How Beirut is breaking down the divisions of its past

St Georges Hotel photographed in 2015. Credit: Ammar Azzouz.

Barriers, walls, fences and checkpoints – whether in 20th century Berlin and Belfast or 21st century Aleppo, these do more than divide the built environment. They destroy social and cultural connections, divide societies, separate families, and create barriers not only in cities, but in inhabitants’ minds.

Yet the scars of war often remain even after the conflict is over. During the war in Lebanon, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, Beirut was divided by the “Green Line”, a clear demarcation dividing the east of the city from the west, and the Christian population from the Muslim one. “With a few exceptions,” Aseel Sawalha wrote in Reconstructing Beirut: Memory and Space in a Postwar Arab City, “Many of those who lived on one side of the city never crossed this dividing line.”

In 1993, in the early years after the end of the war in Lebanon, a reconstruction plan was put in place which included rehabilitating the ruins of downtown Beirut. But critics of the programme argue that reconstructing the city’s centre has created new divisions.

“The rehabilitation of the central district was by standards of post-war regeneration successful in producing state of the art quarters along with public and green spaces, business districts, souks and residential areas,” Nasser Yassin of the American University of Beirut (AUB) writes of the reconstruction. “The development programme, however, over-emphasized the city centre, de-linking it from other areas in the ever growing city, and excluded from rehabilitation its backyard areas and neighbourhoods.”

Indeed, the downtown of Beirut floats like an island in the city. A short walk away, neighbourhoods remain far less developed.

In arguments familiar to anyone who lives in an area marked for “gentrification”, the reconstruction was criticised for excluding the average citizen in favour of the more affluent ones. But the reconstruction was also criticised for demolishing a huge proportion of buildings that were still standing after the war and could be repaired. Beirut, famously known as the Paris of the Middle East, was given a new unfamiliar face.

The erasure of these buildings has also erased memories of Beirut. As the Lebanese architect Hashim Sarkis put it in The Resilient City: “The clearing of the downtown created a collective homesickness for Beirutis even if they still resided in Beirut.”


This sense of loss and homesickness may help to explain why local architects and activists are increasingly vigilant about Beirut’s buildings and heritage. Today, on St. Georges Hotel, built in 1932, a large banner says ‘STOP SOLIDERE’ in a reference to stop ruining the still standing buildings of Beirut. The hotel holds a symbolic meaning for residents: one of the first beach clubs on the coast of the city, it represents a golden age in Beirut.

Others have called to preserve the ruins as museums of war and memory. Beit Beirut (the House of Beirut) is one of these examples. Built in 1924 and located on the former Green Line, it became a sniper base during the conflict. With the gradual disappearance of the war ruins from the city since 1990, local architects campaigned to preserve this scarred building. Today it has been transformed into a museum and urban cultural centre, which addresses questions about the war, memory, social justice, and forgiveness. It is hoped that this project will foster togetherness, bring people back together, and help the Lebanese to face their past.

Despite its wounds, the destruction of memory, and the painful past, Beirut is a “city that refuses to die”. When I visited Beirut in 2015, I was fascinated by the city – its energy, the weight of history and the incredible level of friendliness of the Beirutis. In Al Hamra Street, at the heart of the city, people stayed late in the evening in the local cafes and restaurants. In a visit to the Corniche at 6am, the side of Beirut on the Mediterranean, people were running, walking, fishing, or having coffee. The city was alive, fresh, and beautiful.

One day, I joined a yoga session organised in one of the public parks, Horsh Beirut. There were over a hundred of people, all following the instructor’s directions, which were in English. Here there was no division – it was a place for everyone. 

As if it did not have its own scars to heal, Beirut is helping its neighbouring cities at the time of crises (the distance between Beirut and Damascus is just 53 miles). Beirut and its surroundings have become the sanctuary to 267,143 registered Syrian refugees (as of November 2017) in a country where the population is just over six million. In total there is around one million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

For Syrians separated in different countries, with families and beloved still in Syria, Beirut and other Lebanese cities have become one of the main destinations to meet. Couples get engaged and married. Families reunite.

Almost three decades after the end of the Lebanese war, Beirut no longer displays the physical reminders of war. The young post-war generation, Nasser Yassin of the AUB told me, does not talk of East and West Beirut anymore, although the city is still divided by sectarian lines in some areas. There are spaces in the city where people from all sorts of backgrounds mix together - the souks and markets, universities, public parks, gardens and work institutions. “But to bring people back together is not only about creating spatial spaces for people to mix,” Yassin added.

For the city to truly come together, its residents need to overcome more than just physical boundaries. “To break divisions between people is much more about understanding the social relations between people that may take different forms on different spaces,” said Yassin. “This understanding is essential to open an honest conversation about the war; for people to remember, reflect and come to terms with our past’.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.