This project responds to the problematic exclusionary and capitalist nature of post-war reconstruction in Beirut and the implications of such development on the public realm. Through rigorous and refined site specific research, opportunity is found in the vernacular manifestations of public space that occur despite a lack of designated public space in the post-war city. The multivalent potential of the urban landscape is embraced by drawing on these types of spaces to project a new prototype of civic space on a neglected infrastructural landscape where two urban highways, the Beirut River, and multiple contrasting neighbourhoods intersect.
After gaining independence in 1943, Lebanon saw thirty years of relative peace as a new republic before descending into a fifteen-year sectarian civil war that pit Christian against Muslim. In public and political life, these thirty ‘golden years’ are heavily romanticized, while the tumultuous civil war is often intentionally forgotten. Romanticizing the past combined with a cynical approach to moving forward has resulted in both a physical and cultural erosion of the public realm. This, in tandem with the continued political instability spawned by the civil war, has allowed areas of natural, cultural, and civic heritage to be co-opted by private luxury development, preventing them from serving as potential devices to foster social cohesion and civic identity. The unprecedented tabula rasa re-construction of Beirut’s central district by a private development company exemplifies this condition.
In light of this paradigm, where the most likely spaces for civic identity are co-opted by private development, the method of my inquiry took two veins. One was about method, an inventory of designated and spontaneous public space types in Beirut, and the other involved site selection and a rationale for civic space in more unlikely places.
The public space inventory reveals a diverse set of spatial types that are used as public, whether designated as such or not. As the inventory moved towards the informal and even unlikely spaces, the dominating adjacency or contextual interaction becomes infrastructure and they display increasingly unique forms of public manifestation.
The peri-urban Beirut River, a seasonal river fed by snowmelt, is an ideal testing ground for this new idea of civic space. Opportunity lies in it’s ambiguous ownership, neglect, status as municipal boundary, infrastructural qualities, and tenuous identity as a natural feature. The specific location for intervention is at the river’s most infrastructural and built-up condition. Spatially and aesthetically, the unlikeliness of the location for public space works in its favour as an intervention here is less likely to spawn gentrification, as would happen in more likely civic domains. With this framework, it was important that the tempting romantic and restorationist approach to the channelized river be challenged. Present conditions must be confronted and the site must be accepted as an infrastructure. Socially and demographically speaking however, it is a likely place to foster civic cohesion as, though situated in the largely Christian eastern half of Beirut, the site is located within the most prominent Armenian neighbourhoods. Due to affordable rents, these neighbourhoods are becoming increasingly ethnically and religiously diverse due to urban migration of Shi’ite Muslims and the influx of refugees from surrounding countries. However, due to the resistance of the Armenian community to take sides during the civil war, their neighbourhoods are thought of as relatively neutral grounds for interaction compared to other more cloistered districts.
The proposed design prototype responds to the evolving transformation of the Beirut river. In a transition from biophysical system to hydrologic and transportation infrastructure; from a seasonally flooding estuary with an ever changing course to an increasingly restrained and finally channelized riverbed, the next iteration becomes a new urban ground ; a constructed topography of civic space infrastructure to meet the needs of the surrounding neighbourhoods.
This is done by drawing upon, deploying, and hybridizing formal and spontaneous public space types to create a series of platforms. These platforms are linear strips with varying degrees of program that as a whole, produce a transverse connection across the infrastructural landscape, acting as both a connection and a destination in it’s own right.
Nayla Al-Akl, American University of Beirut
Imad Gemayel, Design Expertise
Abir Saksouk-Sasso, CAD Data
Muhammed Aboura, Site Research
Shaza Awada and Rawad Bou Malhab, Site Photography
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