About 40 kilometers north of Beirut lies the coastal city of Batroun, a derelict concrete structure has stood abandoned for 50 years.
A forgotten fragment of Lebanon’s golden age from before the civil war, the bizarre, brutalist-style building is a familiar sight to beach-goers, though few know it was once to be an aquarium and the main attraction of the Maritime Culture Center.
Designed by architect Nicolas Yazigi, who passed away in 2004, little is left on record about the complex due to his studio burning down, along with most of the blueprints and plans. The only surviving record proving Yazigi’s hand in the design was found by his son Serge Yazigi in his father’s papers at Al Arabiya English’s request.
The sectional drawing of the Aquarium shows that the open air top floor was intended to be a dolphinarium and not, as many had assumed, a restaurant.
In an attempt to revive the structure, Lebanese artist Jad El Khoury’s latest installation “Manchafet el Baher” (Beach Towels) has taken over the aquarium by hanging up 124 vibrant beach towels, left to flutter in the sea breeze. As the country faces what is considered the worst economic crisis in its history, the installation is one of many local cultural initiatives that hope to offer a little joy to the desperate and downtrodden populace.
“I always saw the building when I visited Batroun, and it’s such a strange-looking structure that it’s hard to miss, with super interesting architecture,” Khoury told Al Arabiya English. “I didn’t give it much thought but after working on abandoned buildings for the last four years, which represent Lebanon’s golden age in the 1960s and how we used to have vision and innovation, the aquarium seemed like the perfect candidate for the series.”
The aquarium intervention follows on from similar projects by Khoury, including the iconic Holiday Inn hotel, Downtown Beirut’s ‘Egg’ cinema and the also unfinished Burj el-Murr tower, which was intended to be the Beirut Trader Center and act as business hub. His project on the skyscraper won him two residencies and Venice’s 2019 Arte Laguna Prize for Urban and Land Art.
The beach towels are made of the very same fabric used in his previous installations, repurposed to fit the narrative of each site and transform the buildings from bitter memories of war to pleasant nostalgia.
“The wind reanimated the buildings and gave them new life. With every new place I changed the look of the fabric to depending on the collective memory of the place,” Khoury said. “This time, in Batroun, they’re mimicking beach towels, so they’re relevant to their surroundings.
“One architectural treasure [inside the aquarium] is that there is a ramp that you can’t see from the outside,” he added. “Inside the hidden ramp goes all the way to the top, like a seashell. Even though people are not technically allowed to enter the structure because it’s not safe and crumbling, I wanted to draw attention to the ramp feature, by hanging the towels along it, spiraling upwards, showing the progression.”
The Maritime Cultural Center began construction in 1968 but was left unfinished due to political disagreements, followed by the onset of the 1975 to 1990 civil war. Alongside the aquarium, the compound was also supposed to include labs, an educational center, a fish farming center, housing and administrative blocks and a domed planetarium.
“The concept was created during a time when modernist architecture was evolving and being experimented this, as a language for sending a message and promoting architecture as something that would enhance the lives of people,” Yazigi told Al Arabiya English.
Modernist architecture refers to the stylistic movement that began in the early 1900s and gained real traction between the 1950s and 1980s. Defined by the use of glass, steel and reinforced concrete with a design that favored minimalism, this became a common form of architecture in Lebanon during that period and can be seen in hotels and government buildings across the country.
The most renowned example is Oscar Niemeyer’s Rashid Karami International Fair in Tripoli, which similarly lies incomplete since the civil war.
The maritime complex’s purpose was to aid the fishermen of the Lebanese coast, Yazigi said, and to create a place that provided scientific tools that would enhance the quality of fishing industry.
“The aquarium was to feature fish tanks that showed the marine life that lived in the Mediterranean at varying depths, changing and getting shallower as you went up the structure,” he added. “At the beginning of the ‘90s the Agriculture Ministry commissioned the renovation of the project but all they did was add two floors to the educational center and left it alone after that.”
In the early 1990s, post-war reconstruction was in full-swing, with a slew of initiatives in the capital that Beirut hastily undertook, as the country tried to get back on its feet. Unfortunately, this often came at the cost of losing the stunning Ottoman or French-mandate era heritage houses which, abandoned by their owners during the war and often damaged, were easier and cheaper to demolish.
Since the reconstruction period, many projects have been started, only to be left unfinished due to funds going missing or being repurposed for another project – including the demolition of heritage buildings or public spaces to be turned into something flashier, only to be left as an unusable eyesore. The Hassan Khaled public garden of in Beirut’s Tallet el-Khayat district, which was dug up in 2019 to become a parking lot and now sits as a dirt field, is a recent example.
Lebanon’s heritage disappearing
An initial census conducted in the ‘90s counted 1,600 traditional homes and buildings in greater Beirut. By 2015, NGO Save Beirut Heritage estimated only around 300 remained, with 250 slated for demolition. The NGO reviewed the permits alongside the Culture Ministry and stopped the destruction of 150 buildings. Since then, many more heritage buildings have been demolished and without an up-to-date census, the true numbers are a mystery.
“The government is hiding behind the law, which is very old and hasn’t been updated since 1933, when the French occupied Lebanon,” Save Beirut Heritage acting president Joana Hammour told Al Arabiya English. “What was considered heritage in the 1930s was the building up until the 18th century and everything after that time period, the government doesn’t have to consider heritage or protected.
“The early 20th century [modernist] architecture is such a part of the identity and history of the city, people and country, but the spirit of the law is not taken into account,” she added. “Sometimes they would try to protect the building by not giving a demolition permit, but the owner goes and appeals and then the law has to be applied to the letter so anything past 18th century is open game.”
Though there have been a few attempts in the past decade to amend the law or approve new legislation to protect newer heritage, looking for ways to make it more attractive for private owners to renovate rather than demolish, nothing has gone further than draft law status.
In 2017, the Lebanese government discussed demolishing the aquarium, believing it unsalvageable, yet it still stands.
“If people want to keep the aquarium then the public needs to voice that. Using the space is very important in the salvation of it,”
Hammour said. “I don’t like to use the word ‘saving’ when we’ve only stopped the demolition because we haven’t saved it, just stalled it. Turning a space into something useable, hopefully publically accessible, is when you really save a structure.”
Nearly past saving
Despite being sealed off, many adventurers have snuck into the aquarium to explore, braving the crumbling ceilings as the structure continues to deteriorate. It’s possible that if left much longer the aquarium will truly be unsalvageable.
“The problem is, because it’s on the seafront with the salty air with no protection or maintenance, the metal in the concrete has corroded,” Yazigi said, “so maybe it can’t be restored easily and will need a structural assessment to see if it can be preserved and saved.”
Yazigi believes the complex could have united the whole fishing industry of the Mediterranean and encouraged Lebanese fishermen, which is now an ever-dwindling profession in Lebanon.
As the economic crisis continues, compounded by the pandemic lockdown that has only just begun to lift, Lebanon has pinned its hope on tourism bringing in fresh dollars to the country. Although cultural attractions are a major draw for visitors, many golden age gems stand forgotten, with little attention from the government due to a lack of funds.
Any that have been fixed up are usually due to foreign governments or NGOs supplying funds and expertise, such as last year’s conservation of six columns of the Roman ruins found in Baalbek, overseen by the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation, which represent some of the world’s largest Roman ruins.
Khoury has little confidence in a government-planned preservation project for the aquarium starting up, but hopes his intervention will still give put the decrepit structure back in the limelight and spark enough curiosity that passersby might wish to learn about the mysterious structure.
“It could be salvaged but I don’t think it’s a priority for the government to fix right now,” Khoury said. “It’s entirely possible, with the corruption in the country, that if ever there was any money put aside to fix it, it’s now missing and long gone.
“A lot of people have been asking where it is or have seen it and don’t know what it is,” he added. “I’m pleased I’ve managed to draw attention to this place and for people to want to visit it and to discover that we had this vision in the ‘60s to have a Maritime Cultural Center, which even till today doesn’t exist, not in such a vast project.”