Beirut: The Phoenician Phoenix: Years Ago Solidere's Plans for the Reconstruction of Central Beirut Were Branded as `Over-Ambitious and Unworkable' by Some but, as Neil Barnett Reports, Even the Scheme's Fiercest Critics Have Been Forced to Eat Their Words. (Mosaic)
Barnett, Neil, The Middle East
In the last year a remarkable transformation has taken place in the centre of Beirut. For the last decade Solidere, the company charged with rebuilding the city centre, has been hard at work restoring and rebuilding. But for most of that time the area resembled a huge building site, with few office workers, residents or pleasure seekers. Then about a year ago chic pavement cafes and restaurants started to spring up like mushrooms around the Place de l'Etoile, and life returned. Now office workers from the area throng the cafes at lunchtime, and at night the young flock to the bars and clubs. The opera house has been converted into a spectacular Virgin megastore, and residential quarters like Saifi village are filling rapidly.
This is good news for Beirut and Lebanon, as even Solidere's sternest critics are beginning to accept, but according to Angus Gavin, the planning advisor to the company's chairman, the Solidere model has broader importance for city development across the world. He sees the reconstruction of central Beirut as a step forward in how planners view city centres and their function: "In 1992 I moved from London Docklands, where I had been the Development Corporation's Head of Urban Design for the Royal Docks area ... city-making at this scale is a very complex business and you learn from others' past mistakes--regeneration has moved on a long way from the public sector-led urban renewal disasters of the 1950s in the US and Europe," Gavin observes. In particular he takes a dim view of the single-use central business district that empties of people at night--a blight Beirut seems to be spared.
The nature of Solidere is also unique, and takes the docklands experience one step further by essentially privatising the city centre, and giving property owners compensation in the form of shares in the company. "Docklands experimented with new, highly dynamic and quite successful forms of market-driven urban development. I took these lessons to Beirut where we made a master plan that is quite defined in some ways--controlled building heights and creating traditional streets, `joined-up architecture'--but flexible and market driven in others, allowing the developer considerable freedom in land use and mix." He goes on "Solidere has taken the trend towards public-private partnerships further than anywhere else in the world. It is a unique model for a unique post-war transformation--difficult to transfer elsewhere but nevertheless admired as the kind of framework that could be adapted to problems of inner-city regeneration in the developed world as well as other situations of postwar reconstruction."
The project also has an important role in fostering post-war reconciliation and re-integration. During the war the green line separating east and west Beirut ran through Marty's Square, in the middle of Solidere's development area, creating a symbolic no-man's land between the warring factions. …