Exactly a year ago, on August 4, 2020, the third-largest non-nuclear explosion ever-recorded destroyed almost half the city of Beirut, ripping through the port and the eastern part of the capital. One of the biggest urban tragedies of modern times, killed more than 200 people, wounded thousands, and left an estimated 300,000 people homeless, damaging over 80,000 commercial, residential and public spaces. Felt across neighboring countries, the blast stripped the city’s constructions of their cladding, framing, and glass elements, while completely tearing down other buildings, leaving around US$15 billion in property damage, in times of Covid, political and social unrest, and economic collapse.
One year later, so little has changed. One year later, it only became harder for the people of Beirut. One year later, everything in the city still reminds them of that day. Major questions remained unanswered, no rescue or action plans have been taken by governmental institutions, instead, civil society rose to take into their own hands, reconstruction efforts, in the total absence of the state.
Read on to discover Beirut, one year later, the still-standing silos, the lack of action, and the alternative forms of urban governance through the lens of Dia Mrad, a Lebanese photographer specialized in Architecture and Interiors Photography.
The Capital’s Grain Silos
At ground zero, the explosion ripped apart the eastern-facing façade of the 48 meters high grain silos, a section of shoreline, and left a crater roughly 124 m in diameter and 43 m in depth. Some specialists consider that the surviving robust structure of the silos shielded at large the western part of the capital, absorbing much of the blast’s shockwaves and protecting the city from a greater annihilation. Responsible for storing 85% of Lebanon’s grain, the structural wonder was built between 1968 and 1970, originally with 42 cylindrical silos before the addition of more cylinders during the restoration works of 1997. The largest in the Middle East at that time, the structure developed by Lebanese engineer Jacques Nasr and executed by Czech firm Průmstav, was initially designed to withstand massive conditions. Preserving their form but damaged greatly, the still-standing section of the reinforced concrete wall is at risk of collapsing, according to a report by the Swiss firm Amann Engineering that strongly recommends its complete destruction. Its concrete piles have been reported, “heavily damaged”.
“A monument to the dreadful fate of the Ashrafieh hill’s total destruction”, as Dia Mrad explains, the silos have been lately subject to controversy. Questioning if the silos should be demolished or preserved, the community is torn between those in favor of keeping the iconic structure for the memory it holds while others advocate erasing this wound from the Beirut skyline. While this debate related to the collective memory finds slowly its pros and cons, architects have been engaged with the design of memorials, international competitions, and top-down master plans, forgetting the impact of the calamity. Rushing and forcing the pace, while “romanticizing” a situation that hasn’t been dealt with, some are missing the chance to venture in new ways of doing, surrendering to the same old methods. In fact, after roughly a year, why would a still traumatized city need a memorial, when people have not forgotten to be reminded? Why would it need international competitions, when citizens should be allowed to imagine their own future? Why would it need imposed master plans when bottom-up ideas emerging from the needs of the community have proven to work far better? Beirut has different priorities.
On-Going Slow Reconstruction Efforts
Beirut today depends strongly and only on personal initiatives and alternative governance. With the absence of a bigger vision and the inaction of governmental entities to implement reforms in order to benefit from international aids, the city looks like a “tidier” version of what it looked like a year ago. Basically, streets are cleared from rubbles and glass, buildings are covered with plastic shields, and scaffoldings are spread out in neighborhoods. As you look closer, you notice that pretty much, everything still looks like it did after the tragedy.
Funds allocated to NGOs are not enough to cover the huge consequences of the blast, especially with the collapse of the economy and the cost of material. Therefore, priorities are given to sheltering people, closing openings, repairing partially, and installing windows and doors. Initiatives have come together in order to push forward reconstruction efforts, as far as possible, given the circumstances, and to divide the workload: from rehabilitating residential and commercial units, especially for lower-income households and small businesses, to full-on renovations.
For heritage buildings, the situation is far more complicated, as they need more financial resources and the intervention of specialists. Around 600 historic buildings dating back to the Ottoman era or built between 1930 and 1970, have suffered severe damages. The Beirut Heritage Initiative has been working on several priority clusters around the city, where the explosion caused substantial destructions, in Mar Mikhaël, Rmeil, and Medawar, most notably on the Shoreline Cluster, facing the port and home to the famous Blue House (Maison Bleue). Nevertheless, a lot remains untouched, on pending mode.
Alternative Systems and Civic Infrastructure
NGOs have taken up the role of the government, creating a people-driven power, with modest financial capacities. Society has mobilized its personal efforts, creating an alternative system of governance. Can society do it on its own, one asks? Not in theory, especially that a lot of funds and aids need institutional entities, but how can someone communicate this to a community, whose only hope remains in itself.
In an interview with ArchDaily Hashim Sarkis, the Lebanese curator of the 2021 Venice Biennale explains that “the anger that spread after the explosion was projected at the corruption and neglect that led to this explosion, but it was also about associating Beirut with resilience”. Believing that Beirut has reached its limit of resiliency because it has been rebuilt during the 1990s without civic foundations, Sarkis adds “we built highways but not public transport, private facades but not public spaces, new hospitals but not a public health system”. Considering that the biggest challenge of civil society today is “to find a way to join these grassroots efforts together and into a bold vision for the city, and not to fragment and privatize these efforts”, the architect proposes a civic infrastructure for the city out of the collective and coordinated visions of its civil society.
Coming together is an act of resistance and resist the city shall do. The trauma inherited from the past years of war coupled with the trauma developed from the recent events of 2020, tie the people of Beirut together, more than they realize. This shared suffering is transforming into a collective memory that will define forever the narrative of this community. In order to get through this as a nation, social justice should be achieved as a first step. Moreover, while structures can be rebuilt and replaced, neighborhoods cannot heal overnight especially in the absence of incrimination and accountability. Therefore, no matter how many buildings have been refurbished, no matter how much the community tried to deal collectively with its trauma, if social justice is not achieved, the city will remain in mourning and in distress.