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Centrale: Thinking The Stigmata of War

Location: Beirut, Lebanon
 
Architect: Bernard Khoury
 

For Bernard Khoury, architect, building in Beirut “is almost inevitable”. What to do about the traces of combat that have scarred the city? At the Centrale bar and restaurant, he has decided to integrate them, hiding nothing and also revealing the structure that holds up the building.

This article was featured in L’ Architecture d’Aujourd’hui in November 2011, written by Sophie Trelcat.

Bernard Khoury trained in architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design and then graduated from Harvard. For the most part, he has developed his practice in Beirut, his native city. Since the creation of his agency in 1993, he has carried out projects on sites damaged during the war. More than elsewhere, building in Beirut is a political action; "it is almost inevitable", explains Bernard Khoury.  Model designer, when it comes to creative architecture, he has been labelled, at his expense, as the specialist of the entertainment industry. It is true that among his best-known projects is Club B018, built below ground level on a huge empty plot, razed by the conflict, and the Japanese Yabani restaurant located on the demarcation line between east and west Beirut. "Spaces considered to be popular are also spaces where politics is expressed, in addition to being cultural sites", explains the architect, who is also responsible for the design of many housing developments.
Against Amnesiac rebuilding
The Centrale bar and restaurant is among the projects connected to entertainment and raises a certain number of paradoxes. This festive site reminds us, through its rough rehabilitation, of the wounds inflicted on the city and the population, as much during its destruction as in its reconstruction. The Centrale is part of an urban development carried out by Solidere, a company created in 1994, for the development and rebuilding of the centre of Beirut. In this project, a whole section of the architecture built by the Phoenicians and the Ottomans is restored to its original state in a backward-looking vision of the city, while the modern buildings that were built from the 1920s, a period corresponding to the French mandate, are no longer part of its history. "It is a period suffering from an amnesia typical of post-war situations", explains Khoury. "There is a complete denial of the present and the context here; it is a sterile version of modernity". For the building of the Centrale, without reminding us of the war, his strategy was to incorporate a specific history and physical appearance of the site, while keeping the existing scars.

A technique made into a concept
Abandoned in 1975, the residential building that was to house the project was in danger of collapsing. To begin with, the architect consulted a structural engineer, who drew sketches showing how to consolidate a façade by holding it up from within. Demonstrating constructive opportunism, the exuberant creator took possession of this technique and used it as the driving force behind the project. The outer perimeter of the building was encircled with steel girders which were then kept. In addition, this façade is covered with a metal mesh and shows the damage from the war and the crumbling of the stone. Inside, a new concrete shell supporting the building made it possible to demolish the upper floors. The restaurant then found its place in a volume whose size was exacerbated; 17 metres long, 24 metres high and 5.5 metres wide. The space is dramatized to the extreme with a central table recalling the solemnity of a conference room and waiters held prisoner in the centre, communicating with the kitchens underground by a stairway. "Restorations here are a falsification of history, since we are dealing with façadism; the project is a criticism of this." The tragic aspect of the place is accentuated by the steel cylinder suspended above the restaurant dining room. Containing the bar, it forms the roof of the building. The spherical cover of this space lifts up as night falls, revealing the place’s night-life, while it disturbingly endorses the space during daytime.

Poetry of decomposition
Today, the district, which is subject to private real estate pressure, has greatly changed, sometimes resulting in a more disastrous situation. Instead of restoring residences, they are replaced by 50-metre high buildings, catching the Centrale project in a stranglehold. The consequence of this is the reversing of the bar’s roof. Be that as it may, there remains “a poetry of decomposition" in this project, showing that there is another way of writing history.

A Site To Remember

In spite, or perhaps because, of the precarious nature of the current political situation in Lebanon,  Bernard Khoury’s project for the Centrale barrestaurant is marked by a radically theoretical approach to heritage. The treatment of the building’s envelope recalls the positions of John Ruskin and William Morris, for whom an architectural monument was an organic ensemble that should be restored as little as possible, and whose deterioration processes were an integral part of its destiny. It could even be said that the way Khoury has cast the project as a kind of manifesto is reminiscent of the interpretative  freedom of Viollet-le- Duc as expressed in the maxim: “Restoring an edifice is not the same as  maintaining, repairing or rehabilitating it; it is, rather, the act of re-establishing it in a completed-state which may never have previously existed at any given moment in time.”

The readability and meaning of Khoury’s project are immediately apparent even to diners who care little for history and heritage. The architect has sought above all to incorporate in his project the period at the root of the building’s fall from grace. In the ordinary course of events, the stigmata of war are rarely conserved as a reminder of a decisive moment in a building’s history. Only photographs as meticulous as the ones taken by Gabriele Basilico in Beirut can hope to bear witness to such events. Thus, what is restored here is primarily the memory of the tragedy. But also, and this is no mere detail, the professional pride of local craftsmen, whose “low-tech” expertise and nonstandardized techniques had previously been obscured by years of inactivity.

 

 

For more information

 
URL www.larchitecturedaujourdhui.fr
 

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