Square One: Martyrs’ Square, Downtown Beirut, Lebanon

The studio will focus on the design of Martyrs\’ Square in downtown Beirut and on the surrounding urban and waterfront areas. It will tackle several issues related to the recreation of a public square including the reinvention of public life in Beirut after its long civil war, the urban and social role of this primary public space, and the need to rethink the role of public spaces in the definition of a modern city. The program, site, and schedule of the studio coincide with those of an international competition, due in May 2004, to which the students will be able to submit their projects. More than ten years after embarking on a major reconstruction project, the city of Beirut is still looking for a clear strategy for its primary public square. While the master plan does indicate the recreation of several open spaces, very few of these has been designed or built in a convincing manner. The adopted master plan tends to define open spaces by deferring their character to the surrounding buildings, thus reinforcing the strategy that buildings, not roads or open spaces define the character of the city. It has also deferred the definition of public spaces in time where it has become increasingly clear that the character of urban spaces has to be defined directly with clear and forceful urban, landscape, and architectural strategies. Given the scale of the square and the vast clearing around it, this problem is most glaring in the area of Martyrs\’ Square. In launching this competition, Beirut seems to acknowledge this problem. In more ways than one, the city is going back to square one.Formally, the studio explores the possibility that the very idea of postponement or deferral could be turned around to generate new conceptions of public space in the city. The sociologist Isaac Joseph distinguishes between two forms of public space, the full and the empty. Full spaces are those where the architecture and the programmed activities guide the use of the spaces. Empty spaces are those that provide free frameworks for a public life that can vary and change. The potential of designing \”empty\” squares is yet to be fully explored.The studio is sponsored by the Aga Khan Program of Activities at the GSD and is being conducted in collaboration with Solidere, the real estate development company in charge of the redevelopment of downtown Beirut, and with the American University of Beirut, Department of Architecture. A visit to Beirut is scheduled during spring break.