September 13, 2021
For an Engineer and a Photographer Beirut’s Damaged Grain Silos Are a Source of Consternation and Fascination
Mrad, who studied architecture, had always been taken with the port from a photographic point of view, he says. Not so much with the 157-foot-tall white silos, but with the industrious cranes next to them doing their methodical and mesmerizing loading and unloading. Yet the silos meant a lot to many Beirutis he says, especially those who remember the city before it was covered in glass-and-steel high-rises. “Before the city was this developed the scale of the silos was much more apparent and they were definitely viewed as a symbol of prosperity. Fathers would drive by and tell their kids ‘Look at the silos, aren’t they big?’”
When the blast happened, the silos, which were located less than 250 feet from its epicenter, were ravaged. Some were vaporized says Durand, but of those still standing, all sustained significant damage and some are now tilting dangerously. “The silos in the North block are inclining at the top by two millimeters every day,” he says when we first speak in June (the silos are structurally divided into two blocks as they were built at different times in the 1970s). When we speak again in late August this figure has changed to one millimeter a day. “But that doesn’t mean the movement is slowing,” he explains, “it’s just a seasonal thing because the summer months are drier. The North Block is definitely still in movement.” As a point of comparison he says, before hugely complex work was done to stop the Pisa tower in Italy leaning even further in the late 90s, it was moving by a mere five millimeters a year.
Mrad’s images of the site are poetic and haunting, depicting the tangled rebar and skeletal concrete hulks of the silos against golden dunes of grain and brilliant blue skies. But being among the silos with Durand was a shock to the senses, he says. “We had to drive through mountains of piled up metal and debris from the explosion. A lot of the stuff that had been in the shipping containers has been impossible to separate and is decomposing and melting. There’s a big red ship on the concrete too, just lying there. It was blown out of the water on to the docks. It’s a very weird scene.” The smell was overpowering says Mrad, partly because the grain is fermenting and there are dead rats and pigeons, as well as chemicals, garbage, and sewage everywhere. “The heat is crazy too,” he continues. “We had to wear special shoes because in some places the grain is smoldering like coal and can burn your skin.”
Both Mrad and Durand share the feeling that the silos did the city a huge and poignant service on that fateful day by absorbing a lot of the blast and shielding neighborhoods like Hamra and downtown from far worse damage. “Imagine that the three lines of 16 silos are three rows of soldiers. The first row facing the explosion went down, the second is 80 percent damaged, though visually it looks like 50 percent, and the last row looks OK from afar but not from close up.” Despite their significance, the future of the silo site, like so much in a country paralyzed by political dysfunction and one of the worst economic crises in its history, is very uncertain. Durand believes the North block should be dismantled because of the danger of it collapsing and has now installed tiltmeters to measure the leaning in real time and allow port staff time to evacuate if needs be. Both he and Mrad hope the rest of the silos will stay and eventually form some sort of memorial park and museum. Some plans and proposals have already emerged, most recently by a team of four Palestinian architects from Ramallah in the West Bank who won an international competition. “You know how it is in Beirut, there are always many opinions and interests,” says Mrad. “In the end everybody becomes scared to voice an opinion or take a decision.” In the meantime, the forlorn huddle of remaining silos stands as a forlorn symbol of better days.
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