Beirut’s sore thumb is 30

Once touted as a future Beirut Trade Center, the infamous Murr Tower has faded as more modern real estate developments come on stream. Has the 40,000m2 edifice missed the boat? On its 30th anniversary Peter Speetjens looks back at a dream that became a ni

Thirty years ago, the Murr Tower was a metaphor for promise-filled Lebanon. The brothers’ dream was to build, through their construction company La Liberal, Beirut’s first mixed use development, symbolizing the capital’s position as the region’s leading business and banking hub. The 40-storey giant was to host 34 floors of some 300m2 offices, 2,500 m2 of shopping space and a restaurant on top, which could be reached by an exterior panoramic elevator or helicopter. The building’s four underground floors were reserved for a 500-seat-cinema and 600 parking places. The total cost of Murr Tower, including the price of land, amounted to some $15 million.

“I was against the whole design from the start,” says Gabriel Murr, sitting in his offices in the old MTV building. “I favored a wider, 20-storey building,” he added. “I thought the [300m2] offices were too small for foreign companies, the vertical circulation was insufficient and there was not enough parking. My brother [ex-interior minister, Michel Murr] preferred a high-rise. He was La Liberal’s majority shareholder and so he had the final say.”

The tower’s foundations were laid in late 1974 and construction started just before the outbreak of the civil war in April 1975. “We worked according to the “slid and slide” method, which allowed us to build about one floor or three meters a day,” said Murr. “When the war started, 28 of the 40 floors planned had been completed.”

Despite the fighting during the initial years of the war, La Liberal managed to finish the building’s main structure and the Murr brothers remained optimistic that their vision would see the light.

Even in the spring of 1977, Michel Murr estimated in an interview with AN NAHAR that the damage to the building was as little as LL100,000 [then roughly $230,000], and said: “If the situation continues to improve, construction will be over in a year’s time.”

It was not to be. When heavy fighting erupted again, construction was indefinitely halted in February 1978 and the Murr Tower became a feared sniper’s nest with an arc of fire of some two kilometers.

In 1994, Solidere bought Murr Tower, and earmarked it as one of the pillars of its master plan to renovate and reconstruct the Beirut Central District (BCD). “Solidere offered $12 million worth of Solidere shares for the building,” said Gabriel Murr, “after which Hariri paid my brother another $3 million in cash.” Since then, Michel Murr has publicly claimed the building is still his. Gabriel Murr said this has more to do with the performance of Solidere shares (which dropped from a high of $14 in 1998 to a low of $4 in 2002. Today, they have rallied and current shares are valued at around $7) than anything else. Both brothers expected to make a killing, but, Gabriel Murr, sold before the bottom dropped out of them. His brother held on as the price plummeted. Having bought the Murr Tower, Solidere had two options: to finish the building or to demolish it and start from scratch. Civil engineer Fadi Madhoun, the former manager of Solidere’s Real Estate Development Division, was responsible for the building. “If finished in 1975,” said Madhoun, who left Solidere in 1999 for An Nasser Engineering Services, “Murr Tower would have had a ‘wow’ effect. But when we bought it in 1994, it absolutely did not.” Furthermore, Madhoun cited a 1975 study by French firm Socotec that showed that Murr Tower suffered from a stability problem and required strengthening with two seven-meter-long concrete beams. “In my opinion, the Murr family should be very happy with the price it received, because the design was outdated and construction had several structural problems,” he added. “In 1994,” Madhoun continued, “it would have cost Solidere some $16 million to complete the building. Yet it was not a viable option to put it on the market. At that point, I would say the wisest, most logical and most economic solution was to demolish the building. However, from a political point of view that was not an option.”

An alternative had to be found and the call went out for solutions. Renowned British architect Norman Foster suggested to keep Murr Tower as a core embodied in a shell-like structure, thereby enlarging floor space up to 1,000 m2. The spectacular glass building was to have a curved roof and a dozen high-speed exterior elevators. But Foster refused to work within Solidere’s budget, so in came Canadian firm WZMH, with a worldwide reputation for high rises. The concept remained the same: to keep the old Murr Tower as a backbone in a predominantly glass tower. The only design change was to include interior, as opposed to exterior, elevators. Dubbed the Beirut Trade Center (BTC), an officially registered trademark, the new $200 million tower was to be 40 floors high, increasing from 100 meters in height to 150 meters. The twenty-four floors of office space would be enlarged by a meter or so, there would be a double floored roof top restaurant and covered 70,000 m2 of BUA, of which 30,000 would be underground. According to a 1996 brochure announcing the project: “The existing Murr Tower has been a symbol of the Lebanese war…. The BTC will be a landmark development emphasizing a visual symbol for new Beirut and expressing the rebirth of the city as an international and commercial center.” And so, for years, a 30-meter-long poster hung on Murr Tower, visually announcing the project. According to Madhoun it was “the second largest poster in the world.” However, after years of stormy weather, the poster withered away and, it seems, so did the development plan for the concrete monstrosity.

“We had all the necessary permits,” Madhoun said. “We even obtained an adjustment on the permit to implode Murr Tower and construct a completely new inner frame. In 1998, we were on the verge of starting construction, but then the elections took place.”

The new Hoss government embarked on a campaign to curb public spending and nearly all Solidere projects were put on hold. Since 1998, nothing has changed and it’s not clear what the future will bring. According to Solidere spokesman Nabil Rached, there is no need to comment on Murr Tower “as there’s nothing new to say.” One of the main obstacles in completing Murr Tower is the myriad of problems facing Solidere. According to one source within the company, even if the funds were available, the original permits were valid for only a limited period and the bureaucratic procedures would have to start all over again if the project were pursued anew – and there just isn’t the demand for the size of offices offered. “The BTC design is still up-to-date,” said Madhoun, “while only a few office blocks in downtown are up to international standard, such as the Atrium, An Nahar and ESCWA building. The problem is demand. In 1998, we had a guarantee that the Banque Societe General would take 10 floors, while Solidere would move its headquarters there. Today, I don’t know if there are any clients. Maybe Solidere should consider residential use.”

Gabriel Murr, however, can’t wait till the day Murr Tower is demolished. “As an engineer I’d say destroy it. It’s easy, cheap and gives you the freedom to create something new.” Adding with a smile: “MTV bought the exclusive rights on the implosion.” Local real estate consultant Michael Dunn has a crystal clear opinion about the future of Murr Tower. “It’s old, outdated, ugly, and it has a negative impact on its direct surroundings,” he said. “It’s no longer a prime location either. It’s in fact located in the worst of four Solidere corners. I’d say demolish it.” According to Dunn, imploding the building and getting rid of the debris costs some $100,000 and will take up to six months. And what then? “In Lebanon, too many people dream of the past,” said Murr. “The past is over – Beirut is not Dubai. I say demolish it, turn it into a park and upgrade all surrounding properties.” A 1975 brochure praising the state-of-the-art design of the building emphasized the tower would, as well as having “an international telephone center and telex standard [sic],” be equipped with, “an electronically working lift to avoid any delays.” Thirty years is a long time to wait.

Peter Speetjens

Peter Speetjens is a Dutch journalist & analyst based in Beirut since 1996.