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Ben Kalt

Beirut's Heritage to the Highest Bidder?

ust off Martyr's Square in the shadows of a long-abandoned, hulking concrete mass, the strumming of a guitar and the murmur of easy conversation and laughter fill the humid Monday night air. Dozens of twenty-something “heritage activists” have come out for what they have dubbed the “Eggathering” to—according to the Facebook event page—“celebrate [the Egg's] iconic presence...further awareness about the importance of preserving our heritage,” and to “understand why Lebanon is being sold piece by piece under the 'patronage' of Solidere, to non-Lebanese.”
 
The Egg or, alternatively, the “dome” or “bubble,” was modernist Lebanese architect Joseph Philippe Karam's creation. Completed in 1968, the Egg itself was a 1,000-seat movie theater and, with plans to buttress it with two towers, was to be part of the largest commercial center in the Middle East. Only one tower was ever constructed, and it is now long gone. But after 15 years of civil war and decades of threats of demolition, the bullet-riddled, concrete ovule-shaped structure still stands, an undeniably distinctive icon of Beirut's city center, its war scars an object lesson in Lebanese political history. 
 
Controversy over the Egg is nothing new. Demolition has seemed imminent over and over again only to be postponed. Over the years, many development plans have been put forth. In the early 1990s the Finance Ministry considered the Egg as a headquarters and even began construction of a new tower next to it. In 2004 Harvard-trained Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury put forth a well-received plan that would leave the crumbling plaster and mortar holes of the Egg as a grim reminder of the civil war and create gallery and exhibition spaces below ground. Both plans were ultimately still-born, and the Egg remained as is—frozen in time.

More recently, the grounds of the Egg have been used as a cultural event space, hosting art exhibitions, theater programs, parties, and an event memorializing the Lebanese “disappeared” from the civil war.  
 
“I'm here saying goodbye to the Egg,” said one of the Eggathering organizers, Mira Minkara. “I'm realistic. It's going to be completely changed. It's sad... It won't be ours anymore. After Solidere [all of] downtown is not my space.”

The sense of nostalgia for a past slipping away as construction giant Solidere's breathtaking makeover of downtown plows forward was echoed by Joanna Hammour, a member of the related group Save Beirut Heritage. “We're being robbed of our heritage, it's not fair... We wish people would mobilize for all Beirut's heritage sites.”
 
“Enthusiasm is needed. Other palaces and buildings have been destroyed and people did nothing,” added Naji Raji, who is too young to have patronized the center himself when it was operational but still felt a connection. “My mom came here. There was a really good sweet pastry shop... Buses parked outside. On the lower floors there were buses to Tripoli and all over Lebanon, a real public bus station. [Architecturally], its shape is unique and it has no internal pillars. The Egg [represents] a phase when Beirutis became modern.”
 
“Do we need more hotels, more offices?” chided fellow event organizer Pia Bou Khater. “Beirut lacks public cultural space that is accessible to everyone...and [the Egg] is charming and unique.  Downtown is unwelcoming. [Much of it] is closed off, and it’s only for elites and Gulfis... We need a cultural gathering place.”
 
Just weeks ago, rumors of the Egg's imminent demolition were quashed by the urban planning department of Solidere, which administers the site (the Saudi company Olayan owns the land), and assurances were given that developers would integrate the Egg and “keep the shell.” However, many at the Eggathering argued that Solidere still enjoys special privileges and is still not transparent or forthcoming, and that rumors and criticism can only stop if their development plans are made public, particularly the details of the internal renovation of the Egg and its surroundings. Khater proposed that, ideally, there would be more community input in the process. “Let's make a case study out of it and hire a local architect,” she said. (A French architect is rumored to be tagged for the design). Others, including those from Save Beirut Heritage, insisted that what is needed in the long-run is a preservation law that would protect all old buildings in Beirut from demolition.
 
In the long struggle over the fate of the Egg, two things are clear: The real estate is too valuable for the property to remain unused forever, and the building is too funky, historical, and loved by Beirutis for them to see it demolished without a fight.

Watch “Saving the Egg,” a short documentary film

  • ali

    they should renovated and bring flippers back into it.. LOL , great memories, when beirut was for the lebanese

    August 8, 2012