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Spring 2010 | ArteZine

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Spatial Erasure: Reconstruction Projects in Beirut

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Often associated with processes of healing, postwar re-construction projects may be less related to the pre-destruction phase than to the actual act of destruction. This, at least, is what the Lebanese case suggests. In this essay, we argue that the spatial erasure initiated by war destruction is consolidated during postwar reconstruction. We developed this argument by analyzing two of the main postwar reconstruction projects that have marked Beirut’s urbanization since the end of its civil war in 1990. The first project, the reconstruction of Beirut’s downtown, was undertaken starting 1994 by a private real-estate company, Solidere [i] extends over an area of 191 hectares that mainly includes Beirut’s historical core. Solidere was founded to this end by the late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and is widely considered as the emblem of his ten-year era in Lebanese postwar history –an era commonly associated with the advent of neo-liberalism to the country. The second reconstruction project was initiated by Jihad al-Bina’ (a Hezbollah affiliated NGO specializing in development projects and post-war reconstruction building works) in the neighborhood of Haret Hreik in Southern Beirut in the aftermath of the 2006 Israeli summer war on Lebanon. Planned, organized, and supervised by a special private agency, Wa‛d, established to this end by Jihad al-Bina’, the project’s main aim is to re-settle on site the 20,000 displaced dwellers of the neighborhoods in an estimated 200 apartment buildings, extending over 40 hectares.[ii]The essay begins by documenting and analyzing the impacts of each of these two reconstruction projects and concludes with a wider analysis of processes of spatial erasure incurred in postwar reconstruction.

 

Solidere and the Reconstruction of Downtown Beirut

An aerial view of today’s Beirut eloquently reflects the way the Solidere’s postwar reconstruction project re-invented the city’s historic core into a separate enclave, abruptly severed from the rest of the city by a network of highways that constitute solid physical barriers.

Figure 1: The reconstruction of Haret Hreik: design options for improving the livability of the neighborhood. Beirut: AUB – Reconstruction Unit at ArD. Fawaz, M. and Ghandour, M. (eds.) (2007)

 

This separation is reinforced by the morphology of large blocks designed to accommodate the new landscape of high-rises that now constitute the bulk of the built environment. The new blocks stand in stark contrast with the dense morphology of the neighborhoods surrounding the area; those that once constituted the historic city center’s first expansion. Furthermore, the morphology of large blocks points to the imposition of a different process of spatial production in the city, where the thick web of social relations that have sustained the urban production of the historic core since the 1800s are abstracted into property shares controlled and managed by a central real-estate company.[iii]It implies a reduction of the significance of spatial production to economic profit maximization, prioritized over other social dimensions of the old city core, such as its religious and class mixity. This is indeed how the post-civil war reconstruction of Beirut’s historic core was orchestrated by Solidere, the private real-estate company, since its initiation in 1994. The company, widely considered as the embodiment of a new political and economic era associated with the neo-liberal project of the Hariri mandate in Lebanon (1995-2005), states as its main aim the establishment of Beirut as a global destination for international capital and investors[iv] in line with other so-called neo-liberal urban interventions in the Arab Middle-East and elsewhere.[v]The project is hence driven by a vision of a post-civil war Beirut that aligns the city’s recovery to the interest of private Lebanese and Arab Gulf capital. In light of this claim, the project has thus benefited from an array of public subsidies, such as tax exemptions and infrastructure, as well as public facilities in the modalities and forms of the company’s trading of shares, enshrined in a special regulation designed à la carte to fit the needs and interests of the private company.[vi]The company has redrawn the landscape of the old city, demolishing many of its architectural and urban landmarks.[vii] buildings, when kept, are re-defined in line with the new projects, as forms of enhancing the “trading value” of the city’s landscape.[viii]On the basis of a new set of social and economic relations, Solidere did not only re-invent the spatial composition of this area but also –and maybe most poignantly, re-invented Beirut’s old downtown into an exclusive, high-end, separate entity in the city.

It is significant at this stage to point out that the new city center departs from the historical and social morphology of the historical core and from its role/position as a central transportation hub that connects across neighborhoods in the city. As a result, the new city center preserves the separation that the war imposed between the area and its surroundings. Downtown Beirut was a no-man’s land during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), the city center, turned battlefield, in which only militia men circulated freely. Solidere perpetuates the isolation of the city’s historic core in abiding to the boundaries articulated during the civil war, extending precisely over the no-man’s land and hence permanently inscribing the spatial impacts of the civil war on Beirut. The battle zone is transformed from a space of military violence to a space of free flow of capital without altering the very violence that detached spatially the historical core from the rest of the city. As a reconstruction project, Solidere extended the latter acts of violence by consolidating the spatial separation and permanently replacing the social networks (of production) that such a historical space embodied, hence erasing the spatial embodiments of the social interaction the war displaced. This dual process of consolidation and erasure can also be traced in Wa‛d, the postwar reconstruction project of Haret-Hreik. The similarity between the two projects challenges the common view in Lebanon that positions Solidere and Wa‛d at opposite ends of the political spectrum; the former is a neo-liberal project associated with the current government while the latter is associated with the opposition representing forces of resistance to imperialism and its embodied capitalistic interests. The next section illustrates that even though Wa‛d has a different story of reconstruction from Solidere, it replicates Solidere through its impact on the city space by consolidating the war-initiated processes.

 

Wa‛d and the reconstruction of Haret Hreik

Haret Hreik is today a major construction site: work is proceeding in at least 200 apartment buildings at various stages of completion, rebuilding the residential and commercial infrastructure that was erased by the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon.

Figure 2: The reconstruction of Haret Hreik: design options for improving the livability of the neighborhood. Beirut: AUB – Reconstruction Unit at ArD. Fawaz, M. and Ghandour, M. (eds.) (2007)

 

Construction works rebuilt slightly modified blueprints of the pre-war residential structures, attempting to reverse the direct impacts of the Israeli blitz by re-housing on site the 20,000 or so displaced neighborhood dwellers. More than 90% of households who have lost their homes have legally delegated, in the form of notarized authorization, the responsibility for reconstruction to Wa‛d; the private agency entrusted with the entire reconstruction task from collection of public financial compensations, to commissioning architects and supervision of contractors’ work. Pre-war resident households are to be handed a finished apartment unit that retains the location and size of their pre-war unit.[ix]In that, Hezbollah intends to accomplish yet another victory against Israel by rebuilding what the Israeli Army had destroyed. It also hopes to consolidate its oppositional position against the national government which, to date, failed to issue the necessary regulations and compensations to facilitate the reconstruction process. [x]The passive role of public authorities, both local and central, in this reconstruction process was instrumental to the implementation of the current scheme. In spite of their intimate relations and support to Hezbollah (sometimes even actual political affiliation), engineers and elected representatives of the local authority, the Haret Hreik municipality, have played a minimal role in the development of the project. Municipal council members have conceded in interviews that their role was limited to on-site observation of construction works to insure buildings being implemented did not trespass onto public property. As for the national government, its reconstruction policy can be summarized to a proposition, still under study, for a legal exemption that would enable the reconstruction of the neighborhood to its pre-war density and the disbursement of a lump-sum monetary compensation package to property owners, to finance the reconstruction of their apartments. These policies, in line with the postwar reconstruction policy of the Hariri era (1995-2005), signal Haret-Hreik (and the southern suburbs of Beirut, more generally) symbolically as outside the geography of the national reconstruction project that includes notably the above-described reconstruction of the historic core, an array of landmark projects scattered around the city, and the infrastructure network that connects them –be they highways and/or airport, port, etc. The significance of Haret Hreik’s position as outside this reconstruction project translates into a relief-type policy: the disbursement of individual compensations or financial indemnities to alleviate costs incurred by neighborhood dwellers and a legal exemption where the state declines further social responsibility. This public position is particularly telling in a neighborhood known for the paucity of its public spaces, the poor quality of its road and service networks, the inadequacy of its urban regulations, and very high population density. It suggests a disinterest on the side of policymakers to actually intervene in a neighborhood that lies outside the city they project for the future, a position further exacerbated by the divergent political position of the dwellers as supporters of Hezbollah –hence of the political opposition to the government. [xi]

It is important to dwell further on the modes of operation of the private agency in relation to the project’s definition and to the neighborhood past. Here we see indeed that despite divergent visions/valuations of pre-war built forms (that Wa‘d sought to replicate and Solidere to erase) and also despite divergent positions vis-à-vis pre-war dwellers (that Wa‘d sought to re-settle on site and Solidere to permanently displace), the two private agencies display nonetheless similar modes of operation. Thus, Wa‘d introduced to Haret-Hreik a new mode of spatial production, strongly centralized in the hands of an architectural board of eight members, eventually delegated to the members of Wa‛d, that worked within the tight guidelines imposed by the Party’s leadership. [xii] It also imposed a very restrictive understanding of space, limited –in classic postwar quantitative assessments– to the number of lost units, the sizes of apartments, and the financial estimates of dwellers’ losses even as architects deploy instrumentally the language of social and urban memory to justify poor architectural choices.[xiii]

Needless to say, this reconstruction contrasts powerfully with the historical processes of spatial production. Haret Hreik developed as a dense residential neighborhood during the years of Lebanese civil war when the area transformed from a remote suburban green zone to a main destination for Muslim Shiite families. These families fled life-threatening danger posed to them by the Arab-Israeli conflict in south Lebanon, and/or neighborhoods in which they dwelled that fell under the control of Christian militias that considered their presence undesirable. At the time, land became available since many of the neighborhoods’ (Christian) property owners/dwellers were themselves displaced with the consolidation of religiously homogeneous neighborhoods throughout the city, rendering their presence as Christians in a predominantly Shiite area difficult, if not impossible.[xiv]The neighborhood was moreover built by a handful of developers, themselves displaced from other areas/regions of Lebanon, who tied their practices of land development to a particular religious/social position connecting them to the social groups to whom they provided housing.

 

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