High contrast: we chart Beirut’s ever-changing architecture scene

High contrast: we chart Beirut’s ever-changing architecture scene

Beirut today is a city of beautiful and fiery contrast. The memory of the violent Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) still haunts the cityscape in the form of bullet-riddled buildings and cavernous voids in the ground, host to either classical ruins or wartime explosions. Then there is the post-war redevelopment scene; shopping malls, clubs, luxury high-rise flats, and ambitious, large scale art museums.

Within the new Beirut city centre, a two-decade long redevelopment scheme carried out by the joint stock company Solidere, gouged-out ruins sit side by side with Souks – a luxury commercial district masterplanned by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo touting a ‘new shopping experience’. Further west, glossy residential high-rises designed by the likes of Herzog & de Meuron and Foster + Partners stretch out over the highway heading to the Mediterranean, seemingly indifferent to the gigantic ‘Stop Solidere’ sign emblazoned on the notorious St. Georges Hotel, the site where ex-Prime Minister and Solidere founder Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005.

3Beirut by Foster + Partners neighbours Herzog & de Meuron`s Beirut Terraces; the former comprises three squatter, staggered residential towers, offering striking city views. Photography: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners

Endless processions of speeding cars and scarce sidewalks make Beirut feel aggressive on ground level, but there is magic felt amid the sweltering heat and continuous stream of French-infused Arabic; a unique cultural mash-up left over from city’s history as a French colony. Accidental architectures of stacked family businesses pile up further along the coastal highway, creating a tetris-style composition of localised commercial activity. Higher uphill, the jungle-like campus of the American University of Beirut proves a scholarly oasis from the roaring metropolis below. 

Love it or hate it, the Beirut Souks is fascinating in its own right, oozing a Disneyfied luxury and post-apocalyptic intrigue. Not to mention the frozen dreams of a pre-war Brutalist ‘egg’ (a war-damaged old leisure complex that was almost redeveloped by local architect Bernard Khoury), subterranean Roman baths and a glorious Ottoman-style mosque built in 2008. A spotless yacht club by Steven Holl, a small army of Khoury’s high-tech gothic residential projects, and an art complex by Adjaye Associates are but a few of the new structures shaping the future of this thoroughly uncategorisable city, with one foot stuck in the past and the other gunning towards its hyper-commercial future. §

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