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LEBANON

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

Real estate center, movie theater and office


building. The developers, Samadi

Beirut in an eggshell 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-
Bulldozers of development loom for one the city’s last iconic buildings stroyed. George Arbid, professor of
architecture at the American Uni-
versity of Beirut (AUB), explained

I
n the heart of Beirut is the dis- Solidere sold the land without that the distinctive shape of the Egg
tinctive shell of what was once a any legal protection or financial in- came about through unintended
complex called the “City Cen- centive to save the Egg, meaning its consequences.
ter,” also affectionately known destruction is almost inevitable. For “The building code at this time
as the “Egg.” now, the July 2006 war stopped its was very strict about building movie
The Egg, with its nose imminent demolition and the finan- theaters for structural safety,” Arbid
chopped off and deep scars on its cial crisis delayed the bulldozers fur- said. “So the architect, Joseph-
once smooth concrete exterior skin, ther. However, the end appears to be Philippe Karam, convinced the au-
has passed through dramatic near for one of the last iconic, mod- thorities that the law did not forbid
changes in its 50 years of existence. ernist architectural structures in the the use of the space below the movie
Ever since Solidere in 2005 sold the center of Beirut that also carries theater, so he created a retail space
land to Abu Dhabi Investment with it the physical manifestations underneath. Once the movie theater
House (ADIH) as part of the Beirut of the civil war years. was raised and visible, he was forced
Gate project, the Egg has been con- The Egg was built between 1965 to give it a distinguished shape,
stantly threatened with demolition. and 1968 as a multi-use shopping hence the concrete egg shell.”

48 June 2009
Bernard Khoury’s proposed design for the Egg

T h e a rc h i t e c t a n d t h e e g g role with the war and the fascina- stirred public interest. Dania Bdier, a
Joseph-Philippe Karam was one tion that it creates.” student at AUB, started a Facebook
of Lebanon’s most distinguished Residents of Lebanon confirm group to ‘Save the Egg’ at the begin-
modernist architects who trained in this enchantment with the Egg and ning of 2009.
Lebanon and designed buildings the history it represents in its current “Within four days 3,000 people
throughout the region. appearance. had joined up to the group,” she said.
“The Beirut City Center was one Marie-Louise Ramy, who grew The group now has more than
of several examples of his innovative up during Lebanon’s civil war, ex- 5,000 members and had to move to
contributions to architecture,” said plained the fascination. ‘Save the Egg Cause’ due to having
Joseph-Philippe Karam’s son, Sami “When we came down from the so many members in the group.
Karam. “The surviving cinema [or mountains to Beirut, the whole of Much of the debate of the group
Egg] has become an icon of avant- Beirut used to look like the Egg does does not center on the architectural
garde Lebanese modernism.” now,” she said. “So the structure intricacies of the building, but in-
Many of Karam’s buildings were
destroyed in the civil war and the “ W E A R E STA RTI N G TO LO O K S O M U C H LI KE D U B A I AN D
few that remain are being demol- W E A R E N OT, W E A R E LI KE TH E E G G. TH E E G G I S V E RY
ished to make way for high-rise de- I M P O RTA NT I N LE B A N E S E H I STO RY”
velopments, most notably the Build-
ing Gondole, in Rouche, that was acts as a reminder.” stead on the role the Egg plays in
demolished in 2004. Arbid disagreed with the idea put Lebanese identity.
The architectural importance of forth by Khoury that the Egg does
the Egg is contested despite many not have any architectural value. The battle for identity
top-notch international architects “It is one of the rare free-form For many the Egg is becoming a
admiring the structure. structures in the city [and] it was a centerpiece in the battle for the iden-
“Architecturally speaking the difficult task to execute such a form. tity, not just of the downtown area,
Egg does not have architectural val- It is also important because it is one but the whole of Lebanon. Bdier
ue,” said architect Bernard Khoury. of the rare cinema halls raised above was very clear about her reason for
“There are many more important a freed ground floor,” he said. starting up the Facebook group.
buildings in Beirut that are, architec- While the architectural impor- “We are starting to look so much
turally speaking, more important. tance of the building is contested, like Dubai and we are not, we are
The attraction [to the Egg] is the cu- the debate over whether to demolish like the Egg. The Egg is very impor-
riosity of the building in terms of its the structure or not has certainly tant in Lebanese history,” she said.

June 2009 49
LEBANON

The Egg, post-war

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
The original architectural plans for the City Center
else. Put culture aside, think modern

50 June 2009
LEBANON

The Egg in the 1990s

look for Lebanon… How do we ex- consultant ERGA Group, produced 2004 commission by Solidere. In
pect to get more exposure if we keep two designs for the site. previous statements, Solidere Chair-
our old, almost destroyed buildings “One of the proposals keeps the man and CEO Nasser Chamma, in
standing?” shell of the Egg and the other de- The Wall Street Journal in 2004, ad-
The ADIH would not speak to molishes it and no decision by the mitted that Solidere wanted to de-
EXECUTIVE but in an interview with developers has been made as to molish the structure straight away.
Bdier, in January, an unnamed repre- which one will be built,” said Eli But many of the star architects
sentative stated: “Solidere wishes us Abu Ghazaly, chief operating officer brought to Lebanon by Solidere,
to keep the soul of this dome by ei- of ERGA. such as Philippe Stark and Jean
ther reshaping it or doing something With no legal obligation to keep Nouvelle, were struck by the Egg
similar. We took it into considera- the Egg it is highly unlikely that the and Solidere decided to think again.
tion and we are considering it, be- developer will wish to keep the It was then that they approached
cause it also has to financially make structure, as it reduces the built up Khoury to propose a scheme to re-
sense for us to do it. For this plot, area of the site and thus significant- develop the Egg.
we bought and paid [for] 39,000 ly reduces its profitability. Abu “There was deadlock over this
meters squared of built up area, and Ghazaly said that because no deci- site for a while and Solidere did not
the dome is only taking up 6,000 or sion has been made as to which pro- know what to do with it,” Khoury
7,000 meters squared. The developer posal would be accepted, no images said. “Then in 2004, they called me
who is going to buy it is looking at it.” of the proposals could be released. to develop a temporary structure that
French architect Christian de would last five or six years while they
Portzamparc was commissioned to T h e p ro j e c t t h a t n e v e r w a s figured out what to do with the land.
produce a study for the site, and ac- One project proposal for the ren- But then with the assassination of
cording to the local architectural ovation of the Egg was Khoury’s [former Prime Minister] Rafiq Hariri

52 June 2009
LEBANON

everything changed. There was a position to profit in one of the


huge change in Solidere with big in- fastest growing regions for aviation.
terest in the real estate and many big As to whether the new Delta of-
transactions were made,” he said. fice might suggest that the ban on
“It all occurred much faster than US carriers flying to Lebanon will be
Solidere ever thought it would happen… lifted, Eichelgruen would not say.
The land where the Egg is was sold in “At the present time, US carriers
one of the biggest deals and so my are prohibited by the US government
project was stopped,” Khoury from flying to Lebanon,” he said.
added. During the Nahr al-Bared con-
The role of Solidere in the Egg’s Darker days at Beirut airport, TWA flight 847 hijacking flict, the US government did relax
sale has also been highly controver- flight restriction, allowing military
sial, primarily because of the way
the company parceled up the land
Airlines and humanitarian flights to arrive.
But the ban remains for commercial
and sold it. When Solidere sold the
land they expressed a “wish” for the
dome to be kept, but they made no
Delta landing airlines, and there is no sign that the
restriction on US carriers will be lift-
ed or even eased any time soon.
legal stipulations enforcing it. Abu The new Delta office is set to
Ghazaly defended Solidere by stat- open in the Starco building, with an
ing that “to make it illegal, there initial staff of three that will deal
needs to be a government decree.” with flight reservations and sales.
But as Arbid explained, “the Eichelgruen said the demand for
American airlines to set up offices in
W H E N S O LI D E R E S O LD New office opens in Beirut Lebanon exists.
TH E L A N D TH EY “Lebanon has a massive number
EX P R E S S E D A “ W I S H ” merican owned airlines of people living in the US, as many

A
have been prohibited from as 750,000, and the open skies poli-
F O R T H E D O M E TO B E flying to Lebanon since cy is a good incentive to set up an
KE P T, B UT TH E Y M A D E N O 1985, when kidnappings office here,” he said.
LE G A L STI P U LATI O N S and hijackings were more Eichelgruen said it is especially
E N F O R C I N G IT common than tourists at important to have a presence in the
Beirut International Airport. country during Lebanon’s all impor-
way Solidere sold the land makes it But now Delta will become the tant summer high season.
impossible to save the Egg.” latest American owned airline to open Delta has an air-sharing agree-
The manner in which the land an office in Beirut, joining United Air- ment with Air France and KLM en-
was sold, with a total amount of lines and American Airlines. Jimmy abling them to expand their opera-
built up area, including the area Eichelgruen, Delta’s director of sales tions. These agreements help in
where the Egg is situated, did not for the Middle East and Africa, ex- places such as Lebanon where Delta
leave any real possibility for saving plained the new Beirut office is part of is unable to fly directly.
the structure. Despite having already Delta’s global expansion. The company’s 2007 Chapter 11
sold the right to make any assertion “Delta was predominately a do- bankruptcy represented a challeng-
as to the future of the Egg, Solidere mestic airline and it has only been in ing period for the airline. But far
still maintains the structure is going the past four years that it has grown from ruining the business it allowed
to be preserved. to [have a 50-50 split between] do- Delta to restructure and be better
As another of Lebanon’s histor- mestic and international flights,” he prepared to face the financial tur-
ical sites is destroyed many will be said. “The expansion of Delta has moil that has hurt airlines more than
frustrated by the lack of trans- been phenomenal. Only two years any other sector.
parency and debate over these ar- ago the airline did not fly to the One year after Delta Airways filed
chitecturally significant sites. Middle East at all.” for Chapter 11 it became the largest
There is a clear lack of will to en- Delta currently flies direct to airline in the world following its pur-
gage by Solidere or the ADIH in Dubai, Kuwait, Cairo, Amman, Is- chase of Northwest Airlines for $3.6
any sort of debate over whether tanbul and Tel Aviv. Delta has 37 billion. Yet up until now Delta had no
these buildings are worth saving or weekly flights to the Middle East, presence in Beirut, despite the fact
not. Those who want to preserve which is more than the other Amer- many of its American competitors
Lebanon’s built environment face ican airlines combined. This has have had a presence in the Lebanese
an uphill struggle. meant that Delta has been in a prime capital for years.

54 June 2009