2 Giugno Giu 2013 0905 02 giugno 2013

Hedonist urbanism, a Beirut street report


Beirut Hedonism

‘Ok. Here we are. There is a nice Italian shop here. Another one there.’
‘Nice. There are a lot of those. But you told me that we were going to see the souk....’
‘This is the souk!’
‘What do you mean? Are you kidding me? Have you been drinking?’

Crossroads between three continents. Gateway to the East. Paris of the East. The conglomeration that goes by the name of Beirut seems to have a built-in capacity for stimulating the word mint that pre- dates globalization. As of late a new label is becoming increasingly popular for the capital of Lebanon: ‘Las Vegas of the Med.’ Everyone seems to agree: a new hedonism has found hospitality on the Lebanese shores. Is this hedonism a reflection of Beirut's mythical joie de vivre? Or is it induced by Beirut's new urbanism? Is it possible to theorize such parallelism? And, if so, to what ultimate metaphor is it aspiring? Parallelisms are always problematic, yet, the scale at which the phenomenon is occurring is so overwhelming that it must mean something. Could Beirut be the final arena of the cultural disconnect between words and what they imply? Confusion between languages, references, constituencies that beget greater semantic confusion? Or the agreed upon meaning of words, such that, within the same conglomeration, different people use different words to give a name to the same thing? Is this due to a lack of authenticity? Identity gets blurred. What is left? 

The conglomeration that goes by the name of Beirut is experiencing a building boom that has been going on for four decades, with a dramatic acceleration in the last. Both its size and its numbers have gone through the roof. It is a boom that has no precedent and knows little pause. Nothing seems to be able to stop it. Terrorist attacks, pandemic viruses, political instability, financial crisis, volcanic clouds: all events that, in the first decade of the XXI century, were (normally) held responsible for provoking global crisis in the rest of the world have not as yet affected the Beirut building carnage. This makes Beirut a unique case study. Not even civil war managed to halt this feverish activity, which, to the credit of Lebanese resilience and resourcefulness, created a Med paradox: there was more square footage built than demolished during and after the war. To understand the complexity of this phenomenon, it is necessary to examine the ups and downs of recent Lebanese history, which has given rise to a contested space in which all the polarities and contradictions of global society emerge so radically as to permeate almost everything: language, customs, social behavior, human interactions, and the two most important phenomena engulfing the physical and virtual space of globalization—vehicular and data traffic. 

3 THE 9- 11 EFFECT 
There are many reasons for Beirut’s feverish building activity, both local and global. Is this what glocal is all about? The first reason has to do with a dramatic shortage of housing in the face of the enormous demand unleashed by the fifteen-year-long Lebanese civil war, which has pitted Christian against Muslim communities in the eastern and western halves of the city, and left entire sections of the city tabula rasa. The hard facts: two thirds of the urban fabric beyond salvage, total dysfunction of the infrastructure, extreme fragmentation of existing property ownership, a polluted shoreline irrevocably altered by a year of uncontrolled dumping of the city's domestic waste, the rubble of destroyed buildings, and the detritus of war. The second reason has to do with the fact the three Lebanese passport holders out of four live outside the country but want a home in Beirut. The third reason is that there is very little to invest in Lebanon other than real estate: no stock exchange, no commodities. The fourth reason is not local and is unexpected: 9-11. Uncannily enough, the terrorist strike of September 2001 turned out to be a formidable benefit for the Lebanese economy due to the newfound hostility toward Arab culture the West started to harbor in the aftermath of the attack. This attitude redirected much Arab investment to Beirut, setting off a feverish urban demand based on the many facets of leisure of the Mediterranean lifestyle. Luxury hotels, boutiques, restaurants, night clubs, and high-end dwellings launder the tabula rasa and its memory and set the stage for shopping in a 24-hour safe, clean IT zone with an ancient heart: the BCD (Beirut Central District).

As the geographical and historical heart of the conglomeration, the BCD was the main war theater and its reconstruction began as soon as the guns fell silent (1991). A master-plan was commissioned, the program of which called for the complete demolition of the historical city center and its replacement by modern buildings and infrastructure. The notion of bulldozing the entire cityscape stirred a heated polemic within intellectual circles, and widespread opposition to the master-plan led to the adoption of an alternate strategy aiming at preserving and renovating what could be salvaged of Beirut's heritage. A first survey of the architectural heritage listed over 1,500 structures. The new master-plan was approved and its implementation was put in the hands of a private share-holding company called Solidere, created ex nihilo to manage the entire process of reconstruction and rehabilitation. No decisions for the other areas of the Beirut conglomeration are recorded. The focus on the BCD was due to the fact that it was the only unaffiliated, multi-religious, and multiethnic zone in the city that had the benefit of adjacent land available for expansion. Sandwiched between the profusion of religious edifices and the seductive venues and gaudy artifacts of mass consumerism, the area around the Bourj (the most symbolic place in Lebanon) is now the only part of town where the semblance of a vaguely Westernized kind of order is in place. The rest of the urban fabric is left to its own destiny of self-serving disputes among the various warring sects in which the population is divided, which have created a distressing atomization and fragmentation of a city-region pregnant with contradictions and scarred by successive wars and diversified, inconsistent internal frontiers. Open season was tacitly declared on the surrounding landscape. No evidence of infrastructural development (highways, traffic lights, railways, subways, buses, power grids, wi-fi, or land line networks) appears to be in the offering or even under the present or imminent jurisdiction of any governing body.

Solidere stands for Société libanaise pour le développement et la reconstruction de Beyrouth. By agreement with the government, it enjoys special powers of eminent domain as well as a limited regulatory authority codified in law, making the company a unique form of “Public-private partnership” public-private partnership. Its main functions are the supervision of the government-authorized reconstruction plan, financing and developing the infrastructure, new construction and rehabilitation of war-torn structures, Landscape architecture urban landscaping, and the management of property. Most of Solidere’s investors are European and North American investment firms or Arab investors from the Gulf. The prime minister himself, Rafik Hariri, owned a majority stake in the company before his assassination in 2005, and the Hariri family continues to be a principal shareholder. Solidere is a Janus with two faces. Depending on the interlocutor, it is either credited as the most important force behind Beirut’s reemergence as a bustling urban destination or it is accused of having swept away the traces of war by sponsoring building projects that have erased all signs of conflict and attempted to create a fiction, namely to return Beirut to its pre–civil war appearance. In other words, Solidere's master-plan is accused of having encouraged the state-sponsored war amnesia that has characterized Lebanese culture since 1990. Perhaps things got clearer in 2007, when Solidere went international and discovered, to its own bewilderment, that it had developed a brand identity. A lot of people (in the near East) appeared to want what Solidere works with: human scale, mix of the new with the old, restoration of the historical core. A lot of international interest was aroused in the Gulf. The identity needed a formula: post-post modernism. Place-making, the creation of spaces people like to be in is what Solidere wants to do. Regrets about history's absence are not a problem. To the extent that history is deemed to be desirable, Solidere also manages 'to create a place history where history does not exist.'

Beirut is an ancient, 'layered' city containing the remnants of some twelve distinct civilizations, from the Bronze Age on. Solidere is very sensitive to a particular form of layering: street names, alignments, and frontages, which have been retained to the greatest extent possible. The street predominates in the BCD. Is this the comeback of the idea of one of the most notorious anti-modern concepts? The concept has turned out to be powerful enough to be expanded in the adjacent landfill by extending 'avenues to the sea' to define view corridors and to establish guidelines for the placement of tall structures. In short, the street takes precedence over individual plot development. Perhaps the ensemble of the Beirut souks embodies this more than any other recent undertaking. It shows how a seemingly coherent, rational aspiration may fail to recreate the sense of authenticity it meant to put in place. The Souq souks have always been at the commercial heart of Beirut. They were frequented by Lebanese and Europeans alike since they housed fashionable boutiques and haute-couture houses as well as the biggest fruit, vegetable, and flower market. The souks were too damaged to be saved. Their razing left a gap in Beirut's identity. Solidere sought to bring the souks back by rebuilding it in keeping with the original Hellenistic street grid that characterized the old souks and the area's historical landmarks. It is one of the key projects of the entire BCD that has raised enormous expectations. Designed mostly by Rafael Moneo, the new Beirut Souks is considered to be the 'crowning' of the whole undertaking. Name, identity, urban plan, and architectural character are 'derived' from the (razed) history of the site. The choice was made to subdue matters of architectural expression to allow variety to be created by the retail activity itself and, at the same time, to integrate the archeological finds into the design. After much struggling, it was decided that the building should remain open to the pedestrian circulation at all times, trusting the street pattern to be powerful enough to bring life to the place. All the proper decisions seems to have been made, including the size of the building volumes, or the placement of a generous garage (two-thousand parking spaces) and restaurants. The architectural character was left to the nature of the numerous skylights whose shape is derived from their dimensions and structural systems. The end result is that all the global (and powerful) fashion brands have a shop there, arguably because they are the only ones who can afford the rent. Accordingly, more than half of its visitors think that the Beirut Souks is more of a 'fashion outlet' than a souk. 

The undeclared ideology of avoiding inconvenient matter mixed with the imperative to preserve, restore, and even rebuild what had not been there in the first place stands as further confirmation of the global confusion about terminology. Preservation has become a political issue, and heritage a right. The Beirut Souks project documents our period of acute semantic chaos. The hedonist urbanism being implemented in Beirut stands in sharp contrast to the 'generic urbanism' that most of the world is getting familiar with. While the latter has no layer, the former shows a tendency for indulging in vast projects of artificial memory generating an unforeseen amount of (fictional) layering that looks like an aging Hollywood star artificially sustained against the law of gravity. But their genius (and their end result) is similar: to mesmerize citizens into equating shopping with an amnesia-inducing drug that makes them live as if there is no tomorrow. Beirut’s hedonist urbanism powerfully shows how, at present, urbanism (and architecture) can easily fall prey to the various demands of private development. It also shows the inability of the design field to formulate any form of resistance to a society seriously dysfunctional in its defense of what is public. Might Beirut be close to embodying an endpoint of a wider urban process? Is Beirut the final arena signaling the farewell performance of urban planning? 

Perhaps the new found metaphor, the ‘Las Vegas of the Med,’ is not the most apt metaphor to describe Beirut hedonistic modernism, which seems more like a mere mirror (at an urban scale) of the various predicaments brought about by globalization. Like many other cities around the world, Beirut reinforces a model based on a centrality that functions as a resort or as a playground for leisure activity framed by two marinas, a cluster of hotels, night clubs, restaurants, and the like. After almost twenty years of work in the Beirut area by professional fabricators of memory, the impact of the unwillingness to face the challenges and 'inconvenient truths' of the present is self-evident. Hedonist urbanism considers the sustainable development typical of ecological urbanism as a sort of anathema, as the latter appears to conjugate its alternative lifestyle with a sense of renunciation stripped of any pleasure whatsoever. Ecological life is perceived to be less fun. Hence the resistance, or the disinterest. Hedonist urbanism values the theme park model. It replicates reality embracing an aesthetic of accumulation and collage that promises to deliver all the seductive appeals of consumerism that a reality show based society can produce. In hedonist urbanism driving should be fun. Every street intersection should be encumbered by an explosive mixture of metallic car chassis struggling to move forward or parking in the most creative fashion, in a permanent and persistent atmosphere of loud honking where each driver appears to be motivated by the notion that the more you honk the more miles you’ll accumulate on your mileage program. This laissez-faire attitude is applied to every aspect of transportation, which is based on an appalling ‘no rule’ model that bothers no one, as it promotes individual skills in bargaining (taxi fares) and driving (no traffic lights). Hedonist urbanism has no problem with a conglomeration of over two-million car owners with no traffic lights. Or an endless series of fictional non-places where human interaction is annihilated. This seems to be the reflective message embodied by the Exhibition Hall, an existing structure that L.E.F.T chose to wrap with custom corrugated, anodized, mirror aluminum panels to 'become an index of the city’s growth.' The mirror cladding 'refutes shadows to accentuate the placeless nature and put the emphasis on the surroundings.' It is a space for self-reflection that forces Beirut to finally see itself in a mirror…

The mirror reflects the images of a TV channel that has created an entire program for the holy month of Ramadan. Something that looks like a UFO is hovering over the BCD: it is Dinner in the Sky, Lebanese-style. A rectangular table that can accommodate twenty-two humans or aliens is lifted to a viewing height of up to fifty meters by a crane for corporate or personal events. There are no screens for football matches. Clients can lease the restaurant and select their own caterer, and the sooner they book, the better. At a rate of two sessions per hour, more than 350 people can have access to this exceptional platform (or only twenty-two if you want an exclusive VIP event). Pictures of the video are available on a website. Sky-dining (diving?) guests look aghast. Some of their inner thoughts are somehow being recorded. ‘Will the crane hold? Will wind allow me to sip my chardonnay? Now I have seen the Mosque up close, when this ordeal will end? Is this the 'magical moment that will leave a lasting impression on me' as the ad says? Am I supposed to have fun? Or shall I just say that I am having fun? Is this my share of infotainment? All I hear are all these cars honking.’ Emptiness ensues. ‘Am I turning into a robot?’ Then a new thought occurs, ‘Gee… if only I could return to the Sky Bar where I cannot move but I can take pictures of my buddies and upload them on my Facebook profile... ‘

The reality show takes command.

Of the over 1,500 structures identified in the first heritage survey, only 271 has, so far, been retained. A Save Beirut Heritage group has been established on FB (Facebook) to prevent the 271 still-standing structures from being torn down. As they put it: ‘There are virtually no laws that specifically protect old buildings. But there is nothing that can guarantee the long-term survival of the few remaining traditional homes in Beirut except the tenacity and will of its inhabitants.'

Twitter: @conrad_bercah

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