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“The fifteen years of civil war did not produce as much damage as the few seconds did on August 4th.”
On the evening of August 4, 2020, Beirut—the capital of Lebanon and one of the oldest cities in the world—experienced a devastating explosion, when more than two and a half tons of ammonium nitrate detonated at its port on the Mediterranean Sea. The explosion was felt across the region, killing nearly two hundred and injuring and displacing thousands more, many of whom were already struggling to cope with the effects of a global pandemic and economic crisis. Settlement in Beirut dates to the Bronze Age, and this long history has made the city a vibrant cultural center for thousands of years. The immense destruction caused by the recent explosion threatens not only Beirut’s built cultural heritage but also its social fabric.
In this episode, Lebanese architect Fares el-Dahdah discusses the crisis in Beirut, the dangers facing people, communities, and buildings, and the innovative responses underway. El-Dahdah is a professor of architecture and director of the Humanities Research Center at Rice University, Houston, Texas. He is currently living in Beirut.
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JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
FARES EL-DAHDAH: The fifteen years of civil war did not produce as much damage as the few seconds did on August 4th.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with architecture professor Fares el-Dahdah, about the recent explosion in Beirut and it is aftermath.
On August 4th, 2020, a large amount of ammonia nitrate accidentally exploded in the port area of Beirut, Lebanon, causing more than 180 deaths, 6,000 injuries, 10 to 15 billion dollars in property damage, leaving as many as 300,000 people homeless, and laying waste to entire neighborhoods, as the explosion was felt from Syria to Turkey to parts of Europe. It is believed to be one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions in history. At least 25,000 homes were so badly damaged in Beirut they are unhabitable. Rebuilding is complicated by the financial crisis that has sent the Lebanese currency plunging and restricting banking withdrawals for those individuals who do have money that might fund reconstruction.
At the same time, Beirut’s distinguished urban cultural heritage is at risk from rapid and careless rehabilitation, as happened after Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war from 1976 to 1990. To tell us more about the situation in Beirut, I’m speaking with Fares el-Dahdah, professor and director of Rice University’s Humanities Research Center, in Houston, Texas. Fares is in Beirut visiting his parents. He rushed to see his parents immediately after the blast.
Fares, thank you for speaking with me today. First, tell us how your parents are doing.
FARES EL-DAHDAH: Thank you, Jim. My parents are miraculously okay, considering that their living room is exactly 1,000 meters from the explosion’s ground zero. And it has a direct line of sight. You can imagine the damage. Even elevator steel doors on every floor in their building buckled under the blast pressure.
Everything that was held in place was yanked out of its moorings. So door and window frames, all that simply disappeared, in this area hardest hit. So for me, needless to say, the last three weeks have been a bit of an epic marathon. But to my own surprise, repairs did move ahead much faster than I had anticipated.
Thanks to the kindness of strangers, somehow things worked out. And as of this week, my parents moved back in what is probably one of the few apartments so far renovated in the entire neighborhood.
CUNO: What time of day did it happen, the blast?
EL-DAHDAH: So it happened at six in the evening. In a way, thankfully—people had left their offices—because that would have added to the death toll. And the highway that borders the port was not heavily trafficked, as it could have been had it happened earlier in the day.
CUNO: What is the area like around the blast site itself? I mean, what kind of buildings are there?
EL-DAHDAH: It’s an apocalyptic scenario, where everything has been— has been demolished and wrecked. So the bones of all the towers are there, but it’s been totally evicted of any population.
CUNO: And these are apartment towers or office towers?
EL-DAHDAH: Both. There are some office towers. Mostly sort of new apartment buildings. Then there’s the low, three-story high or five-story high buildings, also totally wrecked. The harbor itself is totally wrecked.
It’s a scary sight, especially in a non-war situation, because you know, life was happening a few seconds before and continues right— I mean, a few days later. But now the scenario has completely changed to something that is in fact, gut wrenching.
The fifteen years of civil war did not produce as much damage as the few seconds did on August 4th.
CUNO: Yeah. I gather that the chemicals were of the kind that are used in fertilizers and explosives for mining and construction projects and that kind of thing, and they’d been sitting by the docks there since 2013. Was that unusual, to have these things so exposed like that for so long?
EL-DAHDAH: Not only, I think, is it unusual, but it’s certainly illegal by any national or international public safety standards. How can it possibly be okay to store such an amount of explosives, not only in the center of an urban area, but also in a port licensed to admit foreign passengers? Surely, national or international laws were broken.
The criminal negligence of all this boggles the mind. And any government functionary, from the harbor master on up, who knew about the existence of such a dangerous chemical and either willfully did nothing about it or turned a blind eye, should be in jail by now.
CUNO: What is the political situation like now in Beirut, and has there been fallout from the blast itself to hold the officials accountable?
EL-DAHDAH: So the prime minister resigned. But that only means that they stay in place until a new cabinet is formed. And it means nothing changes, really. It speaks of basically a giant cover-up of what could be a kind of affair of the poisons, where everyone in government ends up implicated in what is, de facto, a widespread criminal enterprise, reaching all the way up to the country’s president, and then extends into the other branches of power.
And the president himself even admitted knowing about the existence of the chemicals. And then he created a, supposedly, a committee to look into it, that did nothing for months, if not years. Which technically, then, implicates him, as well as the prime minister and the ministers of, I don’t know, transportation or customs and so forth. So it’s a very sad situation. And the population is hostage to it all. And now, subject to the biggest urban explosion since Nagasaki.
CUNO: Hm. Now, Beirut has been called the Paris of the Middle East. Describe for us the urban fabric of the city in relationship to the blast site, proximity to it.
EL-DAHDAH: Yeah, so I’m not so sure why exactly this Paris attribution has historically been given to Beirut. It certainly isn’t because the two cities look alike; they don’t. Perhaps it is because French can be heard spoken in the streets, combined with the fact that Beirut is, indeed, a festive city, as everyone could witness during our October Revolution, when major and lasting protests looked very much like mega concerts.
Regardless, Beirut has a very old urban fabric that goes at least as far back as the Bronze Age, and that happens to be centered around just about where the explosion actually happened. So originally, there was a natural bay that eventually became a harbor, and then a port basin. And then the sequence of periods of autochthonous inhabitation is, in fact, very long. It goes as far back as Bronze and Iron Ages.
There were Phoenician, Greek, Roman, then Byzantine periods, followed by Arab rule. The Crusaders took over at some point; so did the Mamluks and the Ottomans. There was a brief period of self-rule, under a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Mount Lebanon governance. This was followed by Ottomans and Egyptians alternately taking over, all the way up to World War I, when the city and the region became a French protectorate.
Finally, Beirut became the capital of an independent Lebanese Republic in 1943. So this entire sequence has as its very urban center, the location where the port’s first basin is today, which is adjacent to where the explosion tragically happened.
Beirut’s urban fabric has traces from all these periods, and is extremely diverse culturally and religiously. There are church bell towers and minarets everywhere. And until, I would say, the forties, the same fabric would have had quite a few synagogues strewn about. Sadly, only one or two remain today.
CUNO: I understand that the threat to the local building structures is not only to residential and commercial buildings, but also to libraries and museums and historical buildings. What is the current condition of the fabric of the city? Not only around the blast site, but generally in the city itself?
EL-DAHDAH: Mm-hm. So the area hardest hit has basically wiped out Beirut’s emerging arts sector, with many, if not all, of its galleries now gone. There’s also the Sursock Museum, dedicated to Lebanese modern and contemporary art. It still stands, but its interior must be totally wrecked. I could tell that the blast went right through the building, from end to end.
The same area not only has hip restaurants and bars, but also has also low-income housing, the architecture of which represents the work of very good architects, who greatly contributed to a nation-building project right after our independence from the French.
So interspersed in this fabric are also these grand houses that represent a kind of very unique Levantine manner of living, with unbelievable interiors, now all blown to bits. And while buildings can eventually be restored or replaced, you can imagine the misery that this has caused to all those who lost their homes and who may never be able to come back, due to all sorts of extenuating circumstances, or even ill-willed factors.
So the real estate market already had its eyes set on this area way before the explosion, and was already trying every which way to getting the current low-income population somehow evicted or moved. And then there were numerous buildings that had already been bought out and that were sitting there empty, waiting for the economy to improve, so that they could be demolished and replaced by higher-end buildings.
So in other words, that fabric was already fragile, was already sort of under threat from development forces. And now that basically everyone has been forced to leave, the likelihood of reconstructing the social fabric of that area is probably low.
CUNO: I’ve read that the UNESCO has pledged to lead an international restoration effort. And in so doing, it’s reported that 640 historical buildings were damaged in the blast, with sixty or so at risk of collapse. How does one respond to a situation like that? How does one begin to rebuild, if one can rebuild? How can one not only just clear it out, the rubble that is there, but then can bring new and carefully-considered materials and styles to the reconstruction effort?
EL-DAHDAH: So as I understand it, UNESCO is now part of a major effort called the Beirut Heritage Initiative. And the purpose of this initiative is to consolidate all the diverse efforts that are all directed to saving the city’s cultural heritage. There is an understandable reticence to send funds to government agencies run by mafia cronies. And this initiative is trying to mitigate such a perception by maximizing the participation of NGOs and minimizing the role of government agencies.
It’s actually a very sad state of affairs and is indicative of Lebanon being, by now, the very definition of a failed state. So NGOs are, in fact, our only hope. But the fact that there is no centralized infrastructure on which to rely reliably, we are left with a bit of a chaos, where well-meaning NGOs bump into each other, with sometimes conflicting results.
So regardless, all major players are represented in the initiative. And in addition to UNESCO, there is the Order of Engineers, the School of Engineering at the American University of Beirut, as well as the principal associations that have been seeking to protect the country’s built heritage and natural environment. Two of them are APSAD and Save Beirut Heritage.
I’ve also noticed the emergence of many crowdsourcing efforts online, some of which are, I think, part of the initiatives, such as something called Ushahidi, which is basically a platform that crowdsources requests for assistance. There is Open Map Lebanon, which is crowdsourcing damaged buildings. There is the platform HOT Tasking Manager, that has invited the public to add buildings to OpenStreetMap, so that they can then be documented by others. And I think that something like 30,000 buildings were added in a few days.
A lot of pertinent material, maps, and infographics can be found on the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. I think it’s called Relief Web. And hopefully, this Beirut Heritage Initiative will be able to achieve what it promises, and will be able to bring together and integrate both official surveys and crowdsourced information.
CUNO: Yeah, I’ve read that there’s some 14,000 members of the Save Beirut’s Heritage organization. This is part of the crowdsourcing that you talked about, I’m sure. And there’s a twenty-four-hour hotline if a building seems to be in danger of demolition or additional construction. And my question, I guess, is twofold. One, has it been successful, the organization Save Beirut’s Heritage? And secondly, what are the ethics involved, of restoration on a scale like this?
EL-DAHDAH: Mm. So I mean, I don’t know all that much, other than it’s one of the younger associations that has been very active in recent years. The one or two people I do know, and who are part of Save Beirut Heritage, are serious architects who have all the skills necessary to do serious work. And I think Save Beirut Heritage is part of the recently launched and UNESCO-led initiative.
Now, in terms of ethics, ha-ha. I think this is where it gets a bit tricky. At a time when lives and livelihoods are at stake, it becomes difficult, perhaps even immoral, to discuss whether or not a musharabiya carved in wood can or not be replaced with aluminum shutters. And there are no, unfortunately, action plans in place that would relieve people from having to take such decisions, while making sure that the artistry of the city’s urban fabric can at some point be recuperated.
So temporary measure or reversible measures come to mind that would attend first to preserving the city’s social fabric, and in due time, take care of the rest. In its declarations, this Beirut Heritage Initiative seems well aware of this, and has advanced this dual mode of thinking that has both the social and urban fabric in mind. A law also was just passed that will supposedly prevent developers from exploiting the situation. And all with whom I have spoken are well aware that the life inside these destroyed districts ought to be preserved, as much as the buildings themselves.
So we may, hopefully, be at a moment when social and urban fabrics take precedence over singular monuments, which is how preservation has historically operated in Lebanon, and technically, elsewhere.
From my perspective, there is a danger to overlook certain architectural productions that have their own particular significance, in favor of the obvious. The same situation happened after the civil war, when the colonial fabric of the city was privileged over what the Lebanese Republic produced in its infancy. I’m referring to modern architecture, in a country that was, after all, born in modern times.
So after the civil war, stone arches and barrel vaults became a fixation, while buildings on pilotis, for example, were demolished without hesitation. And so this struck me as very odd at the time, considering that Lebanon is a modern nation, and a producer of very good modern architecture. So the districts hardest hit by the explosion are full of 1940s and 50s modest residential buildings, yet designed by very good architects and engineers, who greatly, at the time, contributed to the global and cosmopolitan image that Beirut had then, and to some degree, might still have.
CUNO: Given this kind of crowdsourced reaction to the situation and the involvement of UNESCO and the local authorities in Beirut, how does one manage to marshal these resources in a kind efficiently and safely?
EL-DAHDAH: I think it would be difficult in any situation, in any location. Here, the fact that no one has an inventory of all buildings that is accessible and that is well-described and is updated, the absence of that infrastructure makes it very difficult. So everyone has to reinvent systems and put them in place. And this this latest initiative will probably fill that gap.
I mean, it’s been surveying every building. The army supposedly is assisting. It’s all technically improvised. And if there is anything this country does well, it’s improvisation. So hopefully, we’ll improvise that one, too.
CUNO: We talked about the Ottoman and French mandate eras from the latter part of the nineteenth century into the early part of the twentieth century. There are these three historic districts— There’s probably many historic districts, but there are three of them that I came across among my reading. I won’t be able to pronounce them very well, but Gemmayzeh—
EL-DAHDAH: [corrects pronunciation] Gemmayzeh.
CUNO: Gemmayzeh, Mar Mikhael, Geitawi. Describe the conditions of those areas, those districts, and also the quality of the architecture in those districts.
EL-DAHDAH: These three districts are right next to each other and are basically contiguous, along with many others that were all sort of around the site of the blast, and basically are in the core of the city itself.
At some point, they were the suburbs of Beirut. And then as Beirut grew, they got incorporated into the fabric. And some of it is posh; some of it is not at all. But over time, many of its streets, especially the main street Gemmayzeh, became a kind of Chelsea, with bars and hipsters and loud cars and so forth. And it was very odd, because by day, it was basically a relatively low-income neighborhood. But by night, it becomes this glitzy, quite lively Saint-Tropez, Juan-les-Pins, or you know, this kind of highly festive environment.
And quite pleasant, because the character of these neighborhoods was actually preserved, even though the activity had morphed over time into something that didn’t exist only so many years ago. So it was basically a vital part of town. And now, that has totally been obliterated.
CUNO: Gosh. So it’s not likely to be the cornerstone for the rebuilding of the area because it’s been obliterated to the extent that it couldn’t serve that purpose any longer? Or could you still restore it to such a degree that it could become the kind of sort of central place?
EL-DAHDAH: I think it is restorable. The danger is that it might be restored to become a kind of Levantine Las Vegas. I mean, you know, it might be restored in ways that developers would like to restore it; but it will lose the social fabric that had until now existed, and that made this place so rich and diverse and multilayered.
Here, they call it caractère traditionnel. It has a traditional character. And basically, it’s the original fabric of the city. So I have no idea what will happen to it, but I’m quite wary that it would lose the richness it so far had.
CUNO: I gather that there’s some 6,000 buildings in the hardest-hit districts and neighborhoods, and 600 of them have some kind of cultural heritage status. Who confers this status on these buildings, and what does it mean to have that kind of status?
EL-DAHDAH: So the General Directorate of Antiquities has the authority to basically classify buildings as heritage. And then they become protected by law. The only issue, as far as I know, is that the law itself basically stops in the eighteenth century or in the nineteenth century, and requires that the building be made of stone. So in other words, if it’s an old building made of stone, it can be protected. However, you couldn’t protect an Oscar Niemeyer building, if there was one among them.
CUNO: 1950s, 1940s, 60s maybe, yeah.
EL-DAHDAH: Yeah, exactly. And when we do have, in this fabric, very good three-story-high low-income housing, and in fact, public housing, that was part of this young republic trying to sort of build an image for itself on the global stage. And in fact, had succeeded in doing so.
And all that, which was relatively intact, even if ill-maintained, but certainly could be recuperated quite beautifully, all that now is under threat. Many people would like to live there. And therefore, a three-story building is in a way of a twenty-five story tower.
CUNO: Tell us about the egg or the dome.
EL-DAHDAH: Oh, yes. So that egg was designed by an architect by the name of Joseph Philippe Karam, who represents the generation of architects that basically built the visual identity of this young Lebanese Republic. So this so-called egg is actually part of an architectural complex that I think is called City Center. And it originally sat next to a vertical slab building. And the origin of this configuration, the low sort of dome and then the slab building next to it, you can trace that easily back to the UN Secretariat Building and its Assembly Hall right next to it.
And before that, you could trace it back to the Ministry of Education Building in Rio de Janeiro. Both of these buildings, both of these building complexes, have Le Corbusier not far behind. So basically, represents, you know, these Modernist architects who basically invented this global image of Beirut.
CUNO: It was an unfinished building. Was it ever finished, even by another architect, after the death of the principal architect?
EL-DAHDAH: I actually don’t know if it was finished. But what happens is that they demolished the entire complex. But then at some point, because of public opinion saying, “Why are you getting rid of our modern heritage?” the company in charge over there, called Soliday[sp?], basically had to stop with the destruction, and kept only one part of the architectural complex, which is the fancy part, the dome.
And that’s why it’s been iconic, because they don’t know what to do with it. But they would have preferred, probably, to get rid of it. But since they couldn’t, this thing has become— So during the October protests, it became a kind of central place to give lectures about the revolution and things like that. So it’s become an iconic building, but still without a program.
CUNO: But it’s still a building around which people gather?
EL-DAHDAH: Yes, yes. So art installations, parties have been given there. It’s an old movie theater that has been, you know, abandoned, and is now being used for all sorts of purposes. But it’s still sort of there, iconically standing, but without a future. So people have proposed projects, but nothing has ever been done.
CUNO: Does it look like a ruin, or does it just look unfinished?
EL-DAHDAH: Oh, yeah. Oh, it’s totally a ruin. I mean, it’s basically a concrete shell with an amphitheater inside.
It has always posed a problem to the developers downtown because every foreign architect who comes, the architect usually goes, “Can you please take me to the egg?” And it’s the last thing they want to show off, because it’s the thing they absolutely wanted to get rid of.
CUNO: With funding from the Getty Foundation, some funding, you’ve been developing a digital map of the growth of Rio de Janeiro, another city of some troubled development history. And it’s called Imagine Rio Is there any chance that you will now turn your attention to Beirut and create a similar kind of project for Beirut?
EL-DAHDAH: The answer is yes. And in fact, I already have had, prior to the explosion. So it was because of Imagine Rio I was invited—it was a while back—by a new organization called New Levant Initiative, to do something similar for cities across the Levant. So rather than simply duplicate our infrastructure, I thought it would be an opportunity to make the technology we develop with the cartography studio Access Map available to the public at large, as a kind of cartographic arches project.
We already built the Beirut version of Imagine Rio. And once the improvements we are deploying for the Rio map, thanks to the Getty Foundation, we will then replicate them in what is now called the Levant Carta Project. That will, in addition, have crowdsourcing and design tool components.
Also in the works is something called Beirutrecovery.org. And the idea here is to not only associate damage and other information with building footprints, but also track the recovery of the city over time.
And this effort is a collaboration between the Spatial Studies Lab that I run at Rice and the Beirut Urban Lab at the American University of Beirut.
CUNO: But now, what’s next for Beirut?
EL-DAHDAH: Ah! I wish I knew. It’s very tough to tell. Resilience is by now void of any relevance. How much more can this population be tested? But if one were to put pessimism aside, I think many things could be done, could be foreseen as the next steps at this point. So I would presume a coherent plan that allows reconstruction and relief work to occur, and to occur in tandem. And I would hope, shoulder-to-shoulder with the population most affected.
But this requires coordination among different sectors and various actors, in the total absence of reliable government infrastructure, which makes things all the more difficult, if not outright impossible. So regardless, if there was ever any, this is a moment to look into disaster recovery and risk mitigation. Not only to protect from such an absurd and avoidable accident, but also in terms of climate change events that will eventually hit this city, too.
So in other words, this is a city that’s now even more fragile than before. And I would hope that public safety should be taken into consideration.
We ended up with yet another social problem to manage, when we couldn’t really handle the previous two, be it the COVID pandemic now getting out of control, or the devaluation of the currency at a moment when banks had sequestered people’s accounts. 300,000 people are now displaced, my parents included. Yet unlike my parents, most will not be able to rebuild or return to their places.
So if there really is a what’s next for Beirut, it will have to include a dimension of housing that can absorb demand equitably somehow. And if funding is to pour in—I have my doubts it will, but—it should hopefully lead to job creation, with the purpose of getting the city out of the mess it already was prior to the explosion.
And there is a kind of unintended consequence of the explosion, which is to reveal how central the port is to the city. So now, because all these warehouse[s] have been flattened, you see the harbor right there from the road. But over time, military zones and warehouses had buffered the port’s relatively unused historical basins from the rest of the city. And this may well be a moment for the city to reclaim its original center, in the form of much needed public space.
And the last what’s next for Beirut that comes to mind, which might sound a bit odd, but it seems evident, at least to me, that this is a city and a country with hopeless governance. And the only way out is to bypass and circumvent inefficient and incompetent government that had proven to be way too dangerous and criminal. So hopefully, I don’t know, destructive technologies may be our only hope, short of a bloody revolution. And there must surely be ways to access the world beyond, without going through state agencies. You know, microsatellites come to mind. And if the Lebanese currency is becoming worthless, then perhaps a digital version that escapes government regulation might well be a solution at this point.
So I’m not sure if any of this is likely to happen next, but at least we still have our imagination and somehow, hopefully, things will improve.
CUNO: Well, we certainly that that’ll be the case, that things will improve, and we hope that it’ll improve for the hundreds of thousands of people who are displaced in Beirut. But now, what’s next for you?
EL-DAHDAH: My colleagues and my dean at Rice have been heartwarmingly supportive. And basically, their support is allowing me to stay in Beirut as long as I need to. Now that my parents are actually back in their repainted, sealed, and functional home, albeit without railings on balconies and with half the furniture, I can begin to turn, hopefully, to turn my attention to becoming as useful as I can possibly be in this recovery effort.
And also there are a few other Lebanese academics who hold administrative positions at leading universities in the US. And together, we can, I don’t know, hopefully make a bit of a difference. There is Amale Andraos, at Columbia; Hashim Sarkis, at MIT; Rodolphe el-Khoury at University of Miami, all three of whom are deans of architecture and happen to be good friends. So hopefully, we can do something together.
CUNO There’s much to think about, Fares, and there’s much to hope for. Thank you so much for your time and attention today, and please give your parents our very best wishes.
EL-DAHDAH: I most certainly will. Thank you, Jim.
CUNO: Thank you.
This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts and more resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts/ or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
FARES EL-DAHDAH: The fifteen years of civil war did not produce as much damage as the few seconds...