March 1, 2012
In war-torn Beirut, Gustafson Porter designs a series of public spaces that hark back to happier times.
In the early 2000s, the British-American landscape architecture outfit Gustafson Porter started several projects in a newly exuberant Beirut, which was slowly picking itself up from a devastating, 15-year-long civil war. But things didn’t go entirely smoothly. “In 2006, we were about to set up a small on-site office with staffing from London when the Israeli war broke out,” says Mary Bowman, a director at the firm. Though its major Beirut projects all resumed after the war, one of them, the Garden of Forgiveness, remains on hold while the army negotiates leaving the site. “The houses of parliament are right next door,” explains Neil Porter, a cofounder and director, with a resigned smile. “The instability of the region means the politicians can’t give up their protection.”
The Shoreline Walk, a series of public landscapes and squares, is Gustafson Porter’s largest ongoing project in the city; it won the Future Projects Landscape Award at the World Architecture Festival last November. “Beirut was once known for its rocky shoreline corniche, with avenues of palms and cafés that followed the coastline from the city center to the public beach,” explains Jose Rosa, an associate director who has worked extensively on the project. “But during the war a rubbish mountain grew from daily waste tipped into the Mediterranean Sea.”
The landfill—now remediated—will become a new district. Rather than leave the old coastline landlocked and redundant, the architects have planned a pedestrian route to bridge the medieval layout of the city and the engineered grid of the new neighborhood. The Shoreline Walk is located, Rosa says rather poetically, “between memories and aspirations.”
The first of the Shoreline Walk’s five spaces to be completed was Zeytouneh Square, which opened last August. Its bold black-and-white paving patterns are inspired by traditional Lebanese architecture. “It harks back to how they built the eighteenth-century city with layered colors of stone,” Porter says. “We were trying to link this very contemporary space to the past.” With its stone benches and terraces, the square is designed to be an informal amphitheater that can host concerts, festivals, and films. Two water features mark changes in level and are connected by a cascade that animates the space.
In a city with few parks and plazas, both Zeytouneh Square and the Shoreline Walk project have a higher aim, says Porter: “The idea was to create places within the city center where all the various religious factions and denominations could come together.” The Shoreline Walk is not about class or religion, but the familiar Mediterranean pastime of promenading at night among restaurants and shops.