For a country with such a chaotic past, including several recent violent rocket engagements with Israel, Lebanon has had a surprising amount of highly-developed architecture. Add to that the historic nature of the city and its many ancient buildings, and you’ve got a wonderland of architectural design. That could all be gone permanently, however, following this week’s devastating explosion.
The explosion Tuesday was the result, it is being reported, of approximately 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate located in a warehouse near the port (as well as near two famous historic districts). Ammonium nitrate is the same compound that caused a massive explosion in Tianjin, China, in 2015, and the Texas City Disaster of 1947. However, both of those explosions pale in comparison to the damage done by this event.
At the time of writing, 135 are confirmed dead and nearly 5,000 injured. Among the dead is architect Jean-Marc Bonfils who was known for his “living walls,” which he introduced to Beirut. Those living walls in the East Village Apartments, as well as the architecturally-famed Électricité du Liban headquarters, are now in ruins.
In addition to the loss of significant architectural work, however, is the loss of places to live. It is estimated that nearly 300,000 people will be left homeless now as the city is a wreck. The footage of the explosion so mimicked the look of the nuclear mushroom cloud that social media users, including Arabic news media, started using the Hiroshima-inspired hashtag “Beirutishima” to describe the event.
The Beirut government, and the Lebanese government generally, is considered one of the most corrupt in the world, according to the New York Times. One urban planner complained to Architectural Digest that “now, while we scramble to save lives, they’re already manipulating the price of glass.”
Structural analysis has begun on the massive rubble to see what can be saved and what will have to be torn down.
“The damage I’ve seen elsewhere is mainly to roofs and elevated windows; ground floors and lower levels are in better shape,” said one evaluator. “What saved the city, and our homes is the fact that the blast was fireless; otherwise, the whole area would have disappeared.”
Beirut is famously resilient in the face of seemingly endless conflict. Whether it can recover from this devastation, especially with this government in place, remains to be seen. And architects and engineers are just beginning to analyze what this will mean for Beirut’s buildings, aesthetically, structurally, and culturally.