BEIRUT: Limbo is a familiar feeling for Beirut’s war ruins. The announcement that the Holiday Inn is to be auctioned off after decades of uncertainty has come as a relief to many.
For others, questions over what will happen to the hotel, an evocative and hulking monument to Lebanon’s darkest days, have reawoken an old debate about the fate of other buildings laid to waste by the Civil War.
It is not known who the Holiday Inn’s buyer will be. The only certainty is that something will finally happen to the eerie, pock-marked lump of concrete that has occupied the memories and captured the imaginations of Lebanese and foreigners alike for decades.
When the Holiday Inn opened in 1975 it was set to become famous as the destination for those seeking sun and the high life in the Middle East’s most famous party city. Instead, it gained notoriety as one of the sites of the Battle of the Hotels, an early and particularly vicious battle in the 15-year conflict that saw Christian fighters lose a crucial sniper post to their Muslim rivals, shifting the front line east to Damascus Street.
Although St. Charles City Center, the company that owns the building, tried several times to rehabilitate it after the war ended, disagreements between the company’s biggest shareholders proved insurmountable. A Kuwaiti group, with 53 percent of the shares, wanted to tear it down, while local Compagnie Immobiliere Libanaise, with 34 percent, wanted to convert it into apartments.
Elias Saba, founder and former chairman of St. Charles City Center until 2003, insisted it would not make sense for the new owner to demolish the hotel.
“The built-up area including garages is 160,000 square meters,” he told The Daily Star. “There is no way if you tore it down now that you could build more than 50,000 or 60,000 square meters.”
Whether the winner of the auction will agree remains to be seen. Even among the general public, who have no real say in urban planning decisions in Lebanon, there is a highly charged debate over what should be done with valuable real estate that is both a source of painful memories and a key testament to the country’s turbulent modern history.
And the Holiday Inn is far from being the only building that elicits such strong reactions. Beirut is dotted with ruins left over from the war, their fates hanging in the air as their owners attempt to reconcile the financial, cultural, architectural and historical factors at play.
Three of the most well-known are the Murr Tower, the Grand Theater, and the Egg.
“These buildings mean different things to different groups of people,” explained Abdul-Halim Jabr, an architect and a former AUB lecturer on urban design.
“They are in contested land, and they are also in contested history.”
“I remember in late 1975 watching rocket exchanges from my living room between Burj [tower] Murr and Burj Rizk in Ashrafieh. I’m looking out the window now and I can almost see it like a newsreel in front of me. It’s that clear a memory.”
“So for my generation this is a building that was never used as a proper building. That makes it a huge part of the war, people assign meaning to it, and some who care about the city believe it should be there because it is part of an unresolved conflict.”
Forty floors of gray concrete that jut unapologetically into the sky, the Murr Tower has become a navigating landmark due to its visibility throughout the city.
“It was built one floor a day,” said Jabr. “They used vertical tracks and poured the concrete as they went up.”
Constructed as the war began in 1975, it never became the imposing Trade Center of Lebanon it aspired to be. Instead, as with the Holiday Inn, it became a favored vantage point for snipers, and quickly became associated with death, loss and misery. Even the basement was rumored to have been turned into a prison.
These days, Solidere – its current owner – isn’t quite sure what to do with it.
“The tower represents a major development for the company and it will be developed in due time by Solidere or a third party,” a spokesperson for the company told The Daily Star.
In other words, no plans for the time being.
The same appears to be true for the Grand Theater, one of Beirut’s hidden gems.
Believed to date back to the 1920s, the theater is everything the Murr Tower isn’t. It boasts a vibrant and largely joyful history – Oum Kulthoum performed there – and a vintage interior.
In a 2009 post on his blog Beirut Report, journalist Habib Battah shared pictures he took inside the building showing tattered stage curtains, piles of theater chairs and wartime graffiti – including a Star of David and the Amal logo.
Several people have fought hard for the Grand Theater to be preserved rather than knocked down, and so far it appears to have worked. Although plans for it to be turned into a boutique hotel have ground to a halt, Solidere maintain that the theater will be kept intact.
“The building will be restored, preserving its architectural character and historical value,” said the Solidere spokesperson. “The project will be developed in due course.”
The British firm contracted to design the hotel, Rogers Stirk Harbour Partners, added: “At present the Grand Theatre Beirut Project is on hold as far as we know.”
Centuries-old theaters clearly fall into the heritage category, so the case for preserving such a building is clear. When it comes to brutalist concrete concoctions from the ’60s and ’70s, however – such as the Murr Tower and Holiday Inn – things get trickier.
The Egg – also known as the Dome, the Soap, the Bubble, and, in a former life, Beirut City Center – shows how a half-destroyed mess of concrete and steel can lodge itself in a city’s consciousness and become a crucial part of the landscape.
Although it was only half finished by the time the Civil War began, the Egg’s distinctively rounded cinema, sat two floors up like a space ship, and a shopping center below had both been open for several years. Architect Joseph Philippe Karam’s website boasts that it was once the largest mall in the region.
After the war, an adjoining tower – one of two that were supposed to be built – was pulled down when the Finance Ministry briefly considered opening its headquarters there, creating the giant hole that remains today. For years afterward, the space was used by the public as a nightclub and an exhibition space.
The ruin has since become a rallying point for those who criticize Solidere’s controversial conservation policy. There have been a number of frenzied campaigns to “Save the Egg” in response to rumors it was about to be demolished, but nothing has happened so far.
In 2005, Solidere sold the land on which it stands to Abu Dhabi Investment House as part of the Beirut Gate project. Erga Architects, a local firm, were contracted to work on a design, and suggested turning the Egg into an cultural or exhibition space.
All that ground to a halt when the land was resold to Olyan Group in 2009, with French architecture company Christian de Portzamparc commissioned to draw up a new plan. According to the design firm, a new, enormous Mandarin Oriental Hotel was planned for the site, with the Egg to be kept intact as a restaurant or performance space. But that was put on hold in February last year, leaving its future once again uncertain.
When contacted by The Daily Star, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group said they could not talk about “market rumors,” adding that they were “clearly not in a position to comment on this opportunity, until such time as we have a confirmed project to announce.”
The Olyan Group could not be reached for comment.
Christian de Portzamparc, however, confirmed their proposal had been shelved.
“The client Olyan decided they could not proceed with the project because of different reasons such as the crisis [in Lebanon’s deteriorating security situation], it was too big a project and so on,” explained Duccio Cardelli, the firm’s studio director.
“I don’t know what’s going on with the Egg right now, whether it will be restored or not. ... They [Olyan] have found another architect, but I don’t know who.”
“There are not many historical parts of Beirut still standing, so we wanted to keep it,” he added. “Solidere gave us the option to destroy it. Olyan Group were OK with us keeping it because we found a good use for it. ... I think if they find a good solution they will keep it.”