PRINT May 2015

Hashim Sarkis

Hashim Sarkis Studios, Balloon Landing Park, 2005, Beirut. Photo: Joumana Jamhouri.

ON FEBRUARY 12, 2005, a yellow balloon was launched into the sky over Beirut. It was a tethered helium model known as the Aerophile 30, large enough to carry a small group of passengers nearly a thousand feet aloft. An earlier version, installed in Paris’s Parc André Citroën, had been a popular and commercial success, offering adventurous riders a unique vantage onto the city’s landmarks. There, the urban park was a natural location for such a project, allowing the balloon to rise dramatically over a sweeping green expanse. But the nature of open space is fundamentally different in the constantly shifting urban environment of Beirut, where parks are far outnumbered by empty construction sites. And so, in Beirut, the balloon was placed at the edge of the city’s downtown, a vast, sixteen-million-square-foot construction site from which visitors would be able to ascend and monitor the city’s ongoing transformation.

The site was one of many parcels of land in the area that had been cleared of the hotels, apartment buildings, and houses that stood in half-ruin after Beirut’s fifteen-year civil war ended in 1990. These were razed to make way for the large-scale residential and hotel towers cropping up throughout the city, fueled by the worldwide boom in real estate speculation. Many of the adjacent sites had also been temporarily leased for entertainment uses, filled with complexes devoted to everything from cycling to horseback riding. The balloon, too, was to be accompanied by several ancillary programs, including waiting areas, a restaurant, and video-game rooms.

But when I was selected as the architect of the project, I proposed to keep the space clear and open for a range of possible public uses, rather than clutter it with amusement-themed scenography. This could be accomplished by folding the ground plane up and away from the naturally sloped topography of the lot and housing the additional functions underneath this newly created surface: Multiplying the site’s terrain multiplied the possibilities for occupation and interaction.

The balloon was launched at a moment of hopefulness that soon turned, however. The fate of the project over the subsequent decade seems to encapsulate the story of Beirut during a particularly tumultuous chapter in the city’s development, sharply delineating the pressures—political, economic, and cultural—that are still shaping it today. Indeed, the history of the balloon’s site, both before and after the project was constructed, is inseparable from the history of the city as a whole. And for me, as an architect who has practiced in Beirut for more than twenty years and completed numerous buildings there, the project stands out as one of my most intimate and direct confrontations with the character of the city—its scales and textures, the real estate speculation fueling its growth, its problematic public spaces, and its volatile politics. I single out this project because I can speak about it in terms of a personal experience of the dynamics of Beirut, as the balloon happened to become a participant in a series of extraordinary events that unfolded soon after its launch.

Two days after the balloon’s first flight, on February 14, 2005, Rafic Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister and a leading opponent of Syrian hegemony, was assassinated by a massive explosion less than a thousand feet away from the balloon’s landing site as his motorcade drove down a nearby street. The public outcry and demonstrations that followed led to the withdrawal of the Syrians from Lebanon after three decades of control. An international tribunal was formed to gather evidence and to identify and try the assassins. Since then, the country has been polarized into two groups: one favoring the pursuit of justice even if Syria is implicated, and the other favoring a realpolitik stance toward Syria to preserve fragile regional balances. Ten years later, the unfolding wars among neighboring nations and the implosion of Syria have only widened the division. The rest is yet to become history.

Compared to its effect on the country, the actual impact of the explosion on the balloon was minimal. Had it not been in midair on a test run at that very moment, it would have no doubt exploded, but high above the detonation it suffered only minor shrapnel damage, which was quickly repaired. Nevertheless, the site was now essentially part of a crime scene, and the balloon was grounded for a month following the assassination, during state of emergency declared by the government. Yet during that period, the dirigible took on a public function that was in some ways more significant than its intended use, becoming a marker for the crowds that would spontaneously gather around it and then walk from the assassination site to Martyrs’ Square, which is across the street from the grounds of the mosque where Hariri was buried. Indeed, the explosion seemed to fix the balloon in the public imagination. Immediately after the assassination, several apocryphal stories linked the balloon to the crime. One story told of a detonation device found in the balloon. Another claimed that the assassins had taken flight in the balloon, neglecting the glaring yellow fact that it was still there. The balloon also appeared on the cover of a novel about that period, where it symbolized a certain “unbearable lightness” in the face of weighty current events.

Putting aside these circumstantial and conspiratorial links, a happy helium balloon on a patch of grass would appear to be the perfect antithesis to the act that it witnessed. The contrast between the two evokes a common explanation for Beirut’s constant cycle between decadence and violence: A structural fault exists in Lebanon’s composition and geographic location, we are told, ethnically divided between Christian and Muslim, geographically split between the Mediterranean and Arabia. Many cities use geopolitical dualities to explain their morphogenesis and tout their cosmopolitanism, but dichotomy provides Beirut with both a raison d’être and a raison de ne pas être, seeming to condemn the city to intractable division and violence.

An alternative conceit often used to explain Beirut is that of precariousness. Rejecting the structural in favor of the circumstantial, this model explains everything from the city’s unstable security situation to the disorder of its built environment as a series of unconnected incidents and anecdotes: Beirut as the capital of chaos. Others have read Beirut’s polar extremes as exaggerations of modern urban pathologies. In his 1989 sci-fi story “War Fever,” J. G. Ballard described Beirut as the only place on a perpetually peaceful earth that was deliberately kept at war so that it could serve as a United Nations laboratory for studying violent impulses in human beings. Even when this reading situates Beirut on top of the world, as both its pressure valve and its nerve center, it essentializes the connection between violence and the city.

Is there anything to say about Beirut beyond discussing these states of exception? Is it possible to speak of a city that has come to embody disaster and division for the world without fixating on disaster and division? I think it is, and I think we can find a new way of talking about Beirut by moving away from such self-fulfilling particularities, instead extracting the city’s underlying character from its literal infrastructure—its building and construction practices. This requires a new understanding of the city’s spatial production—the ways in which architects and urban planners make buildings and public spaces, and the links between these practices and other urban activities: buying a property, developing a site, parking a car, putting up a sign. Admittedly, all of these experiences are socially determined, too, but the spatial is constitutive of the social, not simply shaped by it. And so while questions of culture and politics may very well arise, I want to concentrate on what makes it to the architect’s table: on real estate, patronage, and urban design, as well as legal, iconographic, and stylistic practices. It is here that what we might call “normal” Beirut emerges—not only a city defined by exceptional conditions of trauma and violence but one in which we can discern an emerging model of vital, adaptable urbanism, which is increasingly relevant to other metropolises across the globe.

Hashim Sarkis Studios, Balloon Landing Park, 2005, Beirut. Photo: Joumana Jamhouri.


When my client, the young entrepreneur who imported the balloon from France, leased the site, he was given a choice between two adjacent blocks on a sloping hillside. He chose the one that seemed less likely to be sold, the lower one, which was farther from the nearest highway exit. In other words, he was leasing time as much as space.

The site lies in the heart of the glittering hotel district that emerged in the 1950s and ’60s during Lebanon’s oil-driven postwar boom, but it was also the site of a major battle in 1975, at the outset of nation’s long civil war. When the fighting ended in 1990, this area was at the center of reconstruction efforts. Then–prime minister Hariri helped to create Solidere, a powerful government-backed development company that was charged with the reconstruction of downtown Beirut. The transformation of the primary zone of Solidere’s master plan has been remarkably complete, even as some of the hotels outside the plan’s boundary, such as the Holiday Inn and the Saint-George, remain bullet riddled. Supporters point to this state of affairs as evidence of the company’s effectiveness, even if its methods have been controversial. Special legal and fiscal mechanisms were created to empower Solidere—for example, former property owners in the old downtown were compensated with shares in the company rather than cash when their land was essentially seized through eminent domain.

But Lebanese urban development thrives on the fact that the value of the land is often much higher than that of the buildings that sit on it, meaning that historical worth is rarely a factor in developers’ decisions. Thanks to heavily secured mortgages, low property taxes, and zoning and building codes that are constantly revised to encourage exploitation, investment in real estate can continue even when the demand is not high. Historic buildings are constantly being razed to make room for speculation.

Solidere’s initiative fits into a long, cyclical pattern of clearance and new construction. In the mid- nineteenth century, when Beirut served as the base for Egyptian resistance to the Ottomans, new construction erased much of the city’s medieval residue and spilled over its walls, making these historical boundaries obsolete. When the Ottomans returned to power, they reaffirmed their presence with large-scale urban-planning projects, eventually removing the remaining medieval fabric and creating a vast clearing in the old city to make way for modern streets and buildings. But these plans were interrupted by World War I, and the Ottomans left in 1918 without filling the void. The French mandate, from 1918 to 1943, finished the job of modernizing downtown. But after Lebanon gained independence, the area was largely vacated due to demographic shifts, as the population migrated toward the booming fringes of the city; the civil war finally destroyed the downtown area entirely, preparing it for the next cycle of real estate development.

Elsewhere in the city, the same pattern occurs at a smaller scale. Buildings dating back to the early twentieth century and even the ’50s and ’60s are routinely torn down and replaced by parking lots as owners play a waiting game with prospective developers. These clearings serve as indexes of speculation, particularly in rapidly transforming neighborhoods such as Ras Beirut and Achrafieh, where competing scenarios for development help increase the value of the vacated property as well as the properties around it.

Our site was swept up in just such a sequence. In 2007, less than two years after the balloon was launched, Solidere (which owned the land) sold the parcel to a Dubai bank. The balloon was swiftly moved nearby, but continuing political tensions in Beirut eventually forced the owner to deflate and store it. The contractor who had built the balloon park was rehired to destroy it. Today, a new residential tower by Herzog & de Meuron is rising from the property, its floor plates loosely stacked on top of one another, as if our design strategy had been radically exaggerated and the ground had now been multiplied into a thousand planes.


I had hoped that the clearing I created for the balloon would itself never be cleared, because it was a rare kind of opening in the city. It was designed as a park, a possible answer to Beirut’s endemic lack of public space.

Ironically, Solidere’s master plan was explicitly intended to produce public space. But its failure to do so can be understood as a lesson in the difficulties of regulation. The first postwar reconstruction plan, from 1991, was highly specific, including not only clearly delineated public spaces but elaborate boulevards complete with monuments and fountains, red tile roofs, and heavily prescribed building typologies. The plan was rejected by the public, primarily due to concerns about the land-reclamation process on which it relied, and its heightened articulation was seen as the mark of a heavy-handed, top-down political approach. The scheme was quickly replaced with a much fuzzier series of renderings accompanied by a set of regulations that deferred much of the decision making about the urban and architectural character of downtown to builders and their architects. Public spaces were delayed and in many cases compromised or eliminated through negotiations with the private developers of abutting land.


When fundamental decisions concerning the creation and preservation of the public realm are deferred to architects, they automatically become mediated by another level of regulation, that of zoning and building codes. This set of rules has its own logic, which often works against the collective character of a master plan.

A quick analysis of the code’s treatment of topography illustrates this problem. Take the balloon’s site, for example: There is a thirty-foot drop between its highest and lowest points. This degree of slope is prevalent in most of Beirut, which is built between two hills, Achrafieh to the east and Moussaitbeh to the west. While we tried to address this terrain through our strategy of the folded ground plane, building sites in the city are typically flattened out before construction. This makes sense, because the Lebanese building code does not take topography into account when assessing allowable building height, so leveling a site allows builders to maximize their exploitation of it. The code also discourages continuity between buildings and landscape, fragmenting neighborhoods into a series of discrete excavations.

Other attributes of Beirut’s building code further contribute to the breakdown of the urban ensemble. For example, there are no clear rules governing the alignment of buildings to the street, resulting in variable setbacks and irregular street edges; balconies are encouraged as a way of gaining square footage, which breaks up individual building facades. But even as these policies create a chaotic, disjointed effect at the scale of the street, they create repetitive patterns and textures at the scale of the city. This sense of repetition is reinforced by the hegemony of the apartment building, which is deemed most flexible and is used for all purposes, whether commercial, industrial, or even institutional. The effect is of highly differentiated but ultimately self-similar pieces iterated into an overall sameness. This minced, or tabbouleh, urbanism (if you’ll allow me one self-Orientalizing slip) is reminiscent of what takes place in many cities and what is promoted at many levels of architectural discourse. We are increasingly seeking a heightened articulation of form; we desire each building to be a unique architectural expression, but the broader conditions in which we work encourage a global sameness.

And yet while deferring key urban decisions to the architect may have weakened the coherence of the city, this development has also granted the architect new agency. Rather than being the result of the single vision expressed in a master plan or unified building code, urban form is rendered changeable and incremental—deliberated with every act of building. If this approach has so far resulted in heightening small differences and generating a paradoxical sense of sameness within the city, it has nevertheless given the city a particular pulse—a sense of constant activity, vibrant change, and endless possibility—that may point to a latent potential.

View of Hashim Sarkis Studios’ Balloon Landing Park, 2005, Beirut. Photo: Joumana Jamhouri.


Of course, not all the elements that affect the urban fabric of Beirut are architectural, and the city’s architects have expanded their purview accordingly. When the balloon’s cost to the client in euros could not be covered with a reasonable ticket price for a balloon ride in Lebanese pounds, a sponsor had to be found. A bank stepped forward, and it seemed as though in order to take flight the balloon would have to be transformed into a giant billboard. But the governor of Beirut, who opposed Solidere, was the final authority on the ad permit, and he denied the bank’s bid. His excuse was that there was no law governing advertising on flying objects, but his decision was clearly an attempt to address the broader problem of out-of-control advertising all over the city. Eventually a compromise was reached: The balloon was printed with the slogan but not the name of the sponsoring bank.

To date, there is little control over signage in the city. A constant demand for billboards has increased exponentially since the proliferation of television networks after the civil war. Lebanon’s thriving graphic-design and advertising industries feed images to the entire Arab world, using Beirut’s consumer culture as their testing ground. Indeed, Beirut is a strikingly literal illustration of the condition famously described by Kwame Anthony Appiah in his meditations on postmodernism: The city has turned every surface into a sign, and every sign reads FOR SALE.

But just as Beirut’s chaotic building codes have created architectural opportunities, this system of ubiquitous advertising can be appropriated in turn. In fact, in the face of the overall similarity of the city’s architecture, some architects have turned to advertising as a means of distinguishing urban spaces and buildings. Some have transformed their entire buildings into billboards of a kind. Others have appropriated elements of media technology, building electronic signage into their facades. In our design for the landing park, we used writing on the surface of the building and on the ground to communicate: The formwork of the cast-in-place concrete was inset in a pattern than produced arrows and signage to orient visitors. Text on the asphalt floor transformed the interior into a tarmac of sorts, dividing the space into zones for various uses and patterns of movement. The graphic and the architectural were intertwined to produce a third language—but one flexible enough to avoid overdetermined commercialization.


On one level, all these qualities of Beirut could be dismissed as utterly undesirable: the preponderance of voids, the heightened differentiation of buildings and facades that paradoxically produce a homogeneous urban environment, the absence of public space, the graphic surfaces that threaten to overwhelm the city’s architecture. But on another level, these characteristics can be read as a reflection of the mercantilist ethos of the Eastern Mediterranean, one that has shaped the region’s behavior for centuries, if not millennia, and that must have shaped its cities along the way. Indeed, the typical image of the Mediterranean city resonates here: a metropolis reaching out toward the sea and indifferent to the surrounding countryside, a finely textured mixture of buildings, a private sector rich from commerce combined with a poor and relatively weak public sector.

The danger, of course, might lie in simply moving from one set of stereotypes about Beirut (disaster and division, East versus West) to another (the sunny city perched on the edge of the Big Blue). But I am not speaking only of clichés: I am thinking of the conception of the Mediterranean articulated by David Abulafia, one of the region’s most prominent historians, who describes the area as fundamentally shaped by frequent communication between distant shores. What is most relevant in Abulafia’s proposal is that the Mediterranean becomes a model that could be applied to the entire contemporary world. Indeed, that ancient model of interconnection—of cosmopolitanism—can be seen as the progenitor of Beirut’s internal sameness as well as of its similarity to other cities. This dissolution of specificity, of place, is only accelerated by the market—the medium of communication and exchange par excellence.

Beirut could, then, be one version of normal—a risk-averse city shaped by media, advertising, and international communication, moving in sync with the ebb and flow of global real estate. But neither the normalcy of Beirut nor its parity with the world is that dull. Indeed, Beirut’s architecture suggests a city-world before and beyond globalization, where identities might be constantly constructed, in large part through design. More than half a century ago, Le Corbusier described a city at the other end of the Mediterranean, Algiers, as a balcony onto the world. At its best, Beirut aspires to be such a vantage point—a balcony, or even a balloon.

Hashim Sarkis is Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and principal of Cambridge- and Beirut-based firm Hashim Sarkis Studios.