THE WHOLE IN THE PART, THE HOLE IN THE PART, an essay

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How difficult it is to write about memory. Only a few years ago, I would have passionately defended the views of my seniors about the need to preserve the ‘memory’ of the centre of Beirut, at least by preserving its architecture… today, I find myself sitting in my cosy office in freezing cold London, writing about a city I am angry with.

In 1994, at the height of the first postwar wave of “reconstruction”, as Solidere took over the rights to all the real estate of the heart of Beirut to sanitise and rebuild it, debates raged about the validity of the plans, and the legality of the process. Back then, I was a final year architecture student hoping to win a competition for the reconstruction of the traditional market and shopping centre, the Souks of Beirut, and believed the key laid in some kind of narrative reconstruction rather than a physical one… meanwhile, “while skilled debaters fought over melancholia of past and melancholia of future, a superb fleet of modern bulldozers left nothing to debate over”[1].

Ten years later, the debate has all but vanished. Even the staunchest opponents to the scheme have now accepted the fait accompli. Solidere has won, and there is no turning back.

The reconstruction of the Souks, which were supposed to be, according to the original plan, the core of the city centre, the catalyst of all that was to come, has been stuck in legal and political quicksand for years, while other areas of the centre, and of the city, have prospered. In a way, this is ironic, but also highly symbolic: the Souks area, which represents less than 5% of the total area of the Beirut Central District (BCD), had been given a disproportionate role by all the players involved.

Melancholists still refer to the whole city centre as “Al-Aswaq”, literally, the Souks. Referring to the whole through the part is a recurring theme it seems, in the reconstruction saga. The Souks represent the “city centre”, the “city centre” represents “Beirut”, and “Beirut” represents “Lebanon”. Beyond the self-serving convenience of such a model (control the part, and you control the whole), lies a dangerous reductionism.

The problem is supported by an interesting morphological and geographical situation: in the case of the Souks | BCD | Beirut | Lebanon set, the diagram is purely concentric. This image of Russian dolls, one within the other, strengthens the popular metaphor of the centre as the ‘heart’, with its immediate connotations of passion, emotion, memory, and literally, of life. Stop the heart beating, and the body dies: another favourite theme of the early reconstruction debaters.

The above scenario translates literally into the popular wisdom: “the country will never be fixed until Beirut is fixed”. By extension, this means “the country will never recover until the Souks are rebuilt” – a bleak vision indeed!

The facts on the ground do not necessarily uphold this. Recent history has shown that the BCD, in spite of its overall emptiness, could still develop commerce and tourist activity without the Souks appendage. Same for Beirut outside the BCD – reconstruction and regeneration does not require the BCD to be ready, witness the remarkable dynamism of its immediate vicinities, Monot and Gemmayzeh for example. While the heart is crucial, other parts of the system are as important. Hopefully, this realisation will extend to the rest of the country as well.

Of course, I am simplifying here to make a point. While a heart isn’t enough, in the end, a powerful heart can only help make the whole healthier. Nevermind that a national economy cannot be sustained on the fumes of apple-scented narghilehs alone; the BCD might not be fully functional yet, but the images of thousands of revellers enjoying its street every day in summer gives a major boost to Lebanon’s image, eventually catalysing more investment and economic movement that would spill out throughout the territory. In fact, when you think about it, if thousands of visiting ex-pats or gulf tourists are representative of progress in the mind of most Lebanese, then last season’s packed mountain resorts, from Bhamdoun to Faraya, prove our point again, that the whole should not be reduced to the part.

What does all that have to do with memory, you ask. Everything is my answer, for what is memory in this context but the personal recollection of a group or collective experience? The Souks of Beirut, went out of the realm of accessibility in 1975. They remained in memory as representatives of what Beirut was and could be again. In 1994, they went out of the realm of physicality. In a fantastic realisation of Pere Ubu’s classic maxim[2], the ruins, physical and mental, were literally cleared away by bulldozers and dumped into the nearby sea to create a new physicality, a new setting for memories to develop[3].

By 2004, it was clear that the souks were out of the very realm of memory. 30 years of hiatus is more than enough to flush a place out of the collective memory of a population. Nothing could save it really: the physical trace had been removed; the psychological trace has been lost between a generation that experienced it, but is too tired to fight for it and a generation who has heard of it, but is too disillusioned to even stay in the country and be the living container of that memory. Between 1994 and 2004 that generation – my generation – has left Beirut, taking away whatever it could of its own, distinctive memories.

What we can learn from these ten past years of postwar reconstruction is perhaps the most basic of market lessons. That whatever an opportunity looks like, if it’s there, if it’s accessible, and if it gives out a perception of profitability, it will be grabbed by some element of the private economy, and transformed into some form of popular memory. The mundane will take over the memory of the place and shape it to its needs, away from any idealised vision we might hold (watch how 30 years from now, even the WTC memorial will end up little more than a park surrounded by office towers).

We left Beirut behind, because we couldn’t deal with what Beirut wanted to become. We never had the luxury, nor the luck of the generation that is today growing there: the incredible lightness and malleability of a territory free from others’ memories.

It is perhaps a state similar to that encountered by our forefathers when they first moved to the city in the early years of the Lebanese independence. They managed three decades of blissful amemoria, before clashing group memories caught up with them again.

Should we really worry about the cycle repeating itself again? Only for our current, egotistic idea of what Beirut is. To love her is to accept that Beirut, representing Lebanon, represented by her central district, will shed another skin and go on, with or without us – ever different, ever the very same.

Ayssar Arida, London, February 2004.

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[1] Arida, Ayssar. Quantum City, Architectural Press, Oxford, 2002, p.3

[2]Hornstrumpet! We shall not have succeeded in demolishing everything unless we demolish the ruins as well. But the only way I can see of doing that is to use them to put up a lot of fine, well-designed buildings.” – Jarry, Alfred « Ubu enchaîné », in Œuvres complètes, tome 1, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris, 1972. p 427, quoted in Arida, A. & Stanton, M. “Therapeutic Urbanism?”, ARCHIS Magazine, Netherlands, #4, 2003, pp. 60-68.

[3] The scheme currently being implemented for the reconstruction of the Souks, designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, is more American-style super-mall than traditional middle-eastern marketplace. We might complain today out of principle, but none of its future users will.

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