Travel & Tourism

Creating breathing space amid Beirut’s bustle

BEIRUT: To say there is a lack of public spaces in Beirut is perhaps an understatement. The few truly open sites can be counted on one hand – Sanayeh, the tiny Jesuit garden in Geitawi, the Corniche ...It is this latter area which has provided the focus for the fourth year projects of architecture students at the American University of Beirut, whose original, inspirational sites are currently open to the public.

A walking tour Monday debuted the “Welcoming City” trail, starting at the Old Manara lighthouse and finishing in Ain al-Mreisseh, but people are invited to complete the tour themselves, or visit whichever sites particularly interest them. With the sites placed relatively close together, though, the trail makes for a perfect afternoon walk.

Under the Vertical Studio A_PUBLIC BEIRUT program at the Department of Architecture and Design, students were tasked with reimagining the very idea of public space, what it means to Beirut and Beirutis and how it can be developed and reinterpreted in the future.

Sandra Rishani, who co-teaches the program with Rana Haddad and Carol Levesque, and is the author of the blog Beirut the Fantastic, said the aim was also to consider “how you can allow different people to interact that wouldn’t normally.”

At the first stop, “The Lighthouse: Up to the Manara,” students have created a small exhibition space within the building itself, “The National Museum of Beirut’s Old Lighthouse.”

Having started with an analysis of the Corniche – students, in groups, spent 24 hours pitched next to Deek Duke, with a camera that took a single photo every minute, to dissect the full array of experiences – this group settled on the original black and white beacon set back a little from the coast.

Built by the Ottomans in 1835, the lighthouse was used until 2003, when its visibility from one part of the coast was blocked by a new apartment building (in exchange, the developer funded construction of the new manara).

“We chose the Old Manara as it seems symbolic of Beirut – an old site replaced by a new building, because of the wishes of a developer,” says Dina Mneimneh, one of the students involved in the project.

The Old Manara is kept in reserve, should power ever go out at the new site, and managed by Victor Chebli (who sat in his kitchen during Monday’s visit), whose family has been in the role for over 100 years. His son, Joseph, runs the new site.

At the second stop, another group of students has challenged the “openness” of the Corniche itself. “Corniche Extended” explores the idea that while the coastal path is technically publically owned, as it was funded by government money, much of it is restricted to the public.

Ducking under a barbed wire rope – “we wanted to show just how restricted this site really is, so we kept it as is” – the public is invited onto the promenade at the new fishermen’s port, just past Riviera Beach.

Informed that public access was restricted due to health and safety concerns about sea spray rendering the pathway slippery and dangerous, students bypassed this problem by constructing an elevated, mobile platform.

Using reclaimed pieces of the Corniche itself, and a draisine rail motor from the Mar Mikhail train station, the students – who went straight to Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi for permission – take it in turns to manually shift the platform along tracks they have themselves constructed, taking visitors right to the end of the harbor.

Across the road, a third group of students has erected “Air Rights,” a vertically mobile chair which ascends up a pole. Allowing an obscured view of a large piece of private land hidden behind a wall – which developers are hoping to build on once they can persuade an adjacent family to sell up part of their home – the ride deliberately frustrates the user.

Thea Hallah, one of the students involved with Air Rights explained why the empty chair can go higher than the chair complete with passenger.

“It’s to show what restricted rights we have. So we invite people to try it, but then they are disappointed, as they can see the empty chair going higher than them, and they want to be able to see more. The system works, but it is preventing their journey ...”

Walking further north along the Corniche, one arrives at the fourth site, “Out of Place: A public escape that is suspended in time.” Having noticed an elevated abandoned house, set back from the road, its entrance covered in wild plants, this student group erected a staircase from the street level, after gaining permission from the owners, who are planning to demolish the idyllic site within three years.

On a path made from water tanks, and in a bamboo garden enclave, visitors to Out of Place can sink into a sofa made from a satellite dish – found on site. Surreal and magical, this really is a secret garden in the city.

At the final site, “Nature’s Calling: A play on senses,” students have rooted a public telephone in to a huge private, but unkempt, garden, whose owners were enthusiastic about the project. Surrounded by flower pots, and with a sunken seating area, this final site is more artwork than architecture.

“We wanted to take something from the city and move it into this green space and put it somewhere you wouldn’t imagine finding it to amplify this difference,” says Mira Moussa, one of the group’s students.

Descending to the dug-out bench, one’s eye level is in line with the ground, “so you are literally sitting in the garden.”

This completely original and inspiring collection of works will fascinate anyone interested in architecture, public space, the future of Beirut, or just simply those wishing to see a hidden side to the city.

Old Manara: until May 18, 3 p.m until 4 p.m. Corniche Extended: until May 17, 1-6 p.m. Air Rights: until May 18, 5-7 p.m. Out of Place: until May 25, 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. Nature’s Calling: until May 18, 2-6 p.m.

More information available at

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 16, 2012, on page 2.




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