Solidere’s Final Frontier?
By: Leah Caldwell
Published Thursday, December 29, 2011
Beirut - Entering Solidere’s “Waterfront District” can feel like crossing into a parallel world.
In the company’s latest area of real estate expansion, piles of construction materials line paved streets punctuated with Solidere flags. Dump trucks rumble from one dusty plot to the next, emptying stones into assorted piles. Private security guards man the public concrete corniche along the Mediterranean – which, on the day I visited, seemed empty except for a few young couples and some exercising men.
If you didn’t know that Solidere was the development company established by assassinated former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 1994, you might assume it’s an independent state that lords over this 180-acre, near-barren coastal enclave, what with the entry checkpoints and individually-branded Jersey barriers. And in a way, it is.
Over the next 20 years, Solidere will seek to transform this former landfill into a mini-city – complete with a street grid adapted to a Monaco-style Formula One Grand Prix circuit – in one of its most ambitious construction projects to date. That means a lot coming from the company that razed hundreds of buildings – some of which still had inhabitants – in Beirut’s downtown to make way for a shopping district that boasts the most expensive retail rents in the entire Middle East.
Though details on the Waterfront District’s master plan are still in flux, Solidere is already billing the area as the “climax” of the citywide corniche. While the district will likely be an extension of its downtown playground for the rich, by tracing how the company built its way to the literal edge of the city, we can gather initial clues as to what the future holds for this coveted strip of coast.
From landfill to coastal destination
The “Waterfront District,” previously known as the Normandy Landfill, is a conspicuous artifice jutting from the mainland into the sea. Located east of the St. George Marina, the city once deposited years of war rubble – including the landfill’s namesake the Normandy Hotel – onto this strip of land. In the late 1990s, Solidere hired a gaggle of contractors to clear the landfill, which had been overflowing with waste into the Mediterranean.
“It’s terrible. In Beirut, there was no place to pile the garbage. Most of the Lebanese coast is terrible, down from zero meters of depth until 25 meters, almost everywhere you’ll find some old tires and garbage bags,” said Andre Azzi, the executive manager of Sub-Aqua Tec, a marine contracting firm that was subcontracted by Solidere to dredge the St. George Marina.
Companies extracted about 5,000 tons of material, half of which was below sea level, from the Normandy Landfill. Solidere views this strip of coast as not just a reclamation of a littoral landfill, but as creating something out of nothing. The company’s annual reports feature photographs of the vast, empty spaces framed with tractors and cranes, exhibiting the land’s naked potential. We are to marvel at not just the final product years from now, but at the spectacular industrial processes that created it; years of dredging the sea floor, hauling waste, backfilling trenches, and constructing sea defenses underscore Solidere’s immense power to move the earth.
“There are no rules or laws to protect the shores. It’s a matter of power. You have power, you know somebody, you pay money, and then you can do whatever,” said Azzi.
The stated strategy of the “Waterfront District” is simple: “to market and reposition Beirut as an international investor destination.” Solidere will invest at least US$200 million on the district’s infrastructure alone, but the company is set to make record profits by selling off the high-dollar coastal plots. The Grand Prix circuit and high-end residential properties projected for development by Foster + Partners have set the tone for future development, but the district’s face has already been partially determined by the architects and designers who have built and conceived several of the area’s structures.
“We can’t rebuild cities, but cities can rebuild themselves,” said L.E.FT architect Makram el Kadi.
The NYC-based design collective L.E.FT designed the Beirut Exhibition Center, which sits on the outskirts of the “Waterfront District.” When I first saw the contemporary art gallery, I assumed that it was still under construction, but upon approach, I noticed that the mirror-plated walls had just reflected the nearby piles of rubble. L.E.FT describes the building as sitting on a former landfill with the building’s reflective walls expressing the “placeless nature of the building.”
“The edge is where the interaction will happen between the land and the sea,” said el Kadi. “We have an amazing waterfront, but we have disconnected it from the city.”
The nearby yacht club and town quay, which are projects of the Steven Holl and Nabil Gholam architectural firms, as well as L.E.FT, are private and public projects intended to reconnect the city with the coast. The former two firms describe the club as sitting on an “ancient beach,” with Gholam architects describing the building as being settled on a “new fabricated terrain.”
Though it might be a stretch to cast the Normandy Landfill as an “ancient beach,” it used to be part of an urbanized, rocky coastline before the civil war. The actual ancient harbor of Beirut, dating from 5,000 years ago, lies about 300 meters inland from the present coast, according to research scientist Nick Marriner. Solidere’s new coastline is more manufactured artifice than the product of a natural history, but that hasn’t stopped the company from incorporating romanticized tales of the city’s pre-civil war or ancient coastlines into its projects to give them an air of historical authenticity.
The product of these historical musings are the company’s much-touted “heritage trails” such as the “Old Shoreline Walk,” which traces the pre-civil war coastline.
Gustafson Porter, a UK-based landscape architecture firm, is designing the highly-manicured, circuitous walk, a part of which stretches through the district. The trail will be broken up by several public squares, each representing a “memory” of pre-war Beirut.
Zeytoune Square is the first and only complete square on the developing trail. It is located behind the Starco building and was totally empty on a weekday at 3pm. The park was a fine place to sit, but I could not make any connection – visual or otherwise – with “remembrance” of a pre-civil war past or coastline. I asked an older man sitting on the far edge of the square if the old coastline once ran through here; he said he didn’t know, but that it was possible.
Fortifying the settlements on the sea
From above, the man-made nature of Solidere’s final frontier is made evident by its rigid square shape and scythe-like breakwaters that cut into the sea – all about as natural as the Palm Islands of Dubai. It’s possible that the real designers behind the Waterfront District are the coastal engineers who have chipped away at the downtown coast for years.
“Our approach is quite pragmatic,” said Michel Denechere, managing director of Concrete Layer Innovations. “[I’m] not sure if aesthetics play a big part in decisions made by owners to build coastal infrastructures.”
Denechere's company contributed one small but crucial piece of equipment to the development of Beirut’s coast: the accropode. The giant concrete structures are used to construct the breakwaters along the coast and they are designed “to resist thousands of waves, some under extreme storm conditions, during their lifetime,” said Denechere.
Invented by the French company Sogreah in 1981, the accropode’s first documented appearance in Beirut was in 1986 and since then, the city's breakwaters are made up of hundreds of them piled on top of each other like jacks. Though they don’t look it from the water, the accropodes are massive, outsizing humans considerably. Along the Waterfront District, hundreds of the accropodes are stored in the vacant lots, their function about as mysterious to passersby as this district’s final form.