lina Ghotmeh, one of the team that recently completed the Estonian National Museum.
In the years to come the Solidere development area will expand into infill areas towards the sea to the north. I trust the new-build there will continue the sense of city rather than become a collection of set pieces by the global names.
This article first appeared in New London Quarterly