Affectionately known as ‘The Egg’ by the locals, this is all what remains from what was once an architecturally ground breaking multi-purpose complex in Beirut, designed by the modernist genius that is Joseph Philippe Karam and built c. 1965 – called ‘Beirut City Center’ at the time.
On a recent trip to Beirut, I made it one of my must do goals to climb up the Egg (legally or illegally – had to be done). And so I did!
The complex was a concatenation of office and residential space, combined with a mall on the 1st three floors that could be reached by escalators from the ground.
The hollow, soap like structure was actually the complex’s multi-purpose performance space, mostly used as a theater and a cinema. It was built around the time when Arab cinema was at its golden age and Beirut was the pioneer of the dream sequence technology. Be it actors, technicians, studios or just good old cinemas, where Beirut went the Arab world followed. As the old saying went: “Shot in Egypt, made famous in Beirut”.
After the civil war broke out, the complex, situated right on the ‘Green Line’ that separated east and west Beirut, suffered extensive but certainly repairable damage. Shortly after the war ended however (in the mid-90s), the Ministry of Finance bought the lease of the land and destroyed the main building with the aim of rebuilding its own ministry premises. The plans were later abandoned but not without leaving ‘The Egg’ as the only remaining structure of a once ground breaking plaza.
Ever since then plenty of plans have come and gone and the structure has been threatened several times. Lebanon’s laws on architectural heritage are lax, and they hardly ever protect modernist and art-deco era 20th century era buildings. The focus tends to be on much older buildings leaving a country with a wealth of modernist structures in danger of losing some of its most important assets.
And so here I am on a hot summer day in June. I make my way up, one broken step at a time. I am not the first person to do this, in fact in the late 90s all the way until quite recently the space was often used as an art gallery, impromptu theater and sometimes as a good old raving spot. But having been sealed off since 2007, I was pleasantly surprised that this time the barriers were removed.
A few short hops and hikes, and a dirty suede shoes later, I made it. The incredible smooth concrete finishing was right there, riddled with bullet holes of various sizes and idiosyncratic graffiti. Those curves in all their beauty, the iron clad pillars holding this alien like structure, all there. This was urban raw Beirut as I’ve come to fall in love with it ever since I was born. The city of dreams, resistance, resistance to resistance and where icons are made and crushed.
My trek up the Egg was magical, sad and wildly invigorating. I learned that man-made structures, through our own perception of our reality as humans, become an almost indispensable intrinsic part of our internal psyche. They are so closely weaved with our identity, our culture and what we come to call our home. That was the day I got close to the structure that I’ve always admired and drove me to obsession as a young kid – just ask my parents who had to constantly deny that it was an alien space ship that had landed in Beirut and no one is allowed in because the government is protecting it.
Public perception of modernism in Lebanon is unfortunately quite mis-guided. The abundance of these buildings from the early 20th century all the way to the mid-80s meant that they have become part of the Lebanese urban landscape and in no way seen as endangered. But they are dwindling and are being eroded by the day to be replaced by soulless blocks of bland stone bricks that have little design quality and are built with little care about their surroundings.
Back in the Egg I stare out of its well crafted big square ad-hoc windows. I’m seeing the massive construction boom that Beirut is currently undergoing as the city becomes a play ground for real estate realtors, developers and mega rich property investors. And then in the middle of all this commotion a lovely derelict church, Mar Mansour, stands there idly and powerfully in the face of a briskly changing landscape. It too is undergoing its own battle for survival. Such is the case in Beirut, a place where only the strongest and fittest (but also the most corrupt) survive and I ponder what this place will look like in a decade from now. Twenty years ago this was a decrepit pit hole of rubble and destruction, now it is one of the most expensive square miles in the world.
Recently some civil society and architecture groups have managed to bring this issue back into the forefront and The Egg in many ways is the symbol of this fight. Lose it and very slowly but surely, we will lose all of Lebanon’s modernist history. Win it and we might, just might, have a chance at preserving the dreams and identities of not only the men who designed and built an era, but the countless people whose lives have become defined by these familiar buildings that have become as Lebanese as Tabouleh.