Saturday, November 24, 2007

Architecture: The Fate of the Bubble

With its unusual aesthetic shape, the City Center Building was initially planned to become an important and iconic urban landmark in Beirut. The ‘bubble’ was designed in 1965 by Lebanese architect Joseph Philippe Karam a man who helped introduce the modernist architecture movement to Beirut.

Although this seemingly curious ‘bubble’ structure was considered by some as a one-off experiment, the saubone (a local term for ‘soap’) actually managed to remain a resilient venture. Judging by the attention it was garnering, the ‘bubble’ was a benchmark, a sign of the new presence and creativity that was strong in the energy in the city. Even now, years after its completion, it still stands as one of the more noteworthy features of the modernism wave that swept through the city.

Of course, no one can dispute that the building hasn’t taken a beating or two. The City Center’s once-smooth exterior has been worn down by time, a reflection of the difficult times that were occurring in Beirut. The structure was riddled with bullet marks and shell damage, sections of concrete were cracked and broken and the metal supports of the building were stripped and laid bare to the public eye. After the outbreak of the Civil War, the building was left alone and it turned into a brutal, yet important reminder of the tumultuous time that had passed.

The building has been through quite a number of ups and downs with regards to its fate – usually related to the socio-political effects that were occurring in the country at the time. The building lay untouched for several years, until a potential for change emerged in the early 90s when the site was designated to become the new Finance Ministry Headquarters and penned to be demolished. Work on the building began with the installation of a new foundation and basement floors. They even went as far as demolishing the original ‘nose’ of the building. However, due to the political events surrounding a change in the local governments, the rest of the plans were eventually abandoned and the building was once again left as is.

In 2003, development giant Solidere signed on to invest in the bubble. To Solidere, the City Center Building seemed like an idea place for development due to its prime location. This appeared to put the fate of the building in peril as it was scheduled to finally be demolished, much to the dismay of the public. These plans were eventually put on the back-burner in 2004 when Solidere made the surprise announcement that Bernard Khoury was joining the project. Instead of demolishing the City Center, he proposed an extensive redevelopment that would enhance the building’s unique shape.

Khoury’s plans involved surrounding the dome of the building with scaffolding and creating extra space below the main structure for a series of exhibition spaces and galleries. The new building would also allow for more pedestrian use - the public will be able to walk through the bubble and look at the crowds below.

Regardless of the plans for the bubble to be modernized, plans to fix the outer shell were not drawn up. Instead, it was instructed that the flawed walls of the concrete façade were to be left as is, serving as a reminder that even modern aesthetics cannot completely erase the scars of a once-damaged city.

Unfortunately, this plan did not seem to be the final fate of the City Center Building. In 2005, Political events in Beirut surrounding the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri turned the future of the building back onto the unknown, as the project was abandoned due to turmoil once again. However, things soon took a new turn in 2005 as Solidere sold the site to another development group - the Abu Dhabi Investment House (ADIH).

At the moment, it’s not clear what will be the next development for the City Center Building. It seems that the future of this historic piece might soon be cut short as it is demolished and taken apart. With the surrounding political and social state in Beirut, it appears as though nothing can be determined until some socially and political clarity can be resolved. Until then, the bubble remains in the center of the city, marked by war and still awaiting its next move of fate.

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