The drive to Bernard Khoury’s architecture office on the outskirts of Beirut has me crawling at a snail’s pace through bumper-to-bumper traffic. It’s rush hour in the city, and as more residents are priced out of the redeveloped downtown district and forced to relocate to the surrounding industrial quarters, the pressure points at dusk and dawn are further strained by this shifting demographic. The result is a grotesque cacophony of honking horns, comatose cab drivers, and raging semi trucks.
Barely five minutes after ascending the many flights of stairs to the HQ of Khoury’s namesake practice (and his design workshop, DW5), I find myself back on the highway, this time clutching onto the Lebanese architect atop a roaring motorcycle. We weave effortlessly through the stagnant streams of traffic, hightailing it on an architectural pilgrimage to a few of his local projects—he doesn’t build much downtown anymore, he will tell me later, much less visit. An increasing number of contemporary Lebanese architects, artists, and designers (Khoury included) are carving out a new creative scene on the fringe of the city they feel has turned its back on its public in the quest for luxury, social exclusivity, and global capital.
Without warning, we pivot off the highway into the semi-industrial Quarantaine neighborhood, and Koury kills the engine while literally on top of his first building: the B018 nightclub. Constructed in 1998 and owned by Naji Gebran, a Lebanese musician known for hosting musical therapy sessions at his seaside home during the war, the subterranean EDM chamber is a poetic and super-sensory meditation on the crossovers of war and music.
Conceived as a coffin-shaped bomb shelter, the macabre aesthetic of the building is a sobering reference to the massacre of Palestinian and Kurdish refugees murdered on this same plot of land in 1976. For Khoury, the legality of the project was equally grisly: The club was designed to last only for five years, and its contractor was murdered right before the five-year mark. “It was a simultaneous assassination of him and his wife in Sao Paulo,” Khoury explains cooly. “The family wasn’t paying; they were too busy fighting over his inheritance . . . well, I wasn’t paying either! They probably wanted to kill me too.”
We step over the spine of the building—it’s baking hot in the Lebanese sun—and I learn its heavy metal shell retracts hydraulically in the late hours of the night, transforming the club into an open-air discotheque and revealing a star-studded sky to dancers losing themselves to the rhythms. A film crew is poised like a phalanx around B018’s glowing red entrance, exactly how I imagine the club’s bouncers might stand. One momentarily lowers the boom mic to implore that we take care when walking. Khoury shoots back a knowing smirk—but saves them the burn. Back on the bike, we circle around the bunker a final time. It’s just slow enough to rattle the film crew, whose eyes are still glued to their unexpected visitors. I get a peek inside the cavernous interiors. “We are about to redo the inside; it’ll be ready by December,” Khoury comments, as if reading my mind.
“Was Beirut’s music scene any different when B018 was first built in the 90s?” I yell over the thundering muffler. “Today it seems like total paradise, for those who can afford it.”
“Beirut was always built for rich kids who want to party,” is his reply.
A gargantuan gothic battleship completed in 2017 is the next Khoury project to pierce the horizon, but we don’t get off the bike this time. Instead, we do a quick lap around Plot #1282, otherwise known as the Factory Lofts, while Khoury supplies the vital specs. Squeezed behind a wide highway, abandoned railway tracks, old military barracks, and (currently) unoccupied fields is a program of 95 lofts spanning a total built-up area of almost 85,000 square feet. Floor-to-ceiling windows give way to plenty of natural light across the eight floors of the apartment complex, which is stitched together by nine exposed concrete cores.
Thick rows of foliage and desert cacti line the balconies of the lofts, which sit far back from the balcony. “Within the next five or ten years, all of the surrounding empty space could become developed,” says Khoury. The morphology of Plot #1282 intends to respond to these fluctuating circumstances and the unpredictable future of Beirut’s periphery. We teeter through the parking lot, where a procession of motorcycles and a communal freight elevator fit for the supersize canvases of Jackson Pollock lend the place a decidedly artsy flair. Patrolling security guards give Khoury the up-nod on our exit, and we’re soon back on the highway.
Our final stop on the tour is Khoury’s own penthouse: a three-floor apartment that graces the top of an exceptional residential project known as Plot #2251, which would unexpectedly grow a twin (Plot #1314) mere months after its completion in 2013. Virtually situated on the former demarcation line separating east and west Beirut, and bordering the Maronite Cemetery, this project is all kinds of gutsy. So was the developer behind it. “Basically, I was banned from the residential sector because I was designing clubs, bars, places of debauchery,” Khoury explains as he pushes aside the sliding glass window of his sun-drenched, south-facing penthouse. “So developers think nobody who is raising a family would like their kids to live in a space I designed.”
We walk around the suspended steel grating bridge that frames the exaggerated open plan of the apartment. A custom-built ventilation unit that looks like a spaceship floats a few feet above our heads, almost six meters above the floor. With the city glimmering in the sunset backdrop, it feels like the most spectacular tightrope—and as someone who is not typically afraid of heights, I am surprised, then empathetic with the speculative families in question, to feel the prickling of vertigo.
Khoury’s view out onto the city and its surroundings is totally unobstructed—a mixed blessing of zoning regulations that stem from Lebanon’s past life as a French colony and also necessitate the high density of this building. “You couldn’t build here during the war, and you still can’t—its French territory,” he explains. Before us sits the French faculty of medicine, cultural center, embassy, and even a racehorse track that all intersect on Damascus Road, none taller than a few stories.
From this floating footbridge, the neighboring Maronite Cemetery—its blocky tombs appearing like a city grid from above—becomes apparent. “Unlike Europe, Lebanese culture has a weird relationship with the dead,” Khoury muses.” In Paris, for instance, living near the verdant acreage of Pere Lachaise Cemetery—some 70,000 tombs populated by the worlds most brilliant minds—is a total artistic boon. Here in Beirut, not so much.
Indeed, Khoury’s morning view is pure geopolitics: a daily confrontation with the former no man’s land that once separated east and west Beirut, and a masochistic gaze into the hellish mouth of the redeveloped city today. “If you look at Beirut from above, it’s like a room crowded with a bunch of people who don’t engage with each other,” says Khoury of his hometown. Put simply, there is a lot of glitz and glamour to contemporary Beirut, but there is no common project—just starchitecture aplenty and pitifully ubiquitous reinterpretations of modern recipes gone rotten.
“You can read the political situation of the country through its architecture,” muses Khoury while lighting up a Marlboro Red. As we gaze out over the rooftop, the last drops of sunlight melting into the chic infinity pool, the political disorder of the city slowly unfurls at our feet. “The complete bankruptcy of the nation state, the lack of any sort of program—it’s all evident in the situation have now, where every new building regards its surroundings as a hostile environment.” Khoury gestures into the distance at a new luxury high-rise, which practically rear-ends its neighbor with a 50-meter blind wall, blocking both parties’ lucrative Mediterranean view—ironically, the precise selling point of both. “They just don’t give a fuck.” Of course, it’s easier to be critical when your views are this lucid—and luxurious.