Deconstructing Beirut's Reconstruction: 1990 - 2000, Coming to Terms with the Colonial Heritage

An essay on a public lecture presented by Robert Saliba at Darat al-Funun, Amman on April 19, 2000.

Prepared by Mohammad al-Asad and Majd Musa in cooperation with Robert Saliba, 2001
Transcription of lecture prepared by Dalia al-Husseini



Support for the publication of this essay has been made possible by a grant from the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development. Additional support has been provided by Darat al-Funun - The Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation.






Table of contents: 

1. Beyond Controversy

1.1 Re-questioning the Duality between Center and Periphery

2. Expanding the Notion of Heritage

2.1 From Second- to Firsthand Modernization

2.2 A Tradition of Destructive Construction?

2.3 Colonial Heritage as National Patrimony

3. The "People's" Perspective

3.1 Collective Memory

3.2 Public Attitudes towards Reconstruction

4. Modernizing Heritage

5. Questions and Answers 

6. Endnotes

7. List of Figures 

 Beyond Controversy

 Re-questioning the Duality between Center and Periphery
Robert Saliba (1) began this lecture by stating that much controversy has surrounded the reconstruction of Beirut's Central District (BCD) over the past decade. (2) However, he believes that the center has evolved beyond the stage of controversy into a fait accompli, and that the controversy meanwhile has moved from the center to the periphery. This is because post-war Beirut outside the central district has evolved as one of the more congested, chaotic, and expensive urban areas in the region. At the same time, the city's slowly developing and partially razed central district, with its newly rehabilitated conservation area, provides the only adequate open space in Beirut, besides the corniche, to which people can escape. This has initiated a new dynamic of re-appropriating the city center, mainly by pedestrians. At the same time, this development of the central district has raised questions about the practice of urban conservation and development outside the city center, which is characterized by ongoing destruction and poor quality face-lifting of what remains of Beirut's late Ottoman and French mandate residential townscape.

To Saliba, the debate on the reconstruction of the Beirut Central District until recently was defined primarily as one between a promotional approach advocated by the private sector, and a remedial-bureaucratic approach advocating public sector intervention. Although the experiences in bureaucratic planning that have taken place over the past half a century primarily have proved to be ineffective, it is still too early to assess either the positive or negative impact of private corporate planning on both the economic and social levels.

Examining the Central District within the Context of the National Recovery Plan

 Saliba notes that the media and the public generally have reduced Lebanon's post-war reconstruction to Beirut's reconstruction, which in turn has been reduced to the reconstruction of the Beirut Central District, which has been attributed to one person, the Lebanese businessman and Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri (3). Hariri is the one who initiated the private Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District, Solidere (4). However, in order to achieve a more comprehensive view of Beirut's reconstruction over the past ten years, one needs to view it within the framework of the post-war national recovery plan.

The national recovery scenario that has been envisaged for Lebanon covers the period from 1995 to 2007. It has concentrated on the need to raise about 60 billion $US that would be needed to generate a 6 - 8% rate of growth in the Lebanese Gross Domestic Product so as to reach a per capita income that is equivalent to the pre-Lebanese civil war 1974 level.

Such a recovery plan includes a harsh economic adjustment policy. The policy aims at achieving stability in the rates of exchange for the Lebanese currency. It also aims at developing the country's economic, physical, and social infrastructure to stimulate the growth of an efficient private sector that would help reestablish Beirut as the Middle East's major business center. Finally, the plan includes a comprehensive administrative reform agenda for the public sector.

The national recovery plan shows that Beirut only constitutes one part of the overall reconstruction plan for Lebanon. However, due to its political and economic importance, Beirut has tended to take over most of the attention given to the issue of the reconstruction of Lebanon. Furthermore, its status as capital city has brought to the forefront the issue of heritage conservation as a key factor in reasserting the urban identity of the city center, both culturally and politically.


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