Solidere, the private development company in charge of the reconstruction of Beirut's city centre, had confirmed in 2009 that the theatre building was going to be restored and converted into a boutique hotel. The British architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour had won the commission to design the hotel following an international design competition.
I decided to find out whether those plans have changed and if the Grand Theatre was now considered for demolition. As it turns out the allegations are not true, the original plan to convert the Grand Theatre into a boutique hotel are still being developed by Rogers & Partners. I managed to obtain an image of their proposal (see above) which clearly shows that the distinctive historic façades will be retained in the new scheme. The part of the building that was demolished recently was a later addition that was structurally unsound and was clearly not in keeping with the character of the Grand Theatre.
Some of the blame for the misinformation lies with Solidere, its communication strategy is very poor and has contributed to increasing speculation about this and other projects in the city centre. Solidere's heavy-handed policing of the downtown area and its strict prohibitions on photography there lead to unacceptable incidents like what happened to the journalist Habib Battah when he tried to take photographs of the wing that was being demolished. Treating Beirut's downtown as a private development will increase the detachment that most Lebanese people feel towards the city centre, and most feel that Solidere's army of private security is one of most off-putting factors.
But Lebanon's emerging heritage lobby is also to blame, it has frequently engaged in spreading false information and relied on wild exaggeration to promote its message. The main heritage group on Facebook is Save Beirut Heritage, which has about 8000 members and plays a significant role in the preservation lobby. The rumours about the demolition of the Grand Theatre first appeared there as far as it appears, together with allegations that there's a Lebanese architect responsible for the demolition. Both stories are obviously false, but don't expect any retractions from the self-righteous people running the group any time soon.
By maintaining the external façades, RSH's designs for the Grand Theatre will maintain the building's relationship with the urban context and preserve its distinctive appearance.It appears that the internal design is also sensitive to the spatial qualities of the theatre building, although I haven't managed to obtain any images of this so far. Of course it's legitimate to ask whether the Grand Theatre should be converted to a hotel instead of being renovated for the purpose it was originally designed for. The scarcity of adaptive reuse projects in Lebanon contributes to the aversion towards the conversion of cultural buildings, but I don't personally find such projects problematic.
There's a wider debate that we never properly had about the reconstruction of the city centre, but altering Solidere's mandate will require a clear political and urban vision and significant financial commitments that we can't be flippant about. If the alternative on offer is the heritage lobby's nostalgic and naive fantasy of historic preservation, then we stand little chance of coming up with any creative and original ideas. A good starting point is to think what kind of city we aspire to have, not be obsessed with preserving all that we inherited.
Note: In the spirit of our transparent times I will mention that I have participated in the design of three buildings in the BCD.
If you would like to be updated about posts on this blog and other articles I publish, follow me on Twitter.