Will Renzo Piano’s new tower demolish an ancient city buried under Beirut?

Will Renzo Piano’s new tower demolish an ancient city buried under Beirut?

“We will find where you live,”  a watchman yelled at me after taking a picture of ruins on his construction site. He had followed me across the street to issue the threat, claiming to have memorized the license plate number on my car. “Wait and see what they will do to you when they come to your house.”

Source: Teloduh

This vast site, believed to be a 1st century artisan workshop (for at least part of its occupation), was uncovered late last year and could help tell the little-known story of Berytus, one of the most influential cities in the Roman empire.

Source: L’Orient Le Jour

 

Instead it is scheduled to become a glass skyscraper, serving as the headquarters of a private bank, SGBL (Société Générale de Banque au Liban).

 

The skyscraper is being designed by the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano, one of many celebrity architects transforming Beirut’s skyline with high end real estate towers worth billions of dollars and far out of reach of most Lebanese people. Piano is also designing the massive 160,000 square meter Pinwheel Project, which consists of a series of hotel and condo towers in the heart of downtown, as well as a city museum project, which is also to be built atop of a ruins discovery.  

Source: RPBW project conception

Sadly the type of violent threats and harassment I experienced is not unusual when attempting to document the wonders of the ancient world being unearthed for the first time in contemporary Beirut.  One would assume that a 2,000 year old site is one the entire country should be able to see, to learn from, to explore, to be inspired by, to build a sense of place, pride in preservation or national belonging. But in Lebanon, history can be private property. Several journalists and activists have been threatened or physically attacked for documenting the impact of real estate projects across the country.

To appease critics, some investors have recently pledged to preserve very limited sections of ruins, displayed decoratively as part of their real estate projects or concealed in parking garages. Yet these are often placed out of context or difficult for visitors to access and comprehend.  In the case of the Piano project, can the design of such a large building possibly preserve the vast vista of ruins beneath? Can the design be changed in any way meaningful enough to communicate its significance and that of ancient Berytus?

Upon closer view, we can see the interesting rock patterns in the walls. What do they tell us?

At the top corner of the site, the stones are entirely different, much larger and better carved, resembling grand Roman structures. Was there an important building near this site?

Most importantly, will the public ever get a chance to experience this piece of the puzzle of a city and great civilization we are just beginning to understand? With large walls surrounding the permiter, as seen in the photos above, passersby are not allowed even a glimpse of it.  (Photos in the post were taken from other buildings or openings in the wall.)

At any rate, the site might not be around for much longer.  Clearance may be closer than we think. In photos taken a few months ago, we can see nearly 20 tents set up in the dig:

Photo: Timo Azhari

But today there are only a few tents left, meaning the archeological teams may have largely packed up and left:

Is this why the developer is so aggressively keeping it off limits to the public? The site workers must have been threatened themselves if anyone is allowed to get a photo out.

It’s unclear if the diggers have already started to clear the area or penetrate to deeper levels as their position has changed since I first began documenting the site earlier this year.

Compare this image taken in January 2018:

To this photo taken from the same vantage point in recent days:

In addition to the removal of tents, we can also see the position of the two bulldozers is further into the site than they were early this year.

Here’s another shot from January 2018:

And the same vantage point today:

From a closer perspective, we can some of the amazing wall detail on the left section:

So what to make of the threats issued to me for taking these photos? They were taken from the public street, from the sidewalk, at a brief moment when the door to the site was open. There is no legal basis for banning photography in public space. There is no basis in banning the Lebanese public from seeing their own history.  But who was the man who threatened me and why?

The owner of SGBL bank is known to surround himself with those capable of serious violence. His bodyguards have regularly engaged in alleged criminal acts, including armed assaults and even a shootout in nightclub, according to news reports. In 2015, a bodyguard formerly employed by the owner stabbed a man to death in broad daylight, and was subsequently sent to prison. Is this the type of violence and threats that a Pritzker-winning architect like Renzo Piano would like to be associated with?

Interestingly, SGBL itself claims to be “a strong advocate of culture and arts in Lebanon,” according to its website. While Piano, who has been involved in several projects across Beirut has said: “Cities are beautiful because they are created slowly; they are made by time. A city is born from a tangle of monuments and infrastructures, culture and market, national history and everyday stories. It takes 500 years to create a city, 50 to create a neighborhood.”

In fact, the city of Beirut has not been developing just for 50 or 500 years, but for thousands of years and several millennia. Would it be too much to dream that Piano and SGBL live up to their stated ideals? Since both Piano and SGBL have profited so generously from Beirut, could they possibly give something back by preserving a bit of its illustrious past for the coming generations to enjoy?

 

 

3 COMMENTS

  1. You should have taken couple of photos of this watchman for his kids to see their father contributing in the destruction of Beirut, and to be replaced by buildings they will never set a foot in.

    • The watchman is clearly following orders, and was probably threatened himself. I think accountability ultimately rests with those who hired the watchman and the major companies who will be profiting heavily from this project and all the other nearby projects that destroyed Beirut’s history.

  2. My compliments for again reporting on the fate of an excavated site in Beirut.
    The questions you raise are relevant and could be answered by the excavators, developers and representatives of the General Directorate of Antiquities. It is with twenty years of experience in the management of archeological heritage in Beirut that I can discuss some of the larger principles at stake in the decision-making regarding the future of these ruins.

    The principle of Urban Archeology is to find a balance between the future and the past, between progress and conservation. Every member state of UNESCO defines its own policy and procedures based on the recommendations of UNESCO. In 1994, UNESCO helped the Ministry of Culture to establish a program of excavations for Beirut. The program started with a few soundings to establish the nature of the ruins in certain crucial areas. The second phase included the excavation of a large zone in which the remains would define the future (the Garden of Forgiveness), while the last phase included archeological surveillance and excavations in the right of way of the planned infrastructure works. In this phase the remains were scheduled to make way for the new infrastructure of the city. The linear trenches were small and provided a good pre-view of the archeological values to be expected throughout the city. The DGA developed a policy and procedures based on these experiences for the private development sites. This policy includes conservation in situ and ex situ. Between these two extremes, part of the ruins can be preserved, dismantled and reintegrated, or dismantled and relocated.

    Finally, I take the opportunity to react to some of the remarks and questions in the text.

    Site “could help tell the little-known story of Berytus”

    The history does not rise from the ruins just by visiting this site, as the author of the article realizes. His eyes are drawn to details that most appeal to him. How are we able to convert the ruins of a site into a story, or how can we ‘extract’ the story of the city from the stones, walls and floors?

    Archeologists are trained to extract techniques and configurations from the excavated elements. Through comparison with other sites, through reading reports and interpretations of other archeologists and applying stratigraphic principles they will be able to add their perspectives to the existing interpretations of the history of the ancient city of Beirut.

    “One would assume that a 2,000 year old site is one the entire country should be able to see, to learn from, to explore, to be inspired by, to build a sense of place, pride in preservation or national belonging. But in Lebanon, history can be private property.”

    Efforts to present the history and archeology of the city are presented in an ‘updated’ volume of the history of Beirut compiled by Nina Jejedian. Finds from the Beirut City Center are incorporated in the permanent exhibition of the National Museum. The Prehistoric Museum of the St Joseph University has the earliest human artifacts, spanning some 700,000 years of Beirut’s past. The Archeological Museum of the American University of Beirut includes finds from the tell area in its attempt to tell the tale of Phoenician Beirut. The Beirut Heritage Trail runs like a necklace through the modern city and explains the story of 50 sites and areas in the city. The Beirut (City History) Museum will attempt to focus on the people of Beirut through the ages and the evidence that the archeologists exposed in the last three decennia. The latter two projects still have to be implemented.

    Journalists, archeologists and historians regularly write about the events and history of the city. This is probably the current status of informing Lebanese society about its past, beside the different versions of history in the Lebanese schools and universities.

    “To appease critics, some investors have recently pledged to preserve very limited sections of ruins, displayed decoratively as part of their real estate projects or concealed in parking garages. Yet these are often placed out of context or are difficult for visitors to access and comprehend.”

    Throughout the world, bits and pieces of the past are preserved, and these ruins are usually difficult to read. The preservation of more ruins does not necessarily contribute to clarity about history. Excavations of ancient remains can help to understand or reconstruct history, if the archeologists take their time to analyze and publish.

    “At the top corner of the site, the stones are entirely different, much larger and better carved, resembling grand Roman structures. Was there an important building near this site?”

    The large stones belong to the eastern city wall of Beirut. This wall extends from the Ancient Tell towards the present location of lunchroom Paul, and may extend further south as a round tower was exposed between Paul and the gas station along Georges Haddad Avenue. Two phases of this city wall have been dated to the Hellenistic period, the excavators of the SGLB site suggest that the wall still existed in the early Roman period. The presence of pottery kilns outside the city may support this interpretation.

    In fact, the city of Beirut has not been developing just for 50 or 500 years, but for thousands of years and several millennia. Would it be too much to dream that Piano and SGBL live up to their stated ideals? Since both Piano and SGBL have profited so generously from Beirut, could they possibly give something back by preserving a bit of its illustrious past for the coming generations to enjoy?

    The author includes quotes of the architect and the developer of the site. They both express respect for the past and the city. Preserving a bit of the past for the coming generations would be a challenge the architect would like to integrate in his plans, the developer would do the same, if the Directorate General of Antiquities and the archeologists can reach a compromise on what is most characteristic to be selected for integration and allow the developer to achieve his goals within the guidelines and regulations of the Beirut Master Plan. This is a delicate process of decision-making, the archeologists have to study their ruins to provide a report on the basis of which the architects, developers and the DGA can make a selection.
    Based on my experience of two decennia of heritage management in Beirut, I have to conclude that reaching such a compromise is a very difficult process in Lebanon. The Garden of Forgiveness, the Ancient Tell area and Castle Square are good examples. Plans for the Garden of Forgiveness were completed in 2000, the Ancient Tell area was classified in 1997 and is scheduled to be landscaped in the latest Master Plan for Beirut, the western tower of the Crusader castle was excavated in 2009 and a landscaping plan was developed in 2011. All these projects have not yet been executed …

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