27 Jul 2011

What's Happening to Beirut's Grand Theatre?

There's been a lot of speculation recently about the fate of one of downtown Beirut's historic buildings, the Grand Theatre, a 1930s cultural icon that has been abandoned since the end of the civil war in 1990. The recent demolition of a section of the Grand Theatre complex was perceived by many as a prelude to the demolition of the entire building, and rumours about this spread online very quickly. This came as a surprise to me as 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. 

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  1. Hi Karl

    Don't know if you saw this:



  2. ...just to make it clear: 'benefit to the taxpayer', indicates to the fact that Solidere is exempt from corporate tax for a certain period of time. This is what I meant.

  3. A 'meeting post' where you managed to combine both architecture and politics (I suppose your passions); I have some comments, with some could be generic:

    1) I wish you have provided stronger evidence for the frequent spread of false information by the heritage lobby, as you said.

    2) Solidere acts as a mini-state in the full sense of the word. Moreover, it's not clear how this private company can be accountable. A government is accountable, but not Solidere.

    3) Solidere is accused of 'commercialising' the heritage, without even any benefit to the taxpayer; converting a theatre to a boutique hotel is a clear example (obviously, the hotel should be a money making machine in BCD). Just to make it clear: 'benefit to the taxpayer', indicates to the fact that Solidere is exempt from corporate tax for a certain period of time.

    4) the Lebanese and Beiruties have no say on the planning issues within the area. Obviously, the government's influence is close to zero too. 

    5) you are the most qualified person to spot the light on how local communities lobby and impact local planning issues (in the UK for example). I know it can be bureaucratic, but still, people have power, and the local authority take into consideration their views, through many mediums.

    6) in the spirit of our transparent times, I worked in BCD too. I hope the heritage lobby didn't work against any of your projects...

  4. Thanks for your comments, as usual very incisive. Obviously within the limitations of a short blog post I can't provide all the information, but I will definitely come back to the issue with more detail. On the heritage lobby, it's anecdotal evidence to be honest, a quick scroll through their FB page which show you that they didn't bother to find out information that was in the public domain and preferred to spread wrong rumours. And to be clear, I have never come against them professionally. On the contrary even.

    My critique of them is that they are a bourgeois group that wants to defend a nostalgic view of heritage without serious considerations of economic issues etc, I want to criticise that.

    On Solidere, I have written a lot about the problems with it, but that ship has sailed a long time ago. It's a product of the Syrian period that we should address, but frankly I don't see any chance of that happening under the current political circumstances. We have options, we could break it down, we could change the model, etc, but where's the alternative vision?

    By the way, you're wrong on planning issues, all projects still have to be approved by the municipality and the council of urbanism. And it's not rubber-stamping, I know that.

    On the UK, I don't agree as well. There's no local power, there's power to those who have the voice and they're a very select group of people. So many schemes have been stopped because of meaningless opposition, even public schemes. It's a bad system and I don't want to adopt it in Lebanon.

    Finally, 'commercialising heritage' will increase if you let the heritage lobby get their way. It will be a Disney paradise of restoration, but who will pay for it? Look at the restored areas in the BCD, they did a great job, and they look fake. Heritage is a word we use uncritically to justify not having ideas to represent our time instead of obsessing about what the French and the Ottomans built.

    I have a lot of critique for Solidere, trust me. If anything, it's too conservative and has very strict requirements. That takes away from the dynamism in the city centre.

  5. Hello Karl,

    Thank you for this post.

    Kindly allow me make a few corrections, as follows:-

    1. The building that is being demolished was never historically part of the Grand Theatre. It sat across the street from it. Solidere intends to rebuild this in facsimile, and construct the parts that were not orginally completed.

    2. The Grand Theatre building has had no works carried out to it since 2004 when the foundations were strenghtened and stonework restored.

    3. It is Solidere's intention to restore the building (not just the facades), even completing the parts that were left unfinished in the 30s (see the image you posted, above). The extension to the building will be more contemporary.

    4. The theatre was a small part of the overall building. The remaining areas were shops on the ground floor (along the arcades) with a hotel and apartments above. Solidere plans to preserve the theatre and this program, but with no apartments.

    I hope this helps clarify some of the confusion.


    Tamara Napper, Project Manager, Solidere

  6. Thanks for this information Tamara, it's very useful.

  7. it seems to me as a "Nos-taljeh" case melting down in the middle of a boring summer. I agree definitly not to be obssesed with preservations & restorations but converting historic buldings into "boutique" is unfortunatly the only vision that Solidere has for Beirut... Let alone the real issue that theatre is "endangerded species" in our days in Lebanon.
    As an Icon for its decadence the burnt "Picadelly theatre" and not the Grand Theatre (used as porn cinema during civil war by the way)...

  8. Goerges, I know that story about it being used a porn cinema, a friend of mine dug up some interesting anecdotes about that period.

    There's so much potential for the city centre, but I don't see anyone coming up with convincing visions to be honest. We could turn the whole thing into a museum, but what's the point of that? Meanwhile, the machine will keep moving on...

  9. Karl,

    Fair enough for most of your response. But I just want to comment on the planning process in UK.

    I believe local people have a lot of power in impacting the planning for big projects even.. May be it's not from your angle, or if I think of the City of London with high-rise building...there are no locals there!

    Regards and thanks,

    Anyway, my experience on big civil engineering projects make me think that the planning cyle could be ridiculously long, which involves public Cnsultations meeting.

    On a certain project, we had strong opposition from the locals, so we had a PR company that monitors local papers and blogs, believe it or not. We took their concerns in our proposals etc

    Anyway, I'm like you, I want to build new structures, and improve infrastructure, and I want High Speed Rail Link, even if we had to cross through the countryside! Everything can be done in a nice way :)

  10. For some reason, my signature is in the wrong location in the above comment. Can't edit it. Should have been at the end...


Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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