Should the site of the Beirut port explosion be transformed into a place of remembrance?

DUBAI: For Sultan El-Halabi, August 4, 2020 started like any other day in Beirut. He was driving with his mother from their hometown of Chouf to the Lebanese capital, where they settled into a hotel facing the sea to rest.

But shortly after 6 p.m., El-Halabi’s mother said she felt a strange rumbling sensation. El-Halabi crossed the room to the balcony to investigate the cause when suddenly the whole window frame flew off, collapsing right in front of him. They were both lucky to escape unscathed.

“No one could have expected this to happen,” El-Halabi, a 23-year-old architecture graduate, told Arab News from his base in Dubai, more than a year after the blast. port of Beirut – a disaster that killed more than 200 people. people and left some 300,000 homeless.

The scars of the explosion remain visible on the roofs of the city. (AFP)

“I remember the view of the city afterwards. They were warning people in the hotel to stay inside because acid or chemicals could be in the air. The sky started to change color. It was more reddish. It was like a war zone. Everything, in just a second, was completely gone.

More than a year later, the scars remain visible on the city’s skyline. What is less visible are the mental scars the blast left on those who survived and lost homes, businesses and loved ones.

“In Lebanon now, you should just live your day as if it were the last,” El-Halabi said. “Always stay connected with your loved ones because you never know what might happen.”

The tragedy motivated El-Halabi to base his graduate project at the American University in Dubai on restoring the devastated port, transforming it into an accessible, multifunctional and job-creating site that can be “made to the people”.

His project, named “Repurpose 607”, plans to replace the five damaged warehouse plots with a memorial museum, sound therapy space, amphitheater and underground parking lot.

“Everything, in a second, completely disappeared,” said Sultan El-Halabi, referring to the port tragedy. (Provided)

The site would also include a library, offices and cafe, while an elevated circular pathway would give visitors a glimpse of the harbour.

Flooded with natural light, the sound therapy building would offer meditation and cognitive-behavioral sessions to help those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the explosion.

“For many people, until this day, if they heard a slight bang or a strange noise, they always referred to the explosion or took cover,” El-Halabi said. Sound therapy could help many traumatized Beirut residents find calm and closure.

The proposed memorial museum would include a timeline of Beirut’s history up to the day of the explosion and the names of its victims engraved on a large triangulated stone.

The tragedy motivated Sultan El-Halabi to base his graduation project on the restoration of the devastated port. (Provided)

El-Halabi compares this tribute to the way Americans honored the dead in New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“They didn’t rebuild where the twin towers were,” El-Halabi said. “They dedicated this plot of land to the people and they turned it into a beautiful place of remembrance to make sure people’s memories would live on forever. It kind of inspired me to do something similar, but for Lebanon.

The proposed site would include footpaths as well as greenery and seating areas to provide a space for quiet reflection away from city traffic. A basement would also be built to include a gallery for Lebanese artists to display their work.

The proposed site would feature footpaths as well as greenery and seating areas to provide space for quiet reflection. (Provided)

Aesthetically geometric and bold, it is a place designed to benefit people, to help them “overcome trauma and for them to see the beauty of the site rather than always fearing it,” El-Halabi said.

In its design, only one crucial element of the site remains intact and preserved – the huge grain silos, which experts say protected the city from further damage. “It symbolizes strength and empowerment,” El-Halabi said. “It’s proof to the world that we can overcome any obstacle we face.”

The young architect acknowledges that it may take time for traumatized residents of the Lebanese capital to feel emotionally ready to visit a renovated site. “Of course it could be controversial,” El-Halabi said.

Aesthetically geometric and daring, it is a place designed for the good of people. (Provided)

“A lot of people have different opinions and you can’t change them so easily. Everyone has their own freedom to see things the way they are supposed to. But, I am able to enlighten them at least on the advantages of this proposal.

As a student embracing cutting-edge digital technology, El-Halabi admired the ideas of pioneering architects like Antoni Gaudí and Frank Gehry, and in particular Santiago Calatrava, who designed the wing-shaped United Arab Emirates Pavilion. Falcon at Expo 2020 Dubai.

The idea was called “clever and thoughtful”. (Provided)

Having lived most of his life in Dubai, El-Halabi says he was also heavily influenced by its ever-changing urban environment, considered to be one of the most spectacular and experimental cityscapes in the world.

“It all started with the dunes,” he said, reflecting on Dubai’s astronomical growth over the past decades. “They managed to convert the United Arab Emirates into a heavenly place. It inspires me a lot. This shows that in such a short time, nothing is impossible.

He also subscribes to the idea that architecture is more than its stylistic elements, and should ultimately work to improve people’s lives.

Sultan El-Halabi compares this tribute to the way Americans honored the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (Provided)

“It’s about finding the missing satisfaction of what people need and trying to provide it,” he said. “Architecture is not just about designing or placing a building. You have to take people into consideration and provide facilities for them. It must also fit perfectly into its environment.

In October last year, as part of Dubai Design Week, “Repurpose 607” was among 60 entries submitted to the MENA Grad Show, where graduates from across the region showcase their “design meet purpose” projects that address social, health and environmental issues. problems.

“It’s an architectural solution that goes far beyond architecture,” said Carlo Rizzo. (Provided)

Carlo Rizzo, the editor of the show’s 2021 edition, praised El-Halabi’s project, describing it as one of the “best entries”.

“Repurpose 607 first struck me with his empathy,” Rizzo told Arab News. “It’s an architectural solution that goes well beyond architecture. He views the built environment as a platform to build resilience in our communities and takes mental health and wellbeing as a starting point.

“Repurpose 607” was among 60 submissions that were presented at the MENA Grad Show. (Provided)

“Remembering the victims and turning the site into a place of healing is not only a smart and thoughtful idea, but an urgent solution to a very real need.”

El-Halabi, who currently works for a Dubai-based architecture firm, still hopes to see his Port of Beirut project come to fruition one day.

“I have been to Lebanon twice since the explosion,” he said. “Whenever I pass the port, I always imagine what it would look like in real life, trying to see my project being built there. It could have potential.”

Twitter: @artprojectdxb

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