Beruit – First Impressions

Am now in Beruit touching base at my companies global HQ.

I grew up with the images of the 20 year civil war in Beruit.  The kidnapping of John McCarthy, the artillery barrages from the Bekkar Valley, reading o’rourkes ‘holidays in Hell’ about here in 1990.  The pictures of buildings in its down town, which was always the frontline, shot apart by bullets and shells. Then I thought there would be no where less likely to be.

Beruit now shows the resilience of a great city with 5,000 years of history, already rebuilt from fires (twice) a tidal wave and many catastrophes.  It might not still be a candidate for one of the most picturesque cities in the world, as it might have been up to the 1940s even, with its fantastic sandstone buildings and villas, but the march of concretisation had destroyed much of that civil war or not and you cant be too nostalgic.  What Beruit illustrates is something I have long thought – that given a choice between (if you have to) picturesqueness and vitality vitality would always come out tops because who would want to live in a anemic museum kept perfect for visitors bit drained of all life.  Beruit is one of the most vital cities on the planet with a ar and club scene, and with great small bars and clubs, as good as anywhere on the planet.

How close all cities are to the destruction of war is evident here and something I think Britain  has sadly forgotten.  The recent political dismissiveness of the value of planning would have been thinkable to the 1945 generation.  A colleague here describes frantic calls from a (former) client in Syria quite recently, where are you, we have a project on, battles what battles, everything is fine.

Much of the downtown has been rebuilt according to a masterplan by the French public planning research institute, appropriate as it is of course ‘the Paris of the Middle East’  Controversial plan inevitably and still only about half done, they are still revealing the main cathedral capenelle, but undeniably impressive.  Historic building are being restored and who streets and quarters lost forever are being rebuilt in one quarter using entirely traditional materials.  Massing and street lines are well mannered and well thought out. But the centre has too many one way streets and a very like any other city devastating ring road which makes it a peril for pedestrians on what is otherwise a fantastically walkable and compact city.   Public transport – it is more like an African city reliant on shared taxis.  A good tram system and it would be a wonderful place to live.

But the downtown is artificial, perhaps inevitably.  It lacks the rough edges of a place with the scratches of history and parts feel more like a timeshare complex.  The rubble in the city centre was just dumped out on the seafront creating a large area of reclaimed land on which a new quarter is slowly being built.  More interesting I think are the aras around the edges of the downtown where many old, and frighteningly neglected houses and villas remain.  The area to the east of the city city contains wonderful pedestrianized streets and courtyards where old houses have been converted to pubs and clubs. I would post some photos but so far have not been able to emerge from work before sundown.

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