And in the end there was only one left. Beirut, a city heavily damaged by history, suffered unprecedented devastation on Tuesday, August 4. More than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a port warehouse they exploded mid-afternoon causing a “cyclone of broken glass”, according to witnesses told the BBC, at least 158 dead and around 5,000 wounded. The 43-meter-deep crater caused by the blast swallowed up hundreds of buildings. Among them, most of the nightlife venues in the port area. All but one: the B018. The eternal survivor of the Beiruti night. A place that always stands. Even if it’s underground.
A businessman of the night told Martin Chulov, a journalist from The Guardian, that “the entire district has been wiped off the map.” Venues like The Gärten, AHM, The Grand Factory or The Ballroom Blitz have been badly damaged or practically reduced to rubble. Even The Egg, a former cinema that served as the setting for increasingly popular underground parties, could have been severely affected, according to the electronic music magazine MixMag.
Everything indicates that the efforts of the last couple of years to consolidate a vibrant and avant-garde night scene in Beirut have suffered a severe blow. Although, as explained to MixMag one of the founders of Ballroom Blitz, Moe Choucar, “it is true that it has affected us, but the damage suffered by our premises is nothing compared to the apocalyptic disaster that the country has had to suffer.” Choucar recalls that now it is not a question of recovering his own business, but of “putting oneself at the service of people who are suffering and helping as much as possible.”
In this once again broken Beirut, where even leisure has blown up, only B018 remains (almost) intact. Located a short distance from the zero ground of the explosion, in an area where rubble and sinkholes accumulate, the place has resisted because it was conceived from its origin as a bunker. Like a stronghold of dance and bomb-proof hedonism. It is the work of a singular architect, Bernard Khoury, a promoter of Lebanese modernity, in love with both the military architecture of the first half of the 20th century and the cathedrals, abstract expressionism and the Gothic subculture.
Khoury defines his aesthetics as a “masochism of disaster”, an attempt to start from darkness and pain to transform them into “true light”. Some of his main works respond to this logic, samples of an uncompromising avant-garde spread among Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Armenia, Germany or the Sultanate of Bahrain. The specialized press speaks of him as the bad boy of Middle Eastern architecture.
Lebanese Modernity and Music Therapy
Born in Beirut in 1969, the son of modernist architect Khalil Khoury, Bernard received a BA in architecture from the Rhode Island College of Design and completed his training with a Master’s degree from Harvard University. He is therefore a man traveled, restless, a citizen of the world. In 1993 he returned to Lebanon with his bag well loaded with titles, revolutionary ideas and healthy cosmopolitanism. He stumbled upon a country that had left its civil war behind (1975-1990) but was still in tatters.
As he told in 2017 in an interview with the Indian newspaper The Wire, the Lebanon that he found on his return did not even really think about rebuilding itself: “He was content to build a handful of new buildings on the site occupied by those destroyed by the war and return as soon as possible to a supposed normal, but without rethinking anything, without considering any honest reflection on the reasons that had led us to the disaster or taking measures to prevent it from reproducing ”.
In this context, the young architect proposed to work only for clients who were in tune with his ideas: if he could not help build a more authentic country, at least he would try not to collaborate with the restoration of the old one. Above all, he wanted to contribute to the birth of “a Lebanese modernity, as an alternative to the project of simply transplanting the modern style of the West.”
One of the first clients willing to imagine the Beirut of the future with him was Naji gebran, owner of a dance hall called B018. In the midst of the civil war in the late 1970s, Gebran had made a name for himself by organizing what he called Music Therapy parties at his mansion on the outskirts of Beirut, about 18 kilometers north of the city center. Hence the B018 thing.
A bunker of hedonism in the Quarantine neighborhood
After turning his private party into a somewhat more formal club and occupying several warehouses on the outskirts in successive years, Gebran moved this “sound ritual clinic” to the Quarantine neighborhood (Karantina, in local slang), in the south of the area. industrial port. The neighborhood owes its name to the period of forced quarantine that was subjected during the time of the French protectorate (between 1923 and 1943) to the Arabs who tried to settle in Beirut, a humiliating procedure that used to be dispensed with Europeans.
In the middle of the civil war, in 1976, the Christian Beiruti militias destroyed the barracks of the Palestinian refugees that had settled in the area, creating an immense lot that was used for years as a mass grave. That made it a very valuable environment for local promoters when peace finally came.
Hired by Gebran to build the new B018 headquarters in Quarantine, Khoury wanted to be consistent with the neighborhood’s sinister history and proposed turning the building into a bunker. A place that did not ignore the surrounding devastation and the scars of war but that, at the same time, protected those who gathered there to dance. Above all, he insisted on giving it an underground and almost clandestine character. For this reason, he buried it under a circular granite plaza, so that no “ostentatious façade” remained on the surface that would have been “like a kind of rhetorical monument and an insult to the history of the neighborhood”.
Under that concrete surface that serves as a roof (and makes some think of a helicopter landing strip), a place with capacity for 500 people, military aesthetics and a marked taste for sinister iconography was inaugurated. The floor was made of cement, the furniture was mahogany and, in a masterful detail that gave the building a lot of personality, the roof was retractable, so that, on special occasions, it could be removed so that attendees would be surprised under the starry sky of Beirut
Khoury had frequented B018 in previous years. It had permeated its atmosphere of rave, with a sound offering open to avant-garde electronics and dark-wave pop-rock, but also to Arabic music, the acid jazz or World Music. He especially liked its ecumenical character, an island of diversity open to everyone, Christians and Muslims, tourists and locals, Westerners and Arabs. He saw it as the last stronghold of a project of modernity and cosmopolitanism that is at the heart of Beirut, but is interrupted time and again by misfortune, sectarianism and happy geopolitics.
The project was born with a certain vocation for ephemeral architecture. Gebran was used to dealing with the misunderstanding of the authorities and going elsewhere with the music after a few months or a few years. However, two decades later, the club was still there, at the foot of the canyon, transformed into a benchmark of Lebanese nightlife. In 2018, on the 20th anniversary of the inauguration, an internationally acclaimed Khoury, owner of his own style, was commissioned to redesign his legendary bunker. He did it by deepening his essence of space kitsch, cloudy and macabre, with an uncomfortable and extreme aesthetic.
The new ones details reinforce its bunker and gothic cathedral look and they also introduce elements that are reminiscent of slaughterhouses, such as mobile sculptures that hang from the ceiling and are, in Khoury’s words, “like spines of dismembered nets” with which you can even dance, as if they were sinister gogós on their feet. pallets. The old wooden furniture has now been replaced by stone podiums, bleachers and steps.
As Khoury told the magazine The seas In 2019, these changes mark the definitive transition from the place with an ephemeral structure, designed to last a maximum of five years, to a permanent refuge. Wood has been replaced by stone. What was a makeshift lair to house raves It is now a temple of sound. Religious architecture for those who understand that there is something spiritual about the act of dancing in a city permanently surrounded by disaster. Architecture born from the rubble of a civil war and that has just now survived the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate.