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The shell of the City Center complex in downtown Beirut, dubbed the ‘Egg’
The shell of the City Center complex in downtown Beirut, dubbed the ‘Egg’

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Beirut in an eggshell

Bulldozers of development loom for one the city’s last iconic buildings

I n the heart of Beirut is the dis- tinctive shell of what was once a complex called the “City Cen- ter,” also affectionately known as the “Egg.” The Egg, with its nose

chopped off and deep scars on its once smooth concrete exterior skin, has passed through dramatic changes in its 50 years of existence. Ever since Solidere in 2005 sold the land to Abu Dhabi Investment House (ADIH) as part of the Beirut Gate project, the Egg has been con- stantly threatened with demolition.

Solidere sold the land without any legal protection or financial in- centive to save the Egg, meaning its destruction is almost inevitable. For now, the July 2006 war stopped its imminent demolition and the finan- cial crisis delayed the bulldozers fur- ther. However, the end appears to be near for one of the last iconic, mod- ernist architectural structures in the center of Beirut that also carries with it the physical manifestations of the civil war years. The Egg was built between 1965 and 1968 as a multi-use shopping

center, movie theater and office building. The developers, Samadi and Salha, had ambitious plans for this development and wanted to make it the biggest multi-use center in the Middle East. The egg-shaped cinema was designed to hold 1,000 seats and is 24 meters wide and 11 meters high. It was to be accompa- nied by two towers, of which only one was built and has since been de- stroyed. George Arbid, professor of architecture at the American Uni- versity of Beirut (AUB), explained that the distinctive shape of the Egg came about through unintended consequences. “The building code at this time was very strict about building movie theaters for structural safety,” Arbid said. “So the architect, Joseph- Philippe Karam, convinced the au- thorities that the law did not forbid the use of the space below the movie theater, so he created a retail space underneath. Once the movie theater was raised and visible, he was forced to give it a distinguished shape, hence the concrete egg shell.”

Bernard Khoury’s proposed design for the Egg
Bernard Khoury’s proposed design for the Egg

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Joseph-Philippe Karam was one of Lebanon’s most distinguished modernist architects who trained in Lebanon and designed buildings throughout the region. “The Beirut City Center was one of several examples of his innovative contributions to architecture,” said Joseph-Philippe Karam’s son, Sami Karam. “The surviving cinema [or Egg] has become an icon of avant- garde Lebanese modernism.” Many of Karam’s buildings were destroyed in the civil war and the few that remain are being demol- ished to make way for high-rise de- velopments, most notably the Build- ing Gondole, in Rouche, that was demolished in 2004. The architectural importance of the Egg is contested despite many top-notch international architects admiring the structure. “Architecturally speaking the Egg does not have architectural val- ue,” said architect Bernard Khoury. “There are many more important buildings in Beirut that are, architec- turally speaking, more important. The attraction [to the Egg] is the cu- riosity of the building in terms of its

role with the war and the fascina- tion that it creates.” Residents of Lebanon confirm this enchantment with the Egg and the history it represents in its current appearance. Marie-Louise Ramy, who grew up during Lebanon’s civil war, ex- plained the fascination. “When we came down from the mountains to Beirut, the whole of Beirut used to look like the Egg does now,” she said. “So the structure

stirred public interest. Dania Bdier, a student at AUB, started a Facebook group to ‘Save the Egg’ at the begin- ning of 2009. “Within four days 3,000 people had joined up to the group,” she said. The group now has more than 5,000 members and had to move to ‘Save the Egg Cause’ due to having so many members in the group. Much of the debate of the group does not center on the architectural intricacies of the building, but in-

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acts as a reminder.” Arbid disagreed with the idea put forth by Khoury that the Egg does not have any architectural value. “It is one of the rare free-form structures in the city [and] it was a

difficult task to execute such a form.

It is also important because it is one

of the rare cinema halls raised above

a freed ground floor,” he said. While the architectural impor- tance of the building is contested, the debate over whether to demolish the structure or not has certainly

stead on the role the Egg plays in Lebanese identity.

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For many the Egg is becoming a centerpiece in the battle for the iden- tity, not just of the downtown area, but the whole of Lebanon. Bdier was very clear about her reason for starting up the Facebook group. “We are starting to look so much like Dubai and we are not, we are like the Egg. The Egg is very impor- tant in Lebanese history,” she said.

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The Egg, post-war
The Egg, post-war
The original architectural plans for the City Center
The original architectural plans for the City Center

Many of those on the Facebook group who support preserving the Egg do so because they want to stop what they call the ‘Dubai-ification’ of Lebanon. This allegation is par- ticularly sensitive given that the land where the Egg is located is now owned by the ADIH and the deci- sion as to whether the Egg stays or goes rests not in Lebanon but in Abu Dhabi. This point has not been lost on those who argue for preserving the Egg. As Jack Samaha, on the Facebook group proclaimed, “Our identity and culture as Lebanese is not for sale [to] Gulf millionaires.” Not all agree with this notion that the destruction of the Egg will make Lebanon more like the Gulf, and many posts support the demoli- tion of the Egg. “I saw the Beirut Gate project and I have to say it's very nice,” wrote Patrick Saab on the Facebook group. “The Egg is a mess, and it can be replaced or rebuilt anywhere else. Put culture aside, think modern

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The Egg in the 1990s
The Egg in the 1990s

look for Lebanon… How do we ex- pect to get more exposure if we keep our old, almost destroyed buildings standing?” The ADIH would not speak to EXECUTIVE but in an interview with Bdier, in January, an unnamed repre- sentative stated: “Solidere wishes us to keep the soul of this dome by ei- ther reshaping it or doing something similar. We took it into considera- tion and we are considering it, be- cause it also has to financially make sense for us to do it. For this plot, we bought and paid [for] 39,000 meters squared of built up area, and the dome is only taking up 6,000 or 7,000 meters squared. The developer who is going to buy it is looking at it.” French architect Christian de Portzamparc was commissioned to produce a study for the site, and ac- cording to the local architectural

consultant ERGA Group, produced two designs for the site. “One of the proposals keeps the shell of the Egg and the other de- molishes it and no decision by the developers has been made as to which one will be built,” said Eli Abu Ghazaly, chief operating officer of ERGA. With no legal obligation to keep the Egg it is highly unlikely that the developer will wish to keep the structure, as it reduces the built up area of the site and thus significant- ly reduces its profitability. Abu Ghazaly said that because no deci- sion has been made as to which pro- posal would be accepted, no images of the proposals could be released.

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One project proposal for the ren- ovation of the Egg was Khoury’s

2004 commission by Solidere. In previous statements, Solidere Chair- man and CEO Nasser Chamma, in

The Wall Street Journal in 2004, ad-

mitted that Solidere wanted to de- molish the structure straight away. But many of the star architects brought to Lebanon by Solidere, such as Philippe Stark and Jean Nouvelle, were struck by the Egg and Solidere decided to think again. It was then that they approached Khoury to propose a scheme to re- develop the Egg. “There was deadlock over this site for a while and Solidere did not know what to do with it,” Khoury said. “Then in 2004, they called me to develop a temporary structure that would last five or six years while they figured out what to do with the land. But then with the assassination of [former Prime Minister] Rafiq Hariri

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everything changed. There was a huge change in Solidere with big in- terest in the real estate and many big transactions were made,” he said. “It all occurred much faster than Solidere ever thought it would happen… The land where the Egg is was sold in one of the biggest deals and so my project was stopped,” Khoury added. The role of Solidere in the Egg’s sale has also been highly controver- sial, primarily because of the way the company parceled up the land and sold it. When Solidere sold the land they expressed a “wish” for the dome to be kept, but they made no legal stipulations enforcing it. Abu Ghazaly defended Solidere by stat- ing that “to make it illegal, there needs to be a government decree.” But as Arbid explained, “the

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way Solidere sold the land makes it impossible to save the Egg.” The manner in which the land was sold, with a total amount of built up area, including the area where the Egg is situated, did not leave any real possibility for saving the structure. Despite having already sold the right to make any assertion as to the future of the Egg, Solidere still maintains the structure is going to be preserved. As another of Lebanon’s histor- ical sites is destroyed many will be frustrated by the lack of trans- parency and debate over these ar- chitecturally significant sites. There is a clear lack of will to en- gage by Solidere or the ADIH in any sort of debate over whether these buildings are worth saving or not. Those who want to preserve Lebanon’s built environment face an uphill struggle.

Lebanon’s built environment face an uphill struggle. Darker days at Beirut airport, TWA flight 847 hijacking
Darker days at Beirut airport, TWA flight 847 hijacking
Darker days at Beirut airport, TWA flight 847 hijacking

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Delta landing

New office opens in Beirut

A merican owned airlines have been prohibited from flying to Lebanon since 1985, when kidnappings and hijackings were more common than tourists at

Beirut International Airport. But now Delta will become the latest American owned airline to open an office in Beirut, joining United Air-

lines and American Airlines. Jimmy Eichelgruen, Delta’s director of sales for the Middle East and Africa, ex- plained the new Beirut office is part of Delta’s global expansion. “Delta was predominately a do- mestic airline and it has only been in the past four years that it has grown to [have a 50-50 split between] do- mestic and international flights,” he said. “The expansion of Delta has been phenomenal. Only two years ago the airline did not fly to the Middle East at all.” Delta currently flies direct to Dubai, Kuwait, Cairo, Amman, Is- tanbul and Tel Aviv. Delta has 37 weekly flights to the Middle East, which is more than the other Amer- ican airlines combined. This has meant that Delta has been in a prime

position to profit in one of the fastest growing regions for aviation. As to whether the new Delta of- fice might suggest that the ban on US carriers flying to Lebanon will be lifted, Eichelgruen would not say. “At the present time, US carriers are prohibited by the US government from flying to Lebanon,” he said. During the Nahr al-Bared con- flict, the US government did relax flight restriction, allowing military and humanitarian flights to arrive. But the ban remains for commercial airlines, and there is no sign that the restriction on US carriers will be lift- ed or even eased any time soon. The new Delta office is set to open in the Starco building, with an initial staff of three that will deal with flight reservations and sales. Eichelgruen said the demand for American airlines to set up offices in Lebanon exists. “Lebanon has a massive number of people living in the US, as many as 750,000, and the open skies poli- cy is a good incentive to set up an office here,” he said. Eichelgruen said it is especially important to have a presence in the country during Lebanon’s all impor- tant summer high season. Delta has an air-sharing agree- ment with Air France and KLM en- abling them to expand their opera- tions. These agreements help in places such as Lebanon where Delta is unable to fly directly. The company’s 2007 Chapter 11 bankruptcy represented a challeng- ing period for the airline. But far from ruining the business it allowed Delta to restructure and be better prepared to face the financial tur- moil that has hurt airlines more than any other sector. One year after Delta Airways filed for Chapter 11 it became the largest airline in the world following its pur- chase of Northwest Airlines for $3.6 billion. Yet up until now Delta had no presence in Beirut, despite the fact many of its American competitors have had a presence in the Lebanese capital for years.

the fact many of its American competitors have had a presence in the Lebanese capital for