Legend has it, this port city has existed since the dawn of civilization. One of the oldest cities on earth, the Lebanese capital of Beirut is the so-called ‘mother of laws’ for hosting the first Law school in the world under the Roman Empire. However, the city was rebuilt from aches several times throughout its 5000 years of history leaving behind a handful of archeological sites. A Canaanite city wall, tombs from the Iron Age, Crusaders fortress walls, and Roman baths, all discoverable a few kilometers apart in the capital’s historical core.
Yet today, Beirut’s prevailing urban scene is from its modern history, tormented by the 15-year long civil war that erupted in 1975. Still undergoing post-war reconstruction, Beirut, the uncategorizable city, is a fertile field for architectural experimentation. A collage of colonial architecture, glorious 70’s modernism and post-war contemporary development, the strange love you’ll feel for this city defies all expectations and logic.
1. The Egg
With the high-end reconstruction of Beirut’s city center, this egg-shaped concrete building is highly rendered as the odd one out. Monumental yet suffocated by high rise context, this original unfinished theater was designed as part of a bigger leisure complex by the Lebanese architect Joseph Karam. Another modernist utopia of the 1960s interrupted by civil war, the egg became an epitome of Beirut’s cultural history, architectural aspirations, and identity exploration.
Recently hosting expositions, seminars, and discussions on the Lebanese uprising of October 2019, the egg extends even further beyond its physical limits to become the city’s revolutionary symbol, asking, more than ever, to be reclaimed by the people.
2. Sursock Museum
A bright – almost blinding – white mansion stands majestically, since 1912, in one of the most lavishing streets of Ashrafieh in Beirut. Built on Venetian and ottoman preferences, the residence would witness a number of expansion projects as it became an art museum in 1970. A recent addition was completed in 2014 allowing for new facilities and exhibition spaces to take place.
In addition to its iconic stained glass, the museum displays its most exquisite halls, the Salon Arabe, where 19th-century handcrafted wood walls and ceiling are still intact and waiting to be admired.
3. Beit Beirut
Unmatchable in the city, this bullet-ridden building is today the only to commemorate Beirut’s history during its civil war. Erected in 1924 for the Barakat family, the three stories structure would turn 50 years later into a strategic sniper nest and home to the most violent combats of the country’s civil war.
Unlike most war-scarred buildings in Beirut, this architectural Ottoman styled marvel by Youssef Aftimos was not only saved from demolition, but got repurposed as the city’s cultural hub and museum of remembrance.
4. American University of Beirut (AUB)
One of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the Middle East, the American University of Beirut is an architectural staple that guarantees something for every taste. Once stepped inside its main gate, one is simply teleported to Beirut 19th century essence with eloquent legacy buildings such as the assembly hall, college hall, and bliss hall.
Zaha Hadid, a former AUB student, made sure to design a couple of years and awards later, one of the most striking buildings on campus. Spanning 40 meters in mid-air, the cantilevered Issam fares institute stands unapologetically alongside other notable designs such as the award-winning Charles hostler student center.
5. B 018
Ranked frequently as one of the top 5 nightclubs worldwide, B 018 is with no doubt the quirkiest entertainment project in Beirut since 1994. Bernard Khoury, the internationally acclaimed architect, was to design the nightclub in Karantina district, site of the unfortunate massacre of Palestinian Muslims in 1976. The solution was to bury the nightclub under the ground, keeping the historic context unperturbed. Although sunken in the ground, the club opens its retractable circular roof during summer for people to enjoy the best of Beirut’s nightlife under the sky.
6. The rose house
This 3-stories pink mansion was built in 1882 by the Ardati family. One of the oldest and highly estimable in Ras Beirut, the house welcomed great artists and historical figures like General de Gaulle. Built over an old hunting lodge, the 2 upper floors enjoy each a gallery of arches that overlooks splendid views of the historic Manara lighthouse and the Mediterranean Sea.
7. Holiday in
Another must-see for ruin fanatics, this hotel was designed by the French modernist Andre Wogensky, a student of Le Corbusier, in 1971. Similar to the infamous Genex tower in Belgrade, this tower incorporated a revolving restaurant at the top with unmatchable views to the city. Only operating for a year, the hotel would be doomed to become the battlefield for militias during the civil war since 1975. Today, as the concrete structure stands grimly in Beirut’s skyline, the exploration of this state-of-the-art hotel becomes more interesting than ever.
8. The campus of Innovation and Physical education, Saint-Joseph University
This new addition to the urban fabric of Independence Street was designed by Youseff Tohme Architects in 2011. A series of voids cut through the complex, resulting in 6 buildings allowing for views over the city and an interactive presence at the heart of the neighborhood. The facade design is a contemporary interpretation of the moucharabieh and a poetic rendition of the site’s war-scarred history. The complex also incorporates one of the best museums in Lebanon, showcasing a unique collection of minerals from around the world.
9. Interdesign building
A brutalist gem in the heart of Beirut, this 70’s iconic design by renowned modernist architect Khalil Khoury is an exhibition gallery hosting pieces of art and furniture, some of which are Khoury’s own work. The genius of the design is the striking contrast between its compactly sculpted concrete exteriors and the spatial fluidity of the interiors. Voids connect the floors visually while the limited window stripes on the facade allow for atmospheric light to brighten up the space.
10. Faculty of Fine Arts and Architecture, Lebanese University
An eloquent 100 meters-long gallery of arches, this landmark resumes the architectural references in Beirut during the French mandate. Erected in 1933 by the French military, it served as a nursing home for elderlies for 42 years before turning into a faculty of fine arts and architecture for the Lebanese University. The light-filled church centering the building, the arched galleries, the unmatchable floor tiles, and balustrades are all reasons this gem is a must-visit for architecture fanatics.
11. Downtown Beirut
Constituting the intra-muros city of the Roman Empire, downtown Beirut showcases the various landmarks of historical layers and civilizations coexisting together. Undergoing the most controversial development project after the civil war, today it incorporates a 2.5 km walking circuit (Beirut heritage trail) touring the main historical monuments, ruins, and religious architecture; the Phoenician-Persian quarter, the roman Cardo Maximus, Place de l’Étoile, just to name a few.
12. Centrale bar and restaurant
This 1920’s house built on ottoman and colonial preferences, was saved from collapse when Bernard Khoury took the refurbishment project in 2001. Due to its decaying structure, temporary steel girders enveloped the facade as interior partitions were removed for a better spatial layout. Critical of falsification during preservation, Khoury decides on keeping the structural grid as an authentic reminder of the building’s history. A steel cylinder topping the restaurant makes room for a 17 m long bar with a retractable roof and views to Beirut central district.
13. Beirut terraces
With occasional exhibitions organized in some vacant apartments, visitors have the chance to experience the true essence of this residential tower designed by the renowned Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron in 2013. A modern interpretation of the accumulative historical context of Beirut, the design is an eloquent pile of concrete slabs holding unique layouts of apartments with unobstructed views to the city.
14. Sursock Street
One of Beirut’s most notable districts, the Sursock street, named after the Sursock family that resided there, was once a modest getaway for wealthy Beiruty families. Iconic gardens and scattered mansions all along the street, the neighborhood holds beside the sursock museum, Villa Lina Sursock, Villa Paradiso, and sursock palace to name a few.
15. Zaituna Bay
Designed by Steven Holl architects, this project regularly sparks controversy as the private development takes over what’s left of the handful of public spaces in the city. However, this seaside addition remains one of the most successful of the downtown development projects. Incorporating a Yacht club and a series of restaurants and luxury shops, the project is most famous for its ‘beach walk’, favorable for an evening outing with friends.