Over the course of July and August 2006, Israeli air strikes pounded Beirut’s southern suburb of Haret Hreik, pulverizing infrastructure and forcing many of the quarter’s residents to flee.
Four years later the rubble has been cleared, clusters of new structures dot the landscape and life has returned, albeit to a soundtrack of seemingly ceaseless construction.
The architects behind this effort are not shy about asserting that the resurrection of this section of the Dahieh has been swift and efficient.
“In the beginning, we asked the people of the Dahieh who they wanted to rebuild for them,” said Hassan Jeshi, chief executive officer of the Waad reconstruction project. “At the time 70 percent opted for us. By the time we had completed our preparations and established the project as a viable entity, the 30 percent who abstained had decreased to 3 percent.”
The project’s recipe for success: a massive bankroll, timely delivery and an open channel for public input. Waad — meaning ‘promise’ — was launched in mid-2007 under the authority of Jihad al Binaa, the construction arm of Hezbollah.
Since then, Waad, a non-profit organization, has rebuilt 95 of the 245 buildings destroyed during the Israeli bombardment, with the remainder currently in the later stages of construction. Another 200 completely new buildings are slated for completion by the end of 2010. By Waad’s estimation, the reconstruction is roughly 64 percent complete, and the project aims to finish its work by mid-2011.
To say that Waad restored the Dahieh to its former glory would be overly romantic. The suburb is crowded and chaotic; with 800,000 residents, according to Waad, it is home to just under a quarter of Lebanon’s population and boasts little infrastructure beyond the basic amenities of housing, commercial centers and basic public services.
Yet it has resuscitated the area, and in a country where the urban aesthetics change lot by lot, the project has consciously created a cohesive, overarching identity within the scope of its work.
“When we first started planning, we wanted to make major changes, move buildings, create parks,” said Jeshi. “But the people refused — they wanted to return to their neighborhoods as they were.”
Instead, the project took a subtler approach to urban planning, planting trees, adding subterranean parking lots and standardizing the facades of the reconstructed buildings, which feature double walls for noise reduction and energy conservation, earthquake resistant architecture and safety features such as fire suppressants and electrical grounding.
“These things did not exist in the Dahieh before,” said Jeshi. “In most of the country they still do not exist.”
Waad comprises architects, designers, academics, local authorities and members of the public. Members from these groups work as a consultative body overseeing the reconstruction, and were initially responsible for conceiving a set of guidelines — detailing safety specifications, aesthetic considerations and improvements to the overall area.
Accordingly, contractors submit all plans to the committee for review before they are passed to Waad’s own architects for final approval.
The Dahieh reconstruction project is billed at $400 million. The Lebanese government is responsible for roughly 30 percent of that sum, $180 million, but has so far only delivered 60 percent of its promised compensation, according to Waad. Jihad al Binaa has picked up the rest of the bill.
“The reconstruction is an answer to [the Israeli] challenge,” said Jeshi. “It exists to improve the resisting soul within the people, so that they will be with the Resistance more – without owing favors to anybody, but with their dignity and their heads held high.”