Multiple Modernities of the Middle East – B 018 – A Prologue
“As I ride to B-018, a stench more putrid than death permeates the night. It tickles my urge for a steak, causes my appetite to ache. B-018 is an industrial nightclub tucked in a deserted district in The Quarantine.”
The Cyclist – Viken Berberian
Beirut – Setting the Stage
As the capital and largest city of Lebanon, Beirut’s history can be stretched for over 5000 years making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Coined as the Paris of the Middle East due to its golden years of the 1960’s, the city has been often described as a cosmopolitan mercantile power-sharing enclave, a forum of religious and political ideologies, and a fusion of the Arab East and the Christian West. Arguably, such complex dichotomies may have contributed to the outbreak of the civil war of 1975-1991 causing the death of almost a 150,000 people. With the central districts witnessing much of the wartime destruction, more than 80% were allegedly beyond repair despite only a third of the damages being war inflicted. A total of 1500 listed heritage buildings has shrunk to a mere number of 300, which most were lost during the reconstruction efforts lead by a national developing giant, Solidere. Critics stated that the reconstruction efforts have transformed the central district into a playground of the rich and fails to connect the peripheral neighborhoods creating a spatial paradox. Rather than revitalizing its pre-war role of a national cosmopolitan centre, the central district has become home to cathedrals of consumerism and other outlets that caters to the material culture. The implementation of the international urbanist model has inevitably lead to the identity crisis, a challenging and detrimental issue in the face of the ever changing Middle East.
New Urbanism – Old Problems
Issues of contemporary development and the consequences of gentrification commonly resonate within many global cities and Beirut is no exception despite its troubled past. While corporate developers often pride themselves as cultural paragons of national imagining, many are quick to dismiss such statements as “mere rhetoric meant to mask the realities of market driven capitalism”. But how do such commercial narratives and the deepening commodification of culture affect the so called “Eastern Jewel of the Mediterranean” that is riddled with years of political strife? How does a globalized standard of urbanism, deterritorializing in its nature, affect a city within a nation suffering from a deepening sectarian divide?
While the post-cold war globalization of markets may have created economic and socio-political bridges in the international scene, the inevitable force of development and gentrification has created identity issues in the preservation of local urban memory. With a large scale development demarcating the alleged ending of the Lebanese civil war in 1991, the “Disney-Fication” restoration process allowed the city to enter an involuntary induced post-war denial. According to renowned Lebanese architect, Bernard Khoury, the city has entered “The Amnesia Years” after the war and reconstruction efforts of Solidere.
Historical selection, spatial appropriation, and the destruction of heritage in favour for a market driven form of urbanism has both allowed the Lebanese people to voice their dissent and rebelliously interpret the public space to their own accord. Beirut’s Pre-War hedonistic atmosphere has been translated in its post-war period, but with caution and uncertainty. What should constitute as heritage? Is it the nation’s attempt to revive its picturesque and romanticised past or the acceptance of its contemporary realities? Could B-018, the underground nightclub reminiscent of its fallout shelter aesthetics at the Quarantine Zone, be the new reality of Lebanon and an opponent to corporate and commercial architecture?
B-018 – The Nation’s Rehab for Post-War Amnesia
Graduated with a Masters in Architectural Studies from Harvard University and taught under Lebbeus Woods in 1993, Bernard Khoury is arguably the first architect to successfully translate Wood’s dystopian vision into built form which is evident in the conception of B-018. Built in 1998 as his first project after 16 projects that died on the drawing board, the club’s lifespan was designed to last for a mere five years but due its popularity, it has witnessed 18 years of non-stop debauchery and hedonism. In addition to Khoury’s perseverance, he stated that many contractors ridiculed that it could never be built and thus he looked elsewhere for solutions, a “garbage truck builder”. Through this unconventional approach, Khoury was able to only spend 60,000 dollars on the steel frame and 8,000 dollars on the hydraulics systems, a great bargain when comparing it to market standards.
Depending on the political views of the average Lebanese citizen and without a memorial in sight, Karantina, or the Quarantine Zone, witnessed either a series of military operations or massacres during the civil war. However, it is now home to Forum De Beyrouth and the infamous architectural icon of the contemporary nation, B-018. Located in the heart of the industrial zone and across the Armenian neighbourhood separated by the main highway, the nightclub has become the unintentional symbol of Lebanon, both architecturally and socially. The grime and raw materials of the club has replaced the idyllic terraced roofs and arched vaults that would constitute as to what is atypical of the nation’s architectural elements. What constituted as “Lebanese” has evolved from the rustic Mediterranean charm into the dystopian chic.
Rather than portraying itself as a rhetorical monument of tragedy, its façade-less approach recreates a sense of a communal grave which steers away from direct ostentatious social critiques or political statements. While the reconstruction efforts of the central district continued to erase any traces of war, B-018’s negative imagery arguably treats the post-war amnesia. It retains the notion of hosting denial-related activities by sacredly upholding the nation’s infamous survival mechanism, partying. Its spatial semantics is truly a paradox due to its ostrich effect of promoting nightlife activities but confined in wartime aesthetics. While the design and social philosophy may seem as a counterproductive methodology in treating societal issues in a post-war period, it can be argued that its use of brutal imagery is an attempt at creating an architectural vaccine. Despite the tables being eerily reminiscent to tombstones as well as the seats likening to coffins, the club’s ceiling opens to the sky as the party-goers dance away their problems oblivious to the imagery of destruction that surrounds them.
In order to fully accept and eradicate the trauma of war, a society must come to terms with its negativity rather than sweeping its issues under the rug. Its presence may one day be viewed for its positive didactic function as a “negative heritage” regardless of its temporary design intent. It’s honest stance on the troubled psychological state of the nation and its niche design has allowed B-018 to become one of the “25 Clubs You Must Visit Before You Die” as stated by In the Mix. B-018 is a symbol of Lebanon’s resilience and their love for life is etched in their psychological make-up, despite constant uncertainty of yet another conflict that looms on the horizon.
Lessons for the Future
If globalization intends to become a positive force in the redistribution or revival of any urban fabric, it must always adhere to a culture’s needs before implementing a “one size fits all” standardized model. The works of Bernard Khoury, especially B-018, offers a deeply conflicted perspective regarding the preservation of local identities and the highly selective reconstruction efforts. In a city of varying contested sites and ideologies, public spaces should promote and foster post-war pluralistic identities to create a healthy dialogue. By promoting market driven urbanism models in a contested city such as Beirut, issues that seem to be resolved are merely sedated by opulent fashion districts. It is pure facadism at its finest, an illusion of modernism to elude any questioning of the current realities the region faces. While Khoury openly states that his projects are not manifestos and his works ironically pertains to those who can afford Beirut’s ostentatious nightlife, there is a deliberate social criticism. Whether his attempts at constructing psychoanalytical spaces are voluntary, he has become the anti-hero of architecture in the Middle East and reinforced the importance of preserving local urban memory without using the tempting, but detrimental, tinted lenses of nostalgia, as well as insensitive cookie-cutter solutions imported by commercial western firms commonly seen throughout the region.
Author: Karl Abi Karam
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