The corniche of Ras Beirut: A porous and vibrant public space

The absence of government and municipal authorities produced havoc in zoning ordinances and threatened the country’s landscape and natural habitat.
by Samir Khalaf

8 February 2019 | 15:31

Source: by Annahar

  • by Samir Khalaf
  • Source: Annahar
  • Last update: 8 February 2019 | 15:31

This photo, taken on 07/07/1975 shows Lebanese enjoying their time at the corniche after a cease-fire was decided. (Annahar Archives/ Eleanor Falov)

BEIRUT: The catalogue of cruelties spawned by seventeen years (1975-1992) of protracted hostility in Lebanon have been chronicled ad nauseam. Any further documentation is only a painful elaboration of the obvious. The war has generated an endless carnage of innocent victims, immeasurable human suffering, devastation and destruction. The most profound, perhaps, has been the redrawing of the country’s social geography. Massive population shifts and dislocations, fueled by deepening enmity and collective vengeance, have generated deformations in spatial configurations and sustained a pervasive mood of geography of fear.

Such spatial deformations assume poignant features. Mixed and heterogeneous communities have diminished. Decentralization has undermined Beirut’s primacy and its dominance as a metropolitan center. Land use patterns are in disarray. The absence of government and municipal authorities produced havoc in zoning ordinances and threatened the country’s landscape, natural habitat, and much of its archaeological and architectural heritage. Pervasive hostility and fear have reinforced the psychological barriers and distance between communities.

Equally graphic is the way the spaces and tempo of war had asserted their ferocious logic on the perceptions and uses of space. Conventional distinctions between public and private spaces, between rural and urban, local and global, and the symbolic meanings and uses of home, street, courtyard, alleyway, neighborhood were all blurred or overhauled. For example, cities and sprawling suburbs are being “ruralized” as successive waves of dislocated groups, strangers to city life, converge on squatted settlements in the center and urban fringe. Conversely, as uprooted groups sought shelter and become spatially anchored in compact mountainous regions, the bucolic and pastoral character of such areas is bludgeoned by abusive forms of land exploitation. At both ends, the habitat is victimized. With internecine conflict, as combat assumed the manifestations of “turf wars”, quarters often splintered into smaller and more compact enclosures. Spaces within which people circulated shrunk even further.

The war had not only destroyed common spaces and reinforced the proclivities for the formation of exclusive and secluded enclaves, it has also generated a mood of lethargy and indifference which borders, at times, on collective amnesia. Much like other victims of collective suffering the Lebanese have become increasingly desensitized and disengaged. Even in times of relative stability and order, groups in Lebanon have not been particularly conscious of their public role in regulating or at least mitigating some of the abuses of living space. By and large, and more so than other public issues, problems of planning and zoning which directly infringe on their individual rights are often overlooked and relegated to others. Though public space is being increasingly contested, the average citizen remains, to this day, heedless and unaware that his informed attention or aroused consciousness could make a difference. The issue here converges on who are the most qualified groups and agencies that can mobilize and speak on behalf of those who have been numbed and rendered impotent by years of fear, terror and grief.

Even architects and urban designers have been delinquent in living up to the idealistic and aesthetic sensibilities so germane to their edifying and ameliorative professions. They have not been the sobering voices. Nor have they become the vectors through which the necessary measures of calculus, rationality, control, and forecasting could be incorporated into our flawed and lethargic planning process. Instead, excluding a passionate few, many of the gifted architects and builders have become willful participants, often accessories, to the very process of despoiling our living space.

Finally, the war, with all its cruelties, may still be seen in a more beneficent light, particularly with regard to its urban planning potential and prospects for recovering some of Beirut’s redeeming heritage. Indeed, if judiciously exploited, some of the physical and spatial devastation of the war may well prove to be a planner’s windfall. By literally bulldozing large stretches of some of the choicest and cherished urban spaces, such as Beirut’s historic central business district, urban planners have now access to priceless virgin land which could not have been released by the normal exorbitant and cumbersome processes of expropriation.

The war has not only permitted planners to reclaim part of Beirut’s maligned urban legacy. It has also created new spaces. It is rather telling that the subject of the Harvard GSD studio turns out to be none other than downtown Beirut’s waterfront, a landfill of about 600,000 square meters, created literally by the debris and rubble of the war (Rowe and Sarkis, 1995). The landfill, in fact, was the city’s makeshift garbage dump, an aberrant product of Beirut’s fractious political history. The municipal incinerator happened to be on the “Easter” part of the city’s divide. During the war, garbage trucks on the “Western” and other suspect sectors of the city were not, for security considerations, allowed passage to the East. Hence the stopgap and provisional garbage dump, bounded by St. George’s Bay on the west and the Port Company on the east, became the landfill under consideration.

The landfill is clearly not an ordinary appendage to the city. As captured in the aerial view it is unquestionably the most compelling site destined to reshape and define Beirut’s future skyline and overall identity and image.

It is within this context that this collaborative venture becomes timely and instructive. Out of the debris of the war, so-to-speak, planners and entrepreneurs have now unprecedented historic opportunities to evolve inventive but realistic schemes for rebuilding and restoring devastated areas and to partake in the more venturesome projects of designing new ones for the reclaimed and appended sites.

It is in such malleable places, open enough to permit constant alterations, that the basic impulses for intimacy and distance are met. In heeding such elemental human needs, the urbanist, in other words, has to design week “borders” rather than impassable “boundaries”. Boundaries, like walls, conjure up images of partition, exclusion, and confinement. Borders, on the other hand, are more scalable, and hence, they are less likely to serve as barriers or fearsome demarcating lines.

The present Corniche encircling much of the sea front of Ras Beirut, Perhaps the only genuinely open space in the city, has evolved as one such porous and vibrant public space. For seven years (between 1995 and 2003) we lived in one of AUB’s faculty apartments facing the iconic Corniche of Western Beirut. Hence I had the opportunity to observe rather closely and to document the, changing character of the activities and patrons it attracted. Various groups and users, representing virtually all sectors of society, have spontaneously evolved distinct but mutually compatible routines for maximizing use of this scarce resources without encroaching on the needs and routines of others. For example, in the early morning, often pre-dawn hours, it is the health-conscious and sport-minded groups, largely drawn from privileged strata, attired in the latest-fashion jogging outfits, who monopolize its spacious sidewalks. The agile, fit and not so fit, animated by the fresh sea breeze or their buoyant companions, are out to be refreshed before they report to work. A few are seen jogging, others walk briskly, but the majority stroll gingerly in groups and appear to be engaged in gregarious and chatty talk.

By mid-morning and until early afternoon, the Cornich becomes the preserve of diverse groups of idlers, mostly unemployed, disengaged, or retired who seem in no particular hurry to get anywhere or indulge in any focused activity or consuming pastime. They just tarry around, again mostly in groups, and bide their time watching the fishermen, speed boats, and distant ships.

By late afternoon and early evening, the Corniche is stormed by yet other groups of leisure seekers. Once again this is an odd medley of disparate crowds, social categories and age groups: families on their daily outings; after work colleagues and companions; young men and women, veiled and in trendy clothes; others sporting their new cars and latest electronic acquisitions; hyper-active after-school kids, on bicycles, in-line skates, skateboards, careening their way, recklessly, through the congested sidewalk. Street vendors, hawkers, peddlers, often in colorful vans and carts converted into eating stalls, also join in.

During weekends, or holidays, throngs of the underclass from the inner city and urban fringe literally take over the Corniche with its central shrubbed divide. It is instantly transformed into a boisterous picnic ground and amusement park. Families, parties of friends spread their mats, deck chairs, kitchen utensils next to their cars. They indulge their private fancies with much abandon as though the Corniche was as an extension of their backyards. It is also on weekends that the Corniche becomes an appealing venue for even more rambunctious and graceless groups: vociferant motorcades of weddings and funerals, supporters of local and religious leaders, soccer enthusiasts, and vehicled conveyors of amplified peddlers marketing their merchandise.

At night and often late into the early morning hours, the Corniche unfolds into an alluring, perhaps more lurid space; it becomes a lover’s lane. As the raucous evening crowds fade away, the luscious tranquility of the sea front attracts yet another assorted motley of pleasure seekers: after-dinner crowds, young amorous couples, and some lascivious groups; generally those bereft of the privileges of private quarters or access to covert or guarded places of assignation. To many the Corniche becomes such an open but sheltered place. Its dark anonymous milieu shrouds its seekers with the needed cover. People drop their reserves and indulge their whims with more abandon.

They also become, for better or worse, more oblivious of others. Even traditional and reserved groups, those who normally denounce the liberalization of sexual mores, become more permissive. Bearded “fundamentalists” with their veiled partners walk arm in arm. Others may be seen serenading as they exchange intimate tokens more freely.

What is striking is that, in the process, the Corniche never lost its basic function as a major traffic artery. It has become, like any other vibrant and porous urban space, a space of many spaces. The metamorphoses of the Corniche are instructive precisely because they prompt us to reconsider some of the salient misconceptions regarding the interplay between private and public use of space.

There is, in other words, some justification to uphold the image of the Lebanese as a spatially anchored creature, one who is culturally predisposed to huddle compulsively and define his domains (i.e. the compact enclosures of family and neighborhoods) against potential and alleged trespassers. Yet the Lebanese is also a creature of the outdoors. At least until the war terrorized his public spaces, he was inclined towards such gregarious and convivial encounters in much of his daily life and public celebrations. Street life is emblematic of urban provocation and arousal precisely because one lets go, so to speak, and drops his conventional reserves towards others. This is, after all, the ultimate test of a civil and open society.

I wish to conclude by one parting thought inspired by a felicitous historical precedent. When Daniel Bliss, the founder of the American University of Beirut, was considering in the early 1860’s an appropriate location to house the proposed College, he devoted endless surveying trips scouting for such a spot. When he finally beheld the site, he was instantly spellbound by it. It was at the time a desolate, forsaken stretch of scabrous, craggy, terraced hill punctuated with wild cactus and feral shrubs. As Bliss recorded in his engaging memoir: “We paid for the property far more that its market value; it scarcely had a market value. It was a home for jackals and a dumping place for the offal of the city”.

This garbage dump of old, largely by fortuitous circumstances, was fateful in redirecting the urban growth of Beirut and in begetting one of the most dominant and cosmopolitan urban centers in the Arab world! Beirut’s current landfill, a gift of the debris of war and human refuse is also a compelling site. It has much more going for it. May it not also usher in Beirut’s recovery and prefigure the contours of its auspicious growth?

Dr. Samir Khalaf is a retired professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut and has the been a director of the Centre for Behavioural Research at the university since 1994. He received his PhD in Sociology in 1964 from Princeton University.

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