Is Beirut's glitzy downtown redevelopment all that it seems?


Glamorous young couples twiddle their cocktail stirrers on the terraces of Beirut’s , looking out across a balmy evening scene that could be lifted straight from Monaco or Cannes. The lights of glitzy towers twinkle on the water, as a group of teenage girls stroll along the teak boardwalk, posing for selfies in front of freshly polished super-yachts. At the end of the curving esplanade, the jagged form of a new yacht club, designed by shape-making American architect , juts out into the bay, topped with apartments that boast some of the most expensive views in the Middle East. It is “the premier seaside destination for luxury living and recreation,” according to the , “catering exclusively to the region’s cultural and social elite.”

But, as Islamic State fighters with Syria to the east, there is an uneasy tension in the air. It is a looming threat that not even a bottle of champagne on the region’s most exclusive terrace can mask. And there are signs that, beneath the veneer of waterfront sparkle, this optimistic image of Beirut’s glory days – revived like a phoenix, 20 years after the civil war blew the city to rubble – might not all be quite what it seems. The city centre now boasts immaculately rebuilt streets, lined with the stores of Gucci and Prada, Hermès and Louis Vuitton, but the whole place is strangely deserted. There are thickets of new apartment buildings, but few lights are switched on behind the curtains.

At the other end of the bay from the faceted steel structure of the yacht club stands the ghostly carcass of the old , a faded 1930s shell of what was once the stomping ground of film stars and royalty, diplomats and spies, the salacious social epicentre of old Beirut. It now stands as an eerie relic, with an enormous banner draped across its lifeless facade, printed with a three-storey no-entry sign emblazoned with the words: “STOP Solidere”.

Beneath the empty building, a series of displays tells the story of the battle for the waterfront. “St George’s Bay is named after the legendary hero who slew the dragon terrorising its shores,” it reads. “Today the bay and its inhabitants are under renewed attack from a hybrid corporate monster, Solidere, which – neither private nor public – is devouring public property to line the pockets of its backers.” The gunfire and car bombs might have stopped for now, but landowners and developers are very much still at war.

Once a symbol of Beirut’s golden age, the St George hotel today is but a hollow shell at the centre of an epic real estate battle pitting its owner against powerful developers. Photograph: Joseph Eid/AFP

The man behind this urban-scale protest placard is Fady El-Khoury, owner of the St George Hotel, who has been in legal deadlock with Solidere, the development company behind the reconstruction of downtown Beirut, for the last 20 years.

“It is the robbery of the century,” he tells me. “They have illegally seized the city from the people who own it, and put back an empty maquette of Beirut without any of the people. What they have done to the city is apocalyptic.”

(an acronym of Société Libanaise pour le Développement et la Reconstruction de Beyrouth) has steered the development of the city centre for the last two decades, overseeing the postwar rebuilding of an area covering almost 200 hectares; and not without controversy. It is a strange private-public hybrid, founded in 1994 by billionaire businessman and then-prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005 – by a car bomb right outside the St George Hotel – since when his family has maintained a major stake in the company. It is incorporated as a private business, listed on the stock exchange, but it also enjoys special powers of compulsory purchase and regulatory authority, giving it the mandate to manage the city centre like a mini-fiefdom.

It was the only way to run the comprehensive redevelopment of a place ravaged by 15 years of warfare, in the eyes of its supporters; but its critics have accused the company of using harassment and intimidation to drive the original residents out. Human rights lawyer has described their behaviour as a “form of vigilantism under colour of the law”.

A street in the remodelled historic centre of Beirut. Photograph: Lola Claeys Bouuaert

Former residents and business owners were compensated with shares in Solidere, rather than cash, at what many claim was well below the true value. Owners had the option to keep their property and return the shares, but only if they had sufficient funds to restore their buildings in line with Solidere’s strict preservation brief – which set high standards, too onerous for most to muster. El-Khoury was one of the few owners wealthy enough to resist; but he claims his plans to redevelop his hotel have been blocked ever since.

“They destroyed my marina,” he says, “and they’ve filled in the waterfront with enormous towers. When they finish their plan, the sun won’t be able to reach the bay. They will have drained the city of its life.”

With 20 years and tens of billions of dollars under the bridge, Solidere’s plan to create the “finest city centre in the Middle East” is now about halfway complete. It has been dogged by years of continual sectarian violence and political upheaval, navigating between the wills of 18 different religious groups and their competing claims. So is the outcome living up to El-Khoury’s worst fears?

The masterplan, led in-house from the beginning by British architect and urbanist Angus Gavin, formerly of the London Docklands Development Corporation, is an odd mixture of careful urban design and preservation, dotted with showy outbursts by big name global architects. A good number of streets have been impeccably restored to their beaux-arts glory, with colonnaded pavements and beautifully carved stonework along cornices and window reveals, reviving the fusion of French colonial and Levantine vernacular.

Squatters living in the ruins of buildings along Beirut's former Green Line in 1996.
Squatters living in the ruins of buildings along Beirut’s former Green Line in 1996. Photograph: Ed Kashi/Corbis

Badly damaged plots have been infilled with contemporary blocks that riff subtly off the proportions and details of their neighbours, the result of a strict design code that specified everything from the choice of five buttery shades of limestone, to the height of the street-frontage, to the two-storey set-back at the upper levels, ensuring the continuation of the handsome urban grain. An initial plan to retain some pockmarked and battle-scarred facades was sadly trumped by a desire for collective amnesia, wiping away all reminders of the conflict.

The result is impressive, but unavoidably Disney in tone. These new pseudo-historic streets recall their former selves, but they have been reincarnated as upmarket doppelgängers, precious replicas of what had been the well-worn and well-loved blocks of these lower-class neighbourhoods. The grocer and fishmonger have been exchanged for the luxury boutique and high-end restaurant, while the apartments above the shops have mostly been sold to Gulf investors and wealthy expats, their sky-high prices out of the reach of the majority of locals, in a city with a desperate shortage of affordable housing.

“The financial segregation of the city is only getting worse,” says Fabio Sukkar, an economics graduate who still lives with his parents in Beirut, struggling to find a place to rent. “There’s no middle class here any more, just super rich and the rest of us. It’s the result of a mafia country.”

In the eyes of one local architect, the restored downtown is “well made, but utterly sterile”. “There is none of the chaos and energy that defines Beirut,” he adds. “It just doesn’t feel Lebanese any more.”

Beirut Souks, a 100,000 sq m shopping mall in the centre of the city, is less souk, more Duty Free airport lounge. Photograph: Hussein Malla/AP

It is a criticism that has been levelled with greater ferocity at the flagship project that lies next door, the , designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo with Kevin Dash, which opened in 2009. This $300m complex, built on the site that has been the city’s bustling trading centre for the last 5,000 years, takes the form of a vast shopping mall – roughly the size of London’s Westfield Stratford City in floor area. It follows the ancient Greek street grid, but does so in stridently modern form with a series of grand vaulted arcades and interlocking courtyard blocks.

But the resulting place feels less souk than Duty Free airport lounge. It is a monotonous world of more swanky high street brands, from Burberry to Tag Heuer, staffed by idle shop assistants awaiting the promised customer footfall that has yet to arrive. It has none of the density of urban life of the souks of Tripoli, in the north of , or any of the intense sensory overload of the usual bustling markets of the arab world. The overriding impression is of lots of expensive marble, polished and patrolled by an army of cleaners and security guards.

The mall is planned to be joined by another , designed in the form of a twisted rattan basket by Zaha Hadid, along with a with serviced apartments stacked on top, by the American leather-clad architect of luxury, .

Other nearby blocks have been given to an eclectic mix of architects from around the world: Italian Giancarlo de Carlo rubs shoulders with neo-classicists Robert Adam and Dimitri Porphyrios, doing their fusty thing alongside Japanese metabolist Arata Isozaki and Spanish postmodernist Ricardo Bofill. There will one day be buildings by Richard Rogers and Fumihiko Maki too, on a diverse shopping list compiled by Gavin and his team. But it is a strangely scattergun approach of commissioning, and one in which the project often seems to have been given to the practice’s B-team, as if they scarcely believed it would ever be built. “If we build it, they will come” has no doubt been Solidere’s mantra. But they’ve built a lot of it already and no-one’s really turned up.

“It’s so empty that it feels like night time during the day,” says Beirut entrepreneur and film producer Georges Schoucair, who knows something about how to create atmosphere, being in the process of commissioning Lebanon’s most moody architect, , to design a new arts complex in the city. “They’ve got the mix totally wrong. A dozen shops shut every week because the rents are too high.”

A rendering of Foster’s 3 Beirut development

The mix, it is clear, was aimed at catering to wealthy Arab tourists, but Beirut’s tourist economy has been hit hard by the travel ban imposed by most Gulf nations since the Syrian crisis erupted. Recent years have seen a fraction of the number of holidaying Sheiks coming to burn money on luxury goods and illicit pleasures. Solidere’s business plan was predicated on an eternal continuation the city’s long-cherished role as the playground of the Middle East, wallowing in the gushing fountain of Saudi money as if it would never be switched off. But with an increasingly deserted downtown of echoing streets, exacerbated by a necklace of army roadblocks, necessitated by the parliament building being located here, it is a gamble that’s looking less and less likely to pay off.

The visitors might have stopped coming, but that hasn’t put the city off continuing with its frenzied building programme. The global financial crisis – from which remained largely protected due to its cautious banking practices – had the effect of accelerating the flow of capital from shakier shores into the Beiruti building boom. And the steroidal spawn of this influx is now growing up.

Although still wrapped in construction hoardings and topped with nodding cranes, the scale of Solidere’s next phases is rapidly becoming apparent to the west of the city centre, in the luxury residential district of Mina El Hosn. There, the gargantuan staggered cliff-face of Norman Foster’s complex has now reached its full height of 120 metres, revealed as a fattened wall of three towers spread across an entire city block. The distinctive profile of its neighbour, the by Herzog & de Meuron, can now be seen, teetering like a precipitous pile of paperwork on the skyline. Perhaps a stack of banknotes would be a better analogy: the penthouses of this $500m “vertical village of 130 living experiences” will command upwards of $13m a piece. “What if you could be ordered a lifestyle?” asks the development’s promotional website. Judging by the dark windows of the city’s completed residential towers so far, the answer will be of little concern to the investor-buyers, mostly Lebanese expats, who might only visit a few days a year.