In the heart of Beirut is the distinctive shell of what was once a complex called the “City Center,” also affectionately known as the “Egg.”
The Egg, with its nose chopped off and deep scars on its once smooth concrete exterior skin, has passed through dramatic changes in its 50 years of existence. Ever since Solidere in 2005 sold the land to Abu Dhabi Investment House (ADIH) as part of the Beirut Gate project, the Egg has been constantly threatened with demolition.
Solidere sold the land without any legal protection or financial incentive to save the Egg, meaning its destruction is almost inevitable. For now, the July 2006 war stopped its imminent demolition and the financial crisis delayed the bulldozers further. However, the end appears to be near for one of the last iconic, modernist architectural structures in the center of Beirut that also carries with it the physical manifestations of the civil war years.
The Egg was built between 1965 and 1968 as a multi-use shopping center, movie theater and office building. The developers, Samadi and Salha, had ambitious plans for this development and wanted to make it the biggest multi-use center in the Middle East. The egg-shaped cinema was designed to hold 1,000 seats and is 24 meters wide and 11 meters high. It was to be accompanied by two towers, of which only one was built and has since been destroyed. George Arbid, professor of architecture at the American University of Beirut (AUB), explained that the distinctive shape of the Egg came about through unintended consequences.
“The building code at this time was very strict about building movie theaters for structural safety,” Arbid said. “So the architect, Joseph-Philippe Karam, convinced the authorities that the law did not forbid the use of the space below the movie theater, so he created a retail space underneath. Once the movie theater was raised and visible, he was forced to give it a distinguished shape, hence the concrete egg shell.”
The architect and the egg
Joseph-Philippe Karam was one of Lebanon’s most distinguished modernist architects who trained in Lebanon and designed buildings throughout the region.
“The Beirut City Center was one of several examples of his innovative contributions to architecture,” said Joseph-Philippe Karam’s son, Sami Karam. “The surviving cinema [or Egg] has become an icon of avant-garde Lebanese modernism.”
Many of Karam’s buildings were destroyed in the civil war and the few that remain are being demolished to make way for high-rise developments, most notably the Building Gondole, in Rouche, that was demolished in 2004.
The architectural importance of the Egg is contested despite many top-notch international architects admiring the structure.
“Architecturally speaking the Egg does not have architectural value,” said architect Bernard Khoury. “There are many more important buildings in Beirut that are, architecturally speaking, more important. The attraction [to the Egg] is the curiosity of the building in terms of its role with the war and the fascination that it creates.”
Residents of Lebanon confirm this enchantment with the Egg and the history it represents in its current appearance.
Marie-Louise Ramy, who grew up during Lebanon’s civil war, explained the fascination.
“When we came down from the mountains to Beirut, the whole of Beirut used to look like the Egg does now,” she said. “So the structure acts as a reminder.”
Arbid disagreed with the idea put forth by Khoury that the Egg does not have any architectural value.
“It is one of the rare free-form structures in the city [and] it was a difficult task to execute such a form. It is also important because it is one of the rare cinema halls raised above a freed ground floor,” he said.
While the architectural importance of the building is contested, the debate over whether to demolish the structure or not has certainly stirred public interest. Dania Bdier, a student at AUB, started a Facebook group to ‘Save the Egg’ at the beginning of 2009.
“Within four days 3,000 people had joined up to the group,” she said.
The group now has more than 5,000 members and had to move to ‘Save the Egg Cause’ due to having so many members in the group. Much of the debate of the group does not center on the architectural intricacies of the building, but instead on the role the Egg plays in Lebanese identity.
The battle for identity
For many the Egg is becoming a centerpiece in the battle for the identity, not just of the downtown area, but the whole of Lebanon. Bdier was very clear about her reason for starting up the Facebook group.
“We are starting to look so much like Dubai and we are not, we are like the Egg. The Egg is very important in Lebanese history,” she said.
Many of those on the Facebook group who support preserving the Egg do so because they want to stop what they call the ‘Dubai-ification’ of Lebanon. This allegation is particularly sensitive given that the land where the Egg is located is now owned by the ADIH and the decision as to whether the Egg stays or goes rests not in Lebanon but in Abu Dhabi. This point has not been lost on those who argue for preserving the Egg. As Jack Samaha, on the Facebook group proclaimed, “Our identity and culture as Lebanese is not for sale [to] Gulf millionaires.”
Not all agree with this notion that the destruction of the Egg will make Lebanon more like the Gulf, and many posts support the demolition of the Egg.
“I saw the Beirut Gate project and I have to say it’s very nice,” wrote Patrick Saab on the Facebook group. “The Egg is a mess, and it can be replaced or rebuilt anywhere else. Put culture aside, think modern look for Lebanon… How do we expect to get more exposure if we keep our old, almost destroyed buildings standing?”
The ADIH would not speak to Executive but in an interview with Bdier, in January, an unnamed representative stated: “Solidere wishes us to keep the soul of this dome by either reshaping it or doing something similar. We took it into consideration and we are considering it, because it also has to financially make sense for us to do it. For this plot, we bought and paid [for] 39,000 meters squared of built up area, and the dome is only taking up 6,000 or 7,000 meters squared. The developer who is going to buy it is looking at it.”
French architect Christian de Portzamparc was commissioned to produce a study for the site, and according to the local architectural consultant ERGA Group, produced two designs for the site.
“One of the proposals keeps the shell of the Egg and the other demolishes it and no decision by the developers has been made as to which one will be built,” said Eli Abu Ghazaly, chief operating officer of ERGA.
With no legal obligation to keep the Egg it is highly unlikely that the developer will wish to keep the structure, as it reduces the built up area of the site and thus significantly reduces its profitability. Abu Ghazaly said that because no decision has been made as to which proposal would be accepted, no images of the proposals could be released.
The project that never was
One project proposal for the renovation of the Egg was Khoury’s 2004 commission by Solidere. In previous statements, Solidere Chairman and CEO Nasser Chamma, in The Wall Street Journal in 2004, admitted that Solidere wanted to demolish the structure straight away. But many of the star architects brought to Lebanon by Solidere, such as Philippe Stark and Jean Nouvelle, were struck by the Egg and Solidere decided to think again. It was then that they approached Khoury to propose a scheme to redevelop the Egg.
“There was deadlock over this site for a while and Solidere did not know what to do with it,” Khoury said. “Then in 2004, they called me to develop a temporary structure that would last five or six years while they figured out what to do with the land. But then with the assassination of [former Prime Minister] Rafiq Hariri everything changed. There was a huge change in Solidere with big interest in the real estate and many big transactions were made,” he said.
“It all occurred much faster than Solidere ever thought it would happen… The land where the Egg is was sold in one of the biggest deals and so my project was stopped,” Khoury added.
The role of Solidere in the Egg’s sale has also been highly controversial, primarily because of the way the company parceled up the land and sold it. When Solidere sold the land they expressed a “wish” for the dome to be kept, but they made no legal stipulations enforcing it. Abu Ghazaly defended Solidere by stating that “to make it illegal, there needs to be a government decree.”
But as Arbid explained, “the way Solidere sold the land makes it impossible to save the Egg.”
The manner in which the land was sold, with a total amount of built up area, including the area where the Egg is situated, did not leave any real possibility for saving the structure. Despite having already sold the right to make any assertion as to the future of the Egg, Solidere still maintains the structure is going to be preserved.
As another of Lebanon’s historical sites is destroyed many will be frustrated by the lack of transparency and debate over these architecturally significant sites. There is a clear lack of will to engage by Solidere or the ADIH in any sort of debate over whether these buildings are worth saving or not. Those who want to preserve Lebanon’s built environment face an uphill struggle.