Preserving a City Where 80 Percent of the Past Has Been Erased – Next City

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Preserving a City Where 80 Percent of the Past Has Been Erased

Beirut, the “Paris of the East,” is done hiding its battle scars.

Story by David Lepeska

Photography by David Lepeska

Published on May 25, 2015

Even behind scaffolding and a curtain of green construction mesh, Beit Barakat, a stately, four-story stone apartment complex in Beirut’s Sodeco district, speaks volumes.

Hundreds of hand-sized craters — from bullets, mortar rounds and other military projectiles — mar the facade, gnawing the edges of the stout, sand-colored buildings. Interior walls, too, are marked by gashes of war, alongside faded black spray-painted graffiti: “I want to tell the truth: my soul will fly away in a minute.” Next to deep sniper’s portholes, sunlight splashes on chipped paint, charred plaster and brightly patterned floor tiles.

“When I first came here I had such great emotion, yet I didn’t know what it was from,” says Youssef Haidar, lead architect of a city-backed project to turn the building into a museum and urban cultural center. He’s leading a visitor on a tour of the site on a bright, early spring afternoon. “Was it related to the old cracking paint, the architectural value, the bullet marks and the sniper bunkers? Was it just everything together? I couldn’t be sure, so we decided to keep everything as is.”

Standing in a room on the second floor of Beit Barakat, lead architect Youssef Haidar explains why it was so important to display the damaged walls as part of the museum.

Lebanon’s civil war began in 1975 and split the capital in two: the Christian east and Muslim west. Beit Barakat (“Barakat House”) sits on Damascus Street, the backbone of the city divider known during the war as “The Green Line,” in reference to the many trees and bushes that sprang up in the absence of human activity. Christian militias spied an opportunity at Beit Barakat — two buildings linked by a corner entryway, with vantage points in all directions — and commandeered it as a snipers’ nest.

By the time the conflict ended in 1990 it had become an abandoned relic of war, and its city, formerly the most modern and diverse in the Arab world, a byword for urban devastation and Middle East chaos. The following year the post-conflict government, looking to put the trauma behind it, gave militia leaders a mass amnesty, forgiving all crimes committed during the war. Lebanon held no truth and reconciliation commission. Even today, post-independence history is not taught in Lebanese schools; textbooks never mention the civil war due to fears of sectarian tensions.

The silence shaped Beirut’s built environment as well. The city center had been a thriving business district and shopping area before the conflict. By the war’s end, many of its buildings were shattered shells. A government-created reconstruction body, known as Solidere and overseen by Rafik Hariri, a construction tycoon and future prime minister, demolished most of it and built a vast upscale district in its stead. This raze-and-rebuild ethos spread across the city, erasing in the last two decades as much as 80 percent of Beirut’s architectural heritage.

The Zaitunay Bay promenade, opened in 2012, is a strip of chic shops and restaurants along the marina in downtown Beirut. In the background, a banner hanging on the Georges Hotel, significantly damaged in the blast that killed Rafik Hariri, reads: “Stop Solidere” — a call to halt the expensive reconstruction of the district.

“Suddenly, none of these war figures has done anything,” explains the 50-year-old Haidar, sipping tea at a sprawling cafe just behind Beit Barakat after the tour. He grew up in the capital and volunteered for the Red Cross as a teenager, bringing war-wounded civilians to city hospitals, mostly in West Beirut. “This led to a collective amnesia, which ultimately trickled down to policy and urban planning. If you say nothing happened, and everyone is innocent, nothing can be kept. How could you preserve any traces if nothing happened? Traces of what?”

Haidar and a growing number of Beirut residents are fighting this amnesia with projects like Beit Barakat. Many are part of Lebanon’s first post-war generation and, as they have found their voice, an eco-system of revival and reclamation has shimmered to life. “There is a new consciousness that’s strongly emerging among the youth,” says Robert Saliba, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the American University of Beirut for two decades. “There is real change happening in the city.”

Construction on Beit Barakat began two years ago and is set for completion in June. Here and there one finds prosthetics — structural additions that stand out rather than ape the style of the original — but otherwise it looks largely as it has for decades, like an elegant beauty on its last legs. “People walking by stop and ask, ‘So when are you going to start the work?’” says Haidar, grinning. What’s happening here is no mere restoration, he explains, but a reckoning with the past. “We’re seeing the start of a catharsis. It’s a long process that has just begun.”

An electrician works in a heavily damaged third-floor room of Beit Barakat.

From the Ashes

Beirut’s origins are vague, but the area has been inhabited almost since the dawn of civilization, with remnants going back at least 5,000 years. Its name likely refers to a vast underground water table — “be’erot” is Canaanite-Phoenician for “wells” — still in use today.

What’s certain is that Beirut — now home to an estimated 1.4 million of Lebanon’s 4.2 million people — is famously resilient. The ancient Greeks named the area Phoenicia, after the mythical phoenix, reborn after death through fire. In the city center today, ancient Roman columns stand a stone’s throw from a 10th-century church (now the Al-Omari Mosque; Haidar led the renovation), and the stunning azure dome of the Al Amin Mosque, completed in 2005.

Yet Beirut was also the last to develop of the great Mediterranean cities. In 1800, it was home to about 5,000 people; a century later it held more than a hundred thousand and had emerged as a cultured and educated capital. Arriving in 1898, Ottoman official Ismail Kemal Bey found Beirut “a source of affluence and a center of instruction” destined to “hasten the progress of civilization.”

An Italian bombardment in 1912, a World War I blockade, mass demolitions and the 1918 British bombing largely destroyed that Ottoman-built city. A French official exaggerated, but not greatly, when he wrote in 1921, “Today the city of Beirut is a pile of rubble.” During the French Mandate, from 1923 to 1943, officials quickly rebuilt. The construction continued through the first decades of independence as Beirut waltzed into its belle époque. Josephine Baker and Brigitte Bardot, Marlon Brando, the Rolling Stones and many more swung through the “Paris of the Middle East” in the mid-20th century.

Then, again, devastation. But the end of the civil war presented a clean state. Hariri’s glitzy new downtown, also known as Solidere, opened in 1999. Locals descended in droves on its glamorous boutiques and stylish cafes, strolling wide pedestrian streets amid Ottoman-style buildings. “Both during the day and at night it is this part of the city, the Beirut Central District, that draws the attention of visitors,” Samir Kassir, journalist and political activist, writes in Beirut, his 2003 history of the city. “Indeed, the reconstruction of the downtown (or what has been completed of it) has met with universal approval.”

A few blocks from Beit Barakat, the residential and commercial tower Sama Beirut rises over one of the city’s old mansions. Upon completion it will be Beirut’s tallest building, at 186 meters (610 feet).

Hariri’s reign came to a sudden and horrific end on Valentine’s Day, in 2005, when a massive bomb exploded under his convoy in front of a downtown hotel, killing the former prime minister and 22 others. Security tightened and sectarian politics infected the area in the years that followed, driving away locals. In late 2013, another bomb blast killed a key adviser to Saad Hariri, Rafik’s son and also a former prime minister, and five others. The new downtown was done. But other parts of the city had begun to experience a renaissance, driven by renewed appreciation for the city and concern for its future.

Another Rebirth

Lebanese architect Mona el-Hallak planted the seeds of renewal two decades ago. She had fallen in love with Beirut as a child only to see it destroyed during the war. She obtained an architecture degree from the American University of Beirut hoping to help rebuild, then earned a master’s degree in Italy. Returning home in 1994, she went downtown to check on the progress of post-war reconstruction.

“They were dynamiting buildings,” she recalls. “I was shocked by the site of Martyrs’ Square — it was completely empty. I was like, khalas [Arabic for “enough”], downtown is over, so I turned around and walked up Damascus Street, the dividing line, and when I got to the Sodeco intersection it was kind of a revelation. Despite all the damage, Beit Barakat was beautiful.”

Before the war, Beit Barakat had been home to Orthodox Christians, Maronites and Palestinians — uniting the city’s fractious communities before it became a fortress of death. Hallak recalls walking through the corner entryway on that first visit and looking up into the void between the two buildings. “I stood in the middle and thought, ‘Oh my god, this building is as divided as we are. But at the same time it’s united by these features,’” she says. “It’s a great metaphor, a great place to begin the discussion.”

Hallak succeeded in sparing Beit Barakat from demolition in 1997 and went on to wage a tireless campaign to turn it into Beit Beirut, a war memorial and urban museum. She rallied support from Beirut’s governor, Italy’s ambassador to Lebanon and the mayor of Paris. Finally the city purchased the building in 2008, for $2.8 million. After reviewing a handful of candidates, officials chose Haidar as lead architect, with a budget of $20 million provided by the city.

Beit Barakat, before and after

Haidar’s main addition is a new, glass-enclosed building, which replaced the interior courtyard and rises one floor above Beit Barakat. A ramp with an open center runs around its interior, linking the two original structures from behind and offering views from the top floor down to the basement auditorium. In addition to the memorial and museum of the city, Beit Beirut will house an urban observatory, an archives center, research offices, a rooftop restaurant, and an 850-square-meter exhibition and event space.

The completed Beit Beirut is expected to create 60 jobs. Hallak believes the retelling of the city’s development, in the stories of Beit Barakat residents and tales of neighborhood destruction and renewal, will make an even larger impact. “Many people live in Beirut and don’t know the city,” she says. “All these facts, these stories about the city might get people more attached to their city, more involved, more inclined to preserve its features and treat it with respect. That’s what Beirut needs — people who belong to the city.”

Nexus of Change

Beirut sits on a stubby peninsula, an isosceles triangle of Levantine land poking out into the Mediterranean. Beit Barakat is pretty much dead center. To the south is Dahiyeh, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood where the militant group Hezbollah holds sway. To the east is a Palestinian district, formerly the Shatila refugee camp, where Christian militias massacred Palestinians during the civil war. In these poorer sections of the city, sectarian tensions tend to be closer to the surface than they are in the city’s central areas.

The tip of the triangle, about a mile east of Beit Barakat, is Ras Beirut (literally, “tip of Beirut”). When American missionaries opened Syrian Protestant College (now AUB) on a lush Mediterranean waterfront slope in 1866, they put Ras Beirut on the path to becoming the city’s intellectual and cultural center and one of the most cosmopolitan districts in the Arab world. Over the centuries, just about every passerby stopped long enough to colonize Beirut — Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs, Turks and French. It’s here that their legacies seem to intertwine.

The heart of Ras Beirut is Hamra, home today to sizable Christian, Muslim and Druze communities and a jumble of students, expats and professionals. The area largely avoided civil war violence and has of late been reinvigorated. On Hamra Street, the main drag, dingy shawarma shops and old juice bars vie with raucous nightlife spots and outlets of Starbucks and H&M. Grand, aging hotels loom over massive works of street art, while cafes, galleries, theaters and bookshops do steady business.

“Diversity spurs dynamism, and if you want to see the real Beirut today, it’s Hamra,” says Saliba, sitting behind a massive flat-screen monitor in his AUB office, early afternoon sunlight glinting off the Mediterranean out a window to his right. Editor of the forthcoming book, Urban Design in the Arab World, he wears rimless glasses and a nicely trimmed goatee, and often pauses mid-sentence to search for le mot juste. “This is where the whole spirit of the city’s diversity is expressed. Hamra gives me hope that Beirut’s diversity is leading to a new creative consciousness, in arts and architecture. It’s about appropriating the unresolved and creating from it various forms of renewal.”

Overlooking Hamra Street, the six-story mural by the Chilean graffiti artist Inti was created in 2012 as part of a Beirut Art Center initiative in which 15 international artists were brought in to create works that could inject life into the city’s graffiti scene.

One person who represents that creative consciousness is Yazan Halwani, a 22-year-old honors student in computer engineering at AUB and one of the leading lights among Beirut’s street artists.

A few years ago Halwani noticed a misappropriation of city streets. “Our urban landscape has always been dominated by the posters and banners of politicians and political parties,” he says, sipping an orange juice in a booth of the vast, red-walled Café Hamra on a sunny March morning.

Wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, he fidgets with youthful energy and speaks with volume and eloquence. “It’s the colonization of our streets by political figures hoping to install their authority, and it works,” Halwani continues, “I decided to remove the posters of politicians and replace them with an alternative — a cultural figure. I want people to identify much more with the walls, the streets, the city itself.”

Halwani has made a name for himself with intricate, Arabic-calligraphy-influenced paintings of local figures, including a widely reproduced portrait of the beloved Lebanese singer Fayrouz, and another of a gray-bearded homeless man, Ali Abdallah, who lived around the American University campus and died during a cold spell in 2013. In Halwani’s portrait, Abdallah’s eyebrows are slightly raised, as if asking, “Do you care?”

His work has appeared in galleries, but Halwani says street art better satisfies his activist bent. He recently stopped signing his name to his work. “It’s not about the artist, it’s about the city,” he says, standing next to the Abdallah portrait, on a gray construction wall a few blocks from Hamra Street. “I like to think of my work as urban planning plus graffiti.”

Yazan Halwani stands next to his portrait of Ali Abdallah, a few blocks from Hamra Street. Some of the Arabic calligraphy framing Abdallah reads: “Tomorrow is a better day.”

City Support

Beirut officials seem to share Halwani’s view. In February, the municipal council approved a law banning political posters. But in the ensuing crackdown, authorities removed a popular mural made by two street artists who go by the name of Ashekman. A rumor spread that street art had also been banned, sparking an outcry. In response, Beirut Governor Ziad Chebib sat down with Halwani on television to assure him that the removal had been an error and the rumors were untrue.

Nearby, on Abdel Wahab El Inglizi Street, a collaboration between Yazan Halwani, who painted himself painting, seen from behind, and renowned German street muralist Tasso, who painted his own face.

A top municipal official sitting down to chat with a street artist on a popular talk show may be unprecedented, anywhere. But it happened in Beirut. And that initial meeting has now led to a collaboration. The city is supporting Halwani’s most ambitious work yet: an 80-foot-tall portrait of the beloved, and recently deceased, Lebanese singer Sabah, on the side of a building overlooking Hamra Street.

Local government has also begun to show concern for Beirut’s historic buildings. The newfound interest in preservation is timely. In the 20 years since a 1996 government-commissioned survey of the city’s historic architecture, more than 800 of the 1,050 Ottoman-era and French Mandate buildings catalogued have been demolished. Fighting for the remaining 200 or so, architects, activists and planners convinced Lebanon’s Ministry of Culture to require public approval for all demolitions in the city. The ministry created a commission to review the demolition requests, with the right to refuse if a building is found to be of patrimonial value.

These changes have saved dozens of Beirut’s grand old homes, many of which have been given new life — as boutique hotels, restaurants, galleries and nightspots. Architect Ghassan Maasri, 42, is among those working to find new uses for the city’s endangered buildings. Maasri scoured Beirut streets for years looking for an abandoned house to commandeer as a sort of urbanist laboratory before striking gold in 2012, when the owner of an 80-year-old villa in Zoqaq al Bhat, a few blocks east of Hamra, offered his home free of charge for five years. He dubbed his cultural collective “Mansion.”

On a recent afternoon, it evoked an aging Hollywood Hills home taken over by a ragtag community of radicals. A solitary Syrian artist toiled alone by an attic window. In the back garden, riders from a bike messenger business built a shelving unit, with input from a resident activist. The house also hosts a successful architecture firm, a silkscreen studio, a film archive and a guest room for residencies. Regular public talks, screenings and workshops are all free.

“The city has lost so many of these mansions,” says a shaggily bearded Maasri, sitting on a couch in the Mansion backyard, a one-eyed cat sprawled on his lap. “So many people have left Beirut that most of these houses are just standing there, with nobody living in them, slowly falling apart. Now it’s starting to catch on, this idea of architects and other people going in and fixing them up for new uses.”

Meanwhile, urbanist campaigners have upped their game. The fight to stop construction of the Fouad Boutros Highway — a $70 million road cutting through Mar Mikhael, Gemmayze and other older neighborhoods — has brought together a coalition of residents, businesses, academics, planners, civil society groups and green associations. An official environmental assessment is expected by June.

Along the southern edge of Ras Beirut, at Raouche, or Pigeon Rocks, Rem Koolhaas is designing a beachfront playground ranging over 100,000 square meters of cliffs, caves and rocky outcroppings. The project has sparked a coordinated effort to preserve Beirut’s last public waterfront. In March, Lebanon’s Ministry of Environment hosted the campaign’s press event to launch a competition for alternative waterfront designs. In a surprise move that seemed to end the fight in activists’ favor, a ministry official stepped to the podium to announce plans to draft a law designating the coastline a nationally protected area.

Green Plans

If government seems to be working with — not against — urban activists, it might have something to do with Beirut Mayor Bilal Hamad, a civil engineer who teaches at AUB. His administration has prioritized better infrastructure, a greener city and improved transport. And it doesn’t hurt that the vice president of the municipal council, Nadim Abourizk, is an architect.

Hamad and Abourizk have launched a $50 million plan, “Beirut Is Amazing,” to restore more than a dozen parks. The initiative was partially inspired by the work of Beirut Green Project, a group created by local activists in June 2010 to highlight the city’s lack of parks. Green space covers less than 2 percent of city land, or about .8 square meters per inhabitant — less than one-tenth the World Health Organization’s recommended nine square meters per resident. Most city parks are in central districts and were abandoned during the war and never revived. Dead grass, overgrown brush, broken benches, toilets without running water and empty fountains are the norm.

The first park to undergo renovation was one of the city’s largest, Sanayeh Garden, a one-block park on the edge of Hamra. The remade Sanayeh opened last year with more greenery, expanded play areas, an exhibition space, a working fountain, and bike and pedestrian lanes around the perimeter. On a recent afternoon, it was crowded with walkers and joggers, playing children, and chatting parents and grandparents.

Like many U.S. cities, Beirut relies on the private sector to help develop the public parks. The Azadea Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the fashion retailer Azadea, provided $2.5 million for the Sanayeh renovation and 10 years of maintenance. Once Azadea got onboard, the project took 18 months. Unlike many U.S. cities, money is not Beirut’s primary motivation for working in partnership with the private sector. Lebanon’s Byzantine processes for project approval mean all municipal decisions must pass through several channels all the way up to the ministry of the interior. With a private partner those layers of approval disappear.

“It’s not that we don’t have the money,” Abourizk says during a recent interview, acknowledging the city’s $800 million surplus at the end of 2014. “When you follow procedures unfortunately it takes a great deal of time — we might have to wait years. Look at Sanayeh — surely it wouldn’t be finished by this time if it had gone through the traditional channels.”

Construction site abutting construction site, just down Spears Street from Sanayeh Garden

Abourizk says the city is still seeking partners for upcoming park renovations, but that work will go forward this summer with or without private backing. Renzo Piano has designed a tiered green landscape for Martyrs’ Square, which is currently a vast expanse of pavement. Abourizk hopes to begin construction on that early next year.

Officials have promised to open Horsh Beirut, a vast tract of pines, palms, walking paths and an amphitheater just south of central Beirut. At 330,000 square meters, it represents nearly three-fourths of the city’s green space. Yet it’s closed to the public, another victim of sectarianism: The park sits at the intersection of Christian and Shiite neighborhoods and has been closed since the early 1990s over fears that public interaction could spark clashes. The city will soon hire a firm to rehabilitate the park and establish maintenance and security systems. “The municipality’s internal staff does not have the expertise,” admits Abourizk, who expects part of the park to open by early 2016.

The city’s green agenda doesn’t end with parks. Hamad is developing a public transport plan involving buses, trams and separate bike lanes. In April, the city flicked the switch on the world’s first solar field above a river. One megawatt of capacity, installed over about 300 meters of the winding, polluted Beirut River, is powering 1,000 homes in the Bourj Hammoud neighborhood. It’s not the 10 megawatts officials originally promised, but in power-hungry Beirut every bit counts. Every neighborhood in the city, even the wealthiest, faces a minimum of three hours without power every day.

Finally, the municipal council recently approved a $24 million project to remake Damascus Road, shrinking the space for driving, repairing sidewalks, and adding a chain of green spaces and bike lanes running from Horsh Beirut to downtown. Cultural and educational institutions like Beit Beirut studding a landscaped pedestrian promenade will make for a new kind of Green Line, one much more fitting for today’s Beirut.

“This project will change the nature of Damascus Road, from a dividing line of broken sidewalks to a welcoming place, connecting the neighborhoods,” says Abourizk, who expects the tendering process to begin this year.

Miles to Go

When it has come to issues of preservation, parks and streets, Beirut officials responded to the wishes of locals. Perhaps not with revelatory new policies, but with real progress. For urban activists, such sustained success may be unprecedented in the Arab world. The Tahrir Square revolution endowed Cairenes with a greater sense of urban ownership, but has thus far made little impact on city life, beyond small-scale DIY projects. In the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem, designers have moved forward with innovative ideas yet occupation and conflict have stymied major improvements to the urban landscape. In Istanbul, where glassy new towers and ambitious infrastructure projects are redefining the city, many residents worry the growth will only mean more displacement and corruption.

The wealthy cities of the Gulf have built pedestrian-friendly districts and fostered considerable cosmopolitanism, and officials there seem increasingly concerned about planning and sustainability. Yet these cities remain more desert dystopia than Jane Jacobsian urban idyll. Decisions are predominantly top-down and rarely driven by the interest of the cities’ foreigner-dominated populations. Freedom is severely limited in the Gulf, as in Cairo, Damascus and other Arab cities; an effort like Hallak’s would have a hard time getting off the ground.

Yet the battle in Beirut is far from won. The city lacks traffic police, a planning board, and well-run sewer, water, and electricity systems. It has no master plan, and the city hasn’t been rezoned or held an official census since the first half of the 20th century, which speaks to both lax governance and lingering sectarian tensions. The government constantly divides along sectarian lines and progress tends toward the glacial. (Lebanon has been without a president since May 2014.)

Consider that the special tribunal investigating the Hariri assassination began its work in 2009 and has thus far cost half a billion dollars and made zero arrests. The war in neighboring Syria, often pitting Shia against Sunni, has helped keep tensions on a low boil. Downtown remains largely empty, thanks to lingering security concerns and astronomical rents. And corruption is ubiquitous. An NGO called Sakker el Dekkene (“Close the Store”) runs a hotline, website and smartphone app for citizens to report bribes. In nine months, the group has received nearly 1,700 reports of bribery, totaling close to $3.5 billion Lebanese pounds ($1.8 million U.S.).

The fast-rising cities of the Gulf long ago overtook Beirut as financial destination, tourist hotspot, and regional transport and commercial hub. In the global consulting firm Mercer’s 2014 survey of living costs, Beirut ranks as the most expensive Arab city, a few spots ahead of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet Mercer ranks the Lebanese capital 15th in the region in terms of quality of life — mostly because of the constant threat of violence.

Beirutis over 30 years old have little faith in their city, while younger locals tend to look abroad for opportunity. The Lebanese diaspora is as much as three times the size of the country’s population. “My generation, the younger generation born after the war, they love Beirut and want it to become a better place,” says Halwani, shaking his head. “But a lot of young people have lost hope and are going to emigrate soon. At the end of the day, things are not improving politically, and it doesn’t make for a good economic situation. If you want to aim high, you can’t really stay in Lebanon.”

The Red Line

A quarter-century after the war’s end, Beirut has no war memorial or commemoration site. When it opens early next year, Beit Beirut will be the first building to memorialize the conflict and the first to present the city’s history. Just as amnesia about the war years meant out with the old and in with the new, a willingness to remember seems to be eliciting a renewed appreciation for preserving what Beirut has left.

“At Beit Beirut there will be a small place to tell the story of the fight for this building, because nobody believed this would happen — sometimes even I didn’t believe it,” says Hallak, who was recently given France’s National Order of Merit for her campaign to save Beit Barakat. “But it happened and we need to push for more, need to use these few success stories to inspire people. Many buildings have been saved in the past five years, but there’s so much that has been lost that it’s kind of reached the red line. Now every building counts, every tree counts, every open space counts, because the city has reached its limit and the people see the importance of that now.”

Just outside Beit Barakat, Haidar reviews plans for the Beit Beirut auditorium with an associate.

It seems fitting that the Arab world’s intellectual center for much of the 20th century should in this era of the city emerge as its urbanist nexus. A reborn-again capital with increasing diversity, renewed cultural verve and a bold civic consciousness could offer guidance, or at least an alternative, in a troubled, fast-urbanizing region. In a recent column in the Beirut-based Daily Star, journalist Rami Khouri outlined how poor education across the Arab world had led to increased frustration and extremism. He argued that young Arabs needed to be able to participate as full citizens, helping build stable, satisfying societies. “If this does not happen,” he wrote, “these tens of millions of uneducated young Arabs will prove to be our own homemade weapons of our own mass destruction.”

Unique to the region, Beirut might emerge in the days to come as a center for innovative, participatory projects and ideas — an urban laboratory, perhaps based in that lovely, pockmarked stone structure in Sodeco. When Abourizk took office in 2010 he put together a municipal council advisory committee of planners, historians, architects and academics. “The committee’s first idea was to create an urban observatory, which we will finally have once this Beit Beirut project is finished,” says Abourizk. “It is there we will create a strategic master plan. I believe the future of the city will be decided in this urban observatory.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

A freelance journalist and editor based in Istanbul, David Lepeska writes about Islam, technology, media, and cities and sustainability, and has contributed to The New York Times, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Guardian, Metropolis, Monocle, The Atlantic Cities and other outlets.