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French Version

Athens-based team wins Martyrs' Square prize

International urban ideas competition chooses plan to revitalize Beirut's central space but future remains uncertain

The relatively unknown Athens-based architectural team of Vassiliki Agorastidou, Antonis Noukakis, Lito-Lemonia Ioannidou, and Bouki Babalou-Noukaki has been named the first-prize winner of an international urban ideas competition for the revitalization of Martyrs' Square in Beirut.

Lebanese architect Nabil Gholam - in collaboration with Belgian architect and designer Vincent Van Duysen and Yugoslavian landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic, who lives and works in Lebanon - placed second.

Lebanese architect Hashim Sarkis, a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design and director of the Aga Khan Program at Harvard and MIT, placed third with his team of Mark Dwyer, Evy Pappas, and Pars Kibarer, all of whom work in his firm.

Donald Bates, an architect based in the United States who chaired the jury, announced the winners yesterday at a news conference held in Planet Discovery, a temporary exhibition hall next to the Starco Building.

As he opened a stack of envelopes of both professional and student winners, he revealed for the first time the identities of the participants, who had remained anonymous until now.

The professional winners earn $70,000, $30,000, and $20,000 respectively for their efforts. The student winners earn $10,000, $7,500, and $5,000, with two honorable mentions worth $2,500 apiece.

The competition for Martyrs' Square and the so-called Grand Axis of Beirut was launched a year ago in June by Solidere, the private real-estate company founded more than a decade ago by Rafik Hariri for the purpose of jump-starting the redevelopment of Downtown Beirut.

It's a little know loop-hole that, in the master plan devised in the early 1990s for the new Beirut, Solidere was obliged to hold an open, international competition for Martyrs' Square, all carried out in accordance with the regulations set forth by the Paris-based Union of International Architects, which oversees major competitions such as those held for the Sydney Opera House and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Because it was an ideas competition, Solidere, as the sponsor, is not bound to build the winning scheme. But it is bound to endure a lengthy and meticulous process that is now set to be turned out toward the public. On May 18, an exhibition of all the finalists' designs will open in the City Center Dome.

Ten days after that, there will be a public forum to discuss the results. And Solidere is soliciting feedback. During the exhibition, the public will be invited to give written responses on paper forms. Those forms will then be compiled into a report to be presented at the forum.

Of course, such pleas for public participation come late in the game. Throughout the reconstruction of Beirut, Martyrs' Square has lain neglected, razed down to a stubby gravel field while Solidere transformed nearby Place de L'Etoile and Saifi Village into glitzy dioramas of French-mandate era architecture and upscale consumer culture. This strategy has earned Solidere no shortage of criticism.

Events in Lebanon following Hariri's assassination on February 14 - when people flooded Martyrs' Square and literally took over the space to mourn, hold vigil, protest, and demonstrate - have only bolstered accusations of Solidere's neglect.

But Angus Gavin, who manages Solidere's urban development division and who previously worked with Dar al-Handasah, the firm that prepared Beirut's master plan, is at pains to counter these claims.

"We recognize that [Martyrs' Square] is one of the most complex pieces of the city center puzzle," he said in an interview with The Daily Star last week, before the jury began its deliberations. "We have to go back to the making of the master plan in 1992 and 93. We knew then that a private company was coming and we felt Martyrs' Square was not something that should be left to that agency. So it can't proceed here as it can elsewhere. We are all very motivated by this ... People think Solidere has a fixed agenda and will just trundle through but it's not like that. Life's not like that."

So what did the winners come up with to snag the prize? The scheme proposed by the Athens team, for one thing, seems to address all the elements that residents find lacking in Martyrs' Square.

Around the Martyrs' Statue is an understated public space called the "Memorial Void," recessed a few steps down into the ground. At the top end is an area for movie theaters, a concert hall, a hotel and conference center, a flower kiosk. There is an info booth, suggesting a meaningful interface with the public, at the tip of the "Memorial Void."

Toward the sea, the team has brought the water in so it edges up to the archaeological tell. There is a bridge parallel to the coast, linking areas for an aquarium, a natural history museum, and a maritime museum. The design includes upscale shopping arcades as well as booths for arts and crafts. It includes a museum for the city itself, along with an archaeological institute and a library.

It threads the Downtown area into nearby Saifi and Gemmayzeh with a neighborhood of loft apartments and gardens. It also calls for a tramway circling the entire area, then hooking left toward the hotel district. Ambitious yes, but it seems to address what a very disparate population wants out of Martyrs' Square. According to

sociologist and jury member Samir Khalaf, it also counterbalances all the kitsch surrounding the corridor.

"It was the best idea to deal with the axis and to deal with Martyrs' Square as different sequences leading to the sea," said jury member Roueida Ayache, a Lebanese architect based in Paris. It allows this "new urban space to live. As a conceptual design, it has to live and be detailed."

"I think this is a very exciting project with deep knowledge of the space and place," added Gavin.

"It was the most sensitive response to the site and it wasn't one simplistic gesture," added Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury, who served as a deputy member of the jury.

"One of the reasons this plan was successful," said Bates, was that "it seemed to deal comprehensively with all the issues, such as Martyrs' Square and the waterfront. It also offered a clear, positive direction to the urban development on the eastern side."

Of course, it will take a massive exertion of Solidere's will - from the urban planning division on one side to the marketing division on the other - to get this plan realized on the ground. Even then, it's debatable whether a design scheme alone can bring the space back to real life.

One could argue that an intensely urban public space like Martyrs' Square cannot be provided from above by architects, urban planners, or development cooperations. It must be taken by ordinary everyday citizens from below. It must be made by people and shaped through their use of and movement across that space.

The results of the competition also raise some interesting questions. While Lebanese architects are well represented among the professional winners, they are conspicuously absent among the student winners (first and third place, along with an honorable mention, went to graduate students from Harvard, where Sarkis and Dwyer devoted a semester-long design studio to Martyrs' Square).

Also missing are any heavyweight international firms.

All this suggests that perhaps the credibility of Beirut, Solidere, and the reconstruction era is on the line as an open question. Public debate on these issues are crucial. How much confidence has been lost over the years, why, and what can be done?

Khoury, who can always be counted on for his outspokeness, offered another take on the results. Though he spoke fondly of the skill and aesthetic sensibility evinced by all the finalists among students and professionals alike, he said plainly, "These plans mean absolutely nothing. They have nothing to say."

In his view, they all played it safe, backing off Beirut's many contradictions, controversies and schizophrenic tendencies. They didn't take a stand or react to the complexity of the city.

"I'm talking as a citizen not as an architect," he added. "But to come up with such sterile projects? It pisses me off."

If nothing else, that's a good opening line for the public forum to come.

Beirut,05 09 2005
Kaelen Wilson Goldie
The Daily Star
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