A Year After Its Devastating Explosion, a Bold Plan Emerges for Beirut’s Battered Port

The winners of the inaugural Phoenix Prize—launched last November as an international forum  to reconceive Beirut’s port after its destruction in an explosion last August, offer a bold new vision for the Lebanese capital. The winning entry is equal parts imagination and innovation: a scheme that envisions the regenerated site as an economically self-sustaining public park and market, open to the city it was once sealed off from. Part exercise in idealism, part civic project, the winners comprise a four-person team from the West Bank city of Ramallah: Palestinian architects and designers Alaa Abu Awad, Mais Bani Odeh, and Majd Al-Malki, along with Diala Andonia from nearby Bethlehem. The quartet call their project “The Aftermath—A Productive Beirut.”  

Ideally, the young architects’ vision could transform Beirut’s beleaguered port into an inspired “people’s park,” and there has been some encouraging initial interest from Lebanese officials, Andonia says. But she notes that “such an important project requires a generous international donor.” “She and her colleagues hope that the recent flurry of media coverage in the Middle East will attract one.”

The young West Bank–based winners of the Phoenix Prize to redevelop Beirut’s port destroyed in an explosion last year.

The Phoenix Prize—named for the ancient legend that the Lebanese capital was rebuilt from its ashes seven times—is part of the Haifa Awards International Program run by IDAR-Jerusalem, a nonprofit association of Palestinian architects and engineers, promoting innovative design solutions for “cities at risk.” The award program was launched on August 8, 2020, four days after the port explosion. The Haifa-based organizers see a “precolonial” trading link between the historic ports of Beirut and Haifa in neighboring Israel and cite a Lebanese architectural influence in the cities of the Galilee, where builders from Beirut left their mark.

Unfortunately, the young winning architects who studied together at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank were unable to travel to Beirut—a place their grandparents used to visit easily. Instead, they based their extensive research on a detailed post-explosion report prepared by the Federation of Lebanese Engineers, assessing damage to the area, as well as by reading academic papers and studying social media. 

In fact, says 29-year-old architect Majd Al-Malki, the team was initially inspired by an image of the three remaining rows of grain silos that survived the explosion, with protestors’ graffiti underneath saying, “My government did this”—a picture that went viral on Instagram. 

“We knew then that we had to make those silos the center of the project,” says Al-Malki, speaking for the team from his studio in Ramallah. But “the last remaining witnesses” to the terrible explosion that killed over 200, injured over 6,000, and left 300,000 homeless needed to become more than mere memorials. “We wanted them to be an integral part of the new neighborhood plan,” he explains. 

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