06 May 2009

House of Reconciliation

the metamorphosis of Beirut City Centre Building
by Farid Noufaily
The signing of the Ta’if Agreement on 22 October 1989 marked the beginning of the end of the Lebanese Civil War that had raged since 1975. The war ended in March 1991, when the new Lebanese Parliament enacted the General Amnesty Law, which stated that there were to be no victors and no victims in the war (la ghalib le maghlub). Unfortunately, this law allowed the Lebanese people to turn a blind eye to the ugly truths of the war and ushered in an era of uneasy silence in Lebanon, where no word is uttered, no acknowledgement nor responsibility is taken by anyone surrounding the desperate events of the past 33 years. Today, as Lebanon’s political battle for independence and a unified national identity continues, the government still hasn’t supported the public in breaking the silence. I believe that this legislated lack of collective/public self-expression has rendered both the local and the diaspora populations incapable of reconciling with their traumatic past. Though public confessions, art, film and novels have begun to facilitate some discourse, architecture’s role will be to gather, catalyse, and give voice to the countless victims of the war. The rehabilitation of Beirut City Centre Building (CCB) is an architectural proposal to breach the silence.

A failed attempt at modernism...
A sinister sniper point along the infamous Green Line...
An impromptu brothel during the civil war...
A failed retrofit by the Ministry of Finance in 1992...
A venue for illegal raves in the mid 1990s...
Slated for demolition in 2003...
These are but a few of the many different incarnations of the former Beirut CCB which stands just south of Place des Martyrs and is the only remaining ruin in the centre of Solidère’s newly-restored Beirut Central District. Referred to by locals as the bubble, the soap, the blob or, most often, the egg, the ovoid CCB was cursed by the misfortune of being at the exact geographic centre of the civil war, and has been blackened by neglect ever since the war ended. Even in ruins, the 6,000 m2 building remains a remarkable surviving icon from Beirut’s golden age of Modernist architecture.

Lebanese architect Joseph Philippe Karam designed the CCB in 1965. The urban complex was planned as three blocks: Block 1 would contain five underground floors (total 22,500 m2) for car parking and a taxi service station; Block 2 would be three floors with 144 retail shops, a 1000 m2 supermarket, a 900-seat cinema, a restaurant and a snack bar; and Block 3 was to be three mixed-use towers with eight, twelve, and 21 floors respectively — a wide range of commercial services under one roof.
Karam’s vision was never completed; only part of his original proposal had been built when the war broke out in 1975 — two floors of the base in Block 2, the cinema and one tower. The CCB’s adjacency to the Place des Martyrs, as well as its unique shape, made it a prime target for heavy shelling during the war. After 17 years and many failed renovation proposals, today’s CCB sits vacant, guarded and inaccessible.

CCB promised, as did all modernist architecture, a rational future of increasing peace, prosperity and social justice. History betrayed this promise, and the CCB instead became a powerful symbol of the impotence of modernisation when confronted with unresolved social and ethnic conflicts from the past. The New CCB, proposed here, can be a symbol of national unity through the rebuilding and re-appropriation of what was once a potent symbol of a rational future. The surviving elements of the ruin will be incorporated into the new building. The plan makes use of the remains of the original, housing the many program elements required to address new roles for the building: archive space, both digital and material, indoor and outdoor exhibition space as well as artist residences and state-of-the-art meeting and research spaces. All of these surround the most important space of all, the space of the voice, where citizens are invited to share their account, experiences and opinions of the civil war. The New CCB will stand as a beacon – a place for reconciliation of the past and discussions for the future. The new program begins at the datum of the city street (the present), descends through the strata of the city’s layers to the space of dialogue, memory, and recollection (the past) and finally rises to the commanding contemplative view of the city (the future).

the present: the living monument
By implementing a non monumental program that is part of the everyday life of the city, the New CCB will become a living monument that not only commemorates the history of the civil war, but also celebrates the present. Visitors are free to wander onto the premises of the New CCB directly from the redesigned Place des Martyrs. The various pavilions provide access to the restored theatre (the egg), a café, residential and commercial floors above, and a nightclub. A bus and taxi station south of the CCB will again centralise the transportation network that once ran so actively through Place des Martyrs.

the past: the descent to reconciliation
Below the level of the city lies the ruins and origins of Lebanon. Descending into this void brings one closer to not only the original level of the historic city, but to something sacred. The archives containing the collective memories and voices of the citizens, both patriot and expatriate, are located in the lowest levels, where they are protected from the current unstable and uncertain present. This imagery is not unlike our own escape to the chthonic origins of our hearts, depicted in our escape to the safety of the underground in times of war. Here, the archives frame the Space of the Voice. It is in this space, where whispers echo, that the voices of all Lebanese – regardless of nationality and sect – are heard. Here, the three shared languages – Arabic, French, and English – resonate in the space, and blend, as if one dialogue.

the future: truth and reconciliation archive centre (TRAC)
The archive itself, though effective at storing and encouraging dialogue, is only one step in mastering the past and imagining a bright future for the Lebanese people. The ascent from the sacred darkness is equally important. An elevator links the Space of the Voice (at the archive level) with the privileged Research Level. Perched high above the city, researchers, builders and planners of the future city can cast their gaze from the mountains to the horizon, and to the city in between.

The New CCB will not only become the Space of the Voice amidst a landscape of silence, but a hub for conducting research and promoting art. By gathering, in a single place, a wide range of works and research dealing with the civil war in many media, Lebanon can begin to articulate a unified voice. Rebuilding the CCB will be more than simply revitalising part of Lebanon’s dark past. As its ruins reflect the mindset of a people long ago, its new form will allow for the re-imagination of a unified people and a unified Lebanon.

Noufaily, Farid. 'House of Reconciliation' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Farid Noufaily and On Site review

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