Since the civil war ended some twenty years ago, there has been much debate on the massive demolition and reconstruction of downtown Beirut, the erasure or preservation of the city's historic architecture and the parallel struggles over the city's collective memory and the national identity. Within these debates lies the remaking of Martyrs' Square, one of the most historic and symbolic public spaces in Lebanon.
Capital drives spatial development strategies in Lebanon, and much of the city centre of Beirut has turned into a bland consumerist landscape populated with high-end boutiques, restaurants, offices and a smidgen of residential spaces held by mosty wealthy absentee tenants from the Gulf. The reconstruction of the downtown area as commoditised spectacle not only sells goods but also sells Beirut as a world-class city and a competitor on the global stage.
The evolution of the city centre
As architect Hashim Sarkis describes, Martyrs' Square was originally 'a loosely defined open space, known in Arabic as a maidan, initially existing outside of the city walls in the late 17th century.' As the city developed, the maidan evolved into a sizeable urban square. While urbanisation led to major growth of trade and a booming cosmopolitan population, World War I witnessed a tragic succession of assassinations, beginning with the public hanging of eleven Arab nationalists by the Ottoman military in the open square, thus the name 'Martyrs' Square' and the commemorative statue which now stands at the site, scarred by shrapnel and riddled with bullet holes from the war.
As one young Beiruti expressed, 'it used to be for all kinds of people. Now it's only for a certain level of people. Only for the prestigious part.'
During the 19th century, the Bourj, as the Square was once called and still is by many of Beirut's older generation, evolved into the vital core of the city's commercial and cultural centre. Rising up as a vibrant locale for exchange between traders and entrepreneurs, it simultaneously became the site for protest and demonstration by diverse groups and sectors of society. In the face of Ottoman repression, Christians and Muslims collectively organised into political movements, overcoming their divisions. Over time, the Square attained a role as both the primary hub of the city and a site embedded with symbolic meaning.
During the civil war of 1975-1990, the city centre became the locus for intense fighting among the disparate militia factions. The fierce battle for control of the downtown area demonstrated the great importance it held for defining the future identity of Beirut and ultimately for Lebanon. Early on in the civil war, the 'Green Line' was formed along Damascus Road, effectively dividing the Christian East from the Muslim West. While some individuals dared to venture across the Line, often risking their lives, most Beirutis adamantly kept to their side of the divide, and the public space between them, including Martyrs' Square, was decimated.
In 1994, after the devastation of the war, Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri transferred control and responsibility for the redevelopment of the city centre into the hands of Solidere, a private real estate company, creating one of the world's largest urban redevelopment projects at the time and an unprecedented private-public partnership. Destruction of many of the last remaining historic structures immediately followed, and it's been argued that property owners were strong-armed into exchanging land for shares in the company. These highly contested acts on behalf of the company and the state (Hariri was widely believed to be the company's largest shareholder) created a tabula rasa for rapid commodification in downtown Beirut.
New divisions emerge
The redevelopment of the downtown area has further polarised and excluded residents from parts of the city that were once highly diverse. This has left a majority of residents deeply resentful of Solidere. As one young Beiruti expressed, 'it used to be for all kinds of people. Now it's only for a certain level of people. Only for the prestigious part.' While some locals go there to shop, eat and meet up with friends, for many residents this space serves a primarily rich foreign clientele, ignoring the needs of its own citizens. Celine, a local resident, described it this way: 'it went from being a hub to being a separator. It doesn't have the acceptance of the local people.'
Given the increasing private control of open space, the notion of 'public-ness' has been dramatically altered. The private sector is now controlling the configuration of most of the public space to be developed in Beirut. The high level of surveillance, monitoring and control of the downtown area is managed by Solidere's own private security team. (I was told repeatedly that I could not take pictures of private buildings including Le Gray Hotel. Beirut citizens are told this as well.)
'The challenge is to bring Martyrs' Square back as the most significant place in not only Beirut but in the country. To retain this memory while returning it to the city as the "place of the people" that it used to be.'
According to Beirut-based architect Bernard Khoury there is considerable difference between how we frame public space in the West versus the Middle East. 'I don't think when you speak of public space you can speak about public space in the same terms as you would for more stable cities of the old world, particularly the last decade. The minute you say public space you fall under this notion of the state or what's owned. There is no state here.' A young Beiruti voiced a similar sentiment. 'Public freedom has been shrinking. Just like the political system. Public space doesn't exist in Beirut anymore.'
In some people's view, Martyrs' Square sits, literally and figuratively, at the precipice of becoming the latest appendage to the securitised and commodified city centre, with the plethora of uses planned for the site inevitably managing and controlling the space while discouraging more spontaneous, immediate and unregulated behaviour within it.
The redesign of Martyrs' Square
Yet for Angus Gavin, head of urban development at Solidere, restoring the Square's role as the most symbolic site in the city is the company's most critical task. 'This is why we put in the master plan a lot of public space. First it's free and the city desperately needs it … city life takes place in the public space. Just as much if not more than inside buildings.'
He hopes that the plans will create a space of reconciliation and regenerate the heterogeneous community that once existed there, making it again the heart of Beirut. 'The challenge is to bring Martyrs' Square back as the most significant place in not only Beirut but in the country. To retain this memory while returning it to the city as the "place of the people" that it used to be. How do you do that?'
Recently the Italian architect Renzo Piano was hired to conduct a study of Martyrs' Square, having been a major contributor in the design of the Potsdamer Platz redevelopment in Berlin, another contested and highly symbolic post-war site. He is recommending pedestrian routes from east and west and to the harbour, lowering building heights and restricting traffic on the streets enclosing the Square, designing rooftops for public use, providing public spaces for performance and cultural events, and retail space.
While Solidere is committed to implementing much of Piano's scheme, the greatest point of contention lies with the transport authorities. The municipality currently refuses to relinquish the street lanes for cars, or the parking lot structures, which Solidere would prefer to move into an underground parking structure underneath the Square.