The Arts

Raving and Remembrance

In his hometown of Beirut, Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury is building discothèques and restaurants that serve as enormously intelligent monuments intended to transform the trauma of civil war.

Khoury has managed to combine the structure of a monument and the architecture of remembrance with the profit interests of the entertainment industry. He has made a place where Beirut’s golden youth dance at the site of a massacre—and sees no contradiction in this at all. When asked about it after a talk at Berlin’s House of World Cultures, he said: “I am not the one who is cynical, but rather the society I live in and am a part of. You people are fortunate; you can debate memorials here. In Beirut, I could never give a speech about this: No one would listen to me, they would say, ‘I don’t give a fuck!’ ”

Khoury was born in Beirut in 1968. Like so many of his generation, he went to study in the United States in 1986. After the 1975-90 civil war ended, he returned home and wanted to build in Beirut. At first he failed: For five years, he was unable to complete a single project. And this was at a time when there was a building boom under way. Beirut was again supposed to become the “Paris of the Middle East.”

In the beginning, people were confident that Solidère, a private real-estate development firm, would do great things. It came up with a master plan for the inner city in 1991. But Solidère proposed to work from a tabula rasa, with no regard for residents who would be evicted, for landmark buildings, or for the historic remnants of the city’s Ottoman, Roman, and even older layers. Khoury criticized Solidère’s architects, saying their historicizing plans proposed a Levantine Disneyland, related only to the colonial architecture of the 1920s and ’30s. The plan would have thus completely negated the experience of the civil war, which had marked his own youth.

So he developed an accompaniment, a project that would go along with this radical reconstruction of the city. His “Evolving Scars” envisioned the rubble of each building being gathered as it was demolished and put in a “memory collector.” And Khoury wanted to mark the frontiers of each militia’s territory—they had divided the city—to be preserved in a system of checkpoints to make them visible again. But his plan failed.

He got his chance when his cousin Nagi Gebran asked if he wanted to build Club B018, a discothèque. The disco’s name was taken from the address of a former music studio in Christian East Beirut. During the shelling, the studio played music so loud that it drowned out the sounds of war. “Music therapy sessions,” people called it.

They chose a location in the Quarantine Quarter, because it was vacant land, and cheap. During the colonial era, the French had erected a quarantine station here—hence the name. In the 1920s, it was turned into a refugee camp, first for Armenians, later for Palestinians. In 1976, the Christian Phalangist militia massacred Palestinian refugees here.

The street leading to B018 passed by the Sleep Comfort furniture plant, which had housed a torture center run by the Forces Libanaises [the Christian militia]. The very structure of his building incorporates this history, said Khoury in April when an exhibition of his work opened at Aedes Architecture Gallery in Berlin. An expressway marks the former boundary, the line of the walls around the refugee camp. On one side of the expressway it was densely developed, but on the other, stretching down to the coast, it was empty. No one wanted to live or build there after the massacre. The refugee camp would be leveled, leaving nothing but a layer of rubble three and a half meters tall.

So Khoury sank Club B018 into the ground. All one sees at the circular site is the steel roof. Visitors have to pass through a claustrophobic corridor, as in a bunker, and look through peepholes into the interior. Khoury himself does not attach any high-flown meaning to this. But what happens here is something like a memorial to the traumatic events of the civil war. The roof can be opened up, and visitors suddenly find themselves in the open air, under the stars. By day, the club looks like an unused manhole cover, and by night it is a glittering oyster, with music and light emerging from its open shell.

The mirror-lined inner surface of the roof also reflects the headlights of cars that are parking around the club. Khoury plays with these contradictions: narrow spaces and broad vistas, closed and open, under and above. The roof is like military wreckage left by an alien civilization; the material is coarse and barbaric.

The architect himself also paid attention to many of the details, such as the bar stools. They are two meters high and end in a sort of helmetlike top. The guest can sit drinking, unseen, and won’t fall over, for he can lean his head against the side—but when he turns around, lights flash from the top, and it’s as though the solitary drinker is on a stage, exposed. Khoury also designed chairs that fold up, because there is so little room. They become tiny tables, or pedestals. The first guests understood them immediately, without help from the staff, and danced atop them.

Such exhibitionism is typical of Beirut and its people, for those dancing and partying here are a generation that grew up amid the civil war, and are now ready, at last, to enjoy life. But no one inside the club can forget, explains Andrée Sfeir-Semler, a woman gallery owner in Hamburg, even if they drink and dance. Many people deliberately seek out this spot because their relatives were slaughtered by the militia here.

Others, however, whose relatives were kidnapped by the Palestinians and then disappeared, come in the hopes of being somehow close to them. Thus all of Beirut, transcending the old political and religious divisions, has found a place here. When the club is empty, the folded tables resemble coffins. There are photographs on them, with candles and roses arranged around them. But not of martyrs, as one might expect: There are pictures of Billie Holiday, [Egyptian singer] Um Kalthoum, Charlie Parker, and other musical icons.

Bernard Khoury received an honorable mention for B018 for the first Francesco Borromini International Award for Young Architects. He designs beautiful and optimistic buildings, but never hides the obscene contradictions of Beirut’s social conditions. On the contrary, he spotlights them and exaggerates them dramatically. The parking lots are arranged in a circle around the club, and guests try to arrive in the most impressive limousines possible. The attendants make sure to park the nicest and most expensive cars next to the entrance, and thus create a visible hierarchy. Many people—probably those who cannot afford to go inside, Khoury says—come here just to watch this “circus.”

No less theatrical are the two restaurants he designed: Yabani, which is Japanese, and Centrale, which is housed in a landmarked traditional Lebanese residence. He was given the job—by Solidère—of reconstructing the house. To stabilize the edifice and protect the facade, he covered the building with wire mesh, and then kept it in place once the work was done. This allowed him to show the original facade. It is crumbling, but the screen keeps up appearances. Aside from that, he gutted the building entirely, leaving only the ground floor and roof intact.

Centrale is surely the world’s most exclusive restaurant, for, as Sfeir-Semler puts it, once here, you could lose any desire to eat. Of course, as Khoury adds with a smile, his client did not want that. The experience begins with the forbidding entrance, which is fenced with barbed wire. Then the guest moves to a black conference table with seating for a maximum of 34 people, all sitting in black office chairs. It is possible only to talk to the people on either side of you. For Beirut, this is a completely unfamiliar situation.

There is a small lamp at each place that looks like a microphone and casts a harsh light on the white plates. The waiters emerge from an opening leading to the kitchen, which is below the dining room. The table surrounds them completely.

“Of course,” says Sfeir-Semler, “the guests here ask themselves why they are sitting at this absurd, nightmarish conference table, and do not feel comfortable at all, but instead uneasy, as if they were constantly being watched by someone they cannot see.” The room is 10 meters high. The bar on the roof is completely different from the dim seclusion of the dining room. It is built into a steel cylinder that can rotate and open, like the cupola of an observatory.

On the other hand, Yabani, the Japanese restaurant, stands out like a polished monument on the former demarcation line between East and West Beirut, in a desolate area. Right next to it stands a tenement with a dilapidated facade, inhabited now, as before, by refugees. Seldom have wealth and poverty been put side by side in such a blunt, heartless juxtaposition.

It is true that diners can choose to ignore their surroundings here and enjoy their food—once again, the restaurant is underground. But anyone who decides to do so must face the critical gaze of the other guests. A glass elevator carries each guest from the reception area, located in a turret above ground, down into the dining room, where the tables are arranged in a circle around the elevator.

Khoury has struck a nerve with his buildings in Beirut. He might do the same in Germany, where the memorial specialists have carried on their debates behind closed doors for far too long. Being exposed to a more raw reality, as they would be with Bernard Khoury, would put their comfortable certainties to the test.