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Rue Hamra, A Case of Urban Resilience in Beirut, Lebanon

August 5 - 19, 2016

Led by Ziad Jamaleddine and Makram el Kadi

Hamra Street in Beirut (Rue Hamra) was born and grew almost without warning in the late 1950s, in the absence of any municipal plan for development. The point of departure was the construction of a modern office building, the first building with a curtain wall system at the time, and with a famous sidewalk cafe at its base, the Horseshoe. In the heydays of the 1960s and 70s, Hamra Street was a hub for leftist cultural and political intellectuals. In the 1980s, in the middle of the civil war, Hamra Street lost its commercial power, but with its proximity to AUB, it endured as a liberal permissive place for mixed religious communities in a city fractured along its sectarian lines. In the post war decade of the 90s and early 2000, Hamra Street, with its affordable commercial stores and food outlets, continued as a destination for middle class Beiruties. Since the late 2000, Hamra Street has witnessed more than one false prediction of its eventual demise due to the gradual closure of its famous cafes, regional conflicts, market pressure and the rise of competing ‘fashionable’ streets. But the street kept on reincarnating itself in new forms and with new hopeful prospect. The workshop aims to map and document Hamra Street. The objective is to excavate, through drawing representational technique, its birth and evolution, and uncover the physical and spatial backbone that made it survive years of change and conflicts. The final output will be one large continuous oblique drawing of Rue Hamra, produced by the students as a group and exhibited at several venues, including the Arab Center for Architecture, Beirut.

To learn more, click here.

GROUND PLAY: A Case of Urban Resilience in Hamra Street

Faculty: Ziad Jamaleddine, Makram el Kadi. TA: Mayssa Jallad

Students: Fancheng Fei, Andrew Mitchell Luy, Xiaoxue Xiao, Zhuo Guo, Nabila Gloria Morales Perez, Kurtis Robert Streich, Zhengyang Yue

Partner: Arab Center for Architecture, Beirut

The two-week GSAPP Summer workshop in Beirut, Lebanon culminated with the production of one continuous, (hybrid North/South) axonometric drawing of Rue Hamra. The study area is a one kilometer stretch which starts at the Etoile building, at the intersection with Rome Street, and ends at the Strand building at the intersection with Jeanne d’Arc Street.

Along this stretch, eight ‘modernist’ structures neatly nested in the fabric are represented using an exploded axonometric drawing technique, uncovering their ground floor level(s) like an archaeological site, and revealing their programmatic and architectural conversions and their relationships to the street as they stand today.

In-between buildings and blocks along this stretch are also meticulously depicted in the drawing in order to avoid the generic representation of the city-scape, making the ‘modernist’ building correlates to the finer architectural grain of windows, signage and fences of the city they belong to.

The final product is a snapshot of the state of those buildings in one moment in time, Precisely in August 2016. Few are mildly altered in commercial use, some are drastically transformed and dissected while preserving and mobilizing the spatial organization, or main architectural features (stairs, rails, pedestrian shortcuts through blocks…) others are frozen in time with no visible changes besides the aging quality of the finishes and cladding material.

All, with the uncovered robust ground floor articulation, demonstrate a high degree of resilience and a sense of purpose in serving and sustaining the health of a street in an ailing city.


1 Building Name: ETOILE (Fransabank Headquarters, previously Banque Sabbagh) Architects: Alvar Aalto and Alfred Roth Date of Construction: 1966 Floors: 16 (+5 underground) Use: Fransabank headquarters, Offices, Retail, Café

As one of the latest structures built in the office building/cinema typology on Hamra Street, the layout of this building reinterprets the “walk-in courtyard” as a plaza in front of the tower. By doing so, the architects create both a welcoming public space bounded tightly with the street and the L shape canopy, and an interior retail street on both “ground floors” connecting Rome Street to Hamra Street. On the North facade, the use of deep vertical mullions as vertical shading devices is proof of a mature curtain wall design technique. The dramatic difference between the more organic South façade and the plain North façade might be a result of the collaboration between Aalto and Roth (it is suspected that Swiss Roth designed the rational front façade, while Finnish Aalto concocted the angled back façade.) The luxurious Etoile Cinema that used to occupy the auditorium below plaza is now shut down, but the interior retail streets and the corner plaza still function well to bring people into the building.

2 Building Name: SAROULLA Architect: Karol Schayer Date of Construction: 1961 Floors: 12 (+2 underground) Use: Offices, Commercial, Theater

The Saroulla is one of the few office buildings which regained its dynamism after the war, especially since the Al Madina Theater opened in place of the Saroulla Cinema at its base, in 2007. To achieve an active street life, the landlord Rachid Boueiri insured the new Dunkin Donuts Cafe would pay old rent in exchange for supporting the Gilar Bookstore. For the theater, Boueiri rejected a high rent offered by the Eldorado shopping center, opting to affordably rent the space out to Nidal Achkar, the iconic owner of the Madina Theater, in exchange for its renovation. The landlord’s social and cultural awareness enables the revival of this modernist building.

3 Building Name: MURR (Horseshoe) Architect: Makdisi, Schayer & Adib Date of Construction: 1958 Floors: 9 (+1 underground) Use: Commercial, Offices

The Horseshoe Building takes after its predecessor to its east, the Al Hamra Building, by aligning with its slabs and advancing into a full curtain wall system. The ground floor of the Murr building is subdivided into a few small businesses. Today, it comprises seven small stores including Duke Eatery, a café with no glass enclosure that is open to the sidewalk space. At the corner, Costa Café replaced the infamous Horseshoe. The opening of the Horseshoe Café in 1959 by Munah Dabaghi marked the first sidewalk café on Hamra Street. Horseshoe attracted Arab intellectuals and opposition leaders spending years in exile in Beirut. It was frequented by writers, poets, actors, activists and artists (such as Amjad Nasser, Unsi al-Haj, Raymond Jbara, Rafic Sharaf, Munah al-Soloh, Nidal al-Ashkar, Juliana Saroufin, Ghada al-Samman, Paul Guiragossian…). In 1969 the Lebanese authorities banned the controversial play “Henri Hamati”. As an act of defiance, the main actor Nidal al-Ashkar performed the play to the public at the café’s sidewalk.

4 Building Name: M. ARIDA (Cinema al-Hamra)
Architect: Georges Rais Date of Construction: 1956 Floors: 9 (+1 underground) Use: Cinema, retail, and office

The Cinema al-Hamra played both Lebanese and international films in an 800-seat, modern interior. The North-facing orientation of the al-Hamra building enabled its façade to be among the earliest examples of the glass curtain wall in Lebanon. Since this technology was largely untested in Beirut, Georges Rais designed the floor plates to extrude outwards, permitting window washers to stand perilously on the building’s face. Today the cinema remains vacant, its former lobby has been subdivided into two multiple street-front cafes.

5 Building Name: PICADILLY Architect: William Sednaoui Date of Construction: 1965 Floors: 9 (+2 underground) Use: Theatre, retail, and office

The Piccadilly Theatre was among Hamra’s most famous and glamorous venues for nearly three decades, hosting many fashionable Lebanese actors and musicians (including Ziad Rahbani’s popular plays on Lebanese wars and society). During the civil war, the theatre closed and opened intermittently, depending on current events; but theatre attendance ultimately dwindled by the late 1980s. Despite shifting popularity, there was still hope for the Piccadilly to be revived as late as the 1990s, but these hopes were dashed when the theatre caught fire in 2000.

6 Building Name: ELDORADO Architect: N/A Date of Construction: N/A Floors: 8 (+4 underground) Use: retail stores, unoccupied office building.

While all cinemas on Hamra street were shut down and left unoccupied post civil war, the Eldorado cinema was exceptionally transformed into an underground shopping center in the year 2000, selling discounted multi-brand clothing. Although the valuable original identity of the architecture was lost, the theater’s space and proportions contribute to a dramatic spatial experience for shopping, one of the main leisure activities for Beirut’s contemporary city dwellers.

7 Building Name: PAVILLON Architect: N/A Year: 1960s Floors: 8 (+3 underground) Use: Hotel, retail, office, former cinema

Following its construction, the Pavillon thrived as a hotel and cinema. As similar destinations proliferated along nearby Hamra Street, the Pavillon struggled to attract customers. Its less central location just off of Hamra Street became a center for various socially illicit behaviors (including taboo gay encounters.) The cinema began showing pornographic films in the late 80s, its hotel started taking hourly reservations, and its interior corridor became a place for sex workers to meet audiences after a showing. Today, however, the stairs to the cinema is covered, the hotel is boarded up, and many businesses have left the interior corridor.

8 Building Name: STRAND Architect: Robert Wakim Date of Construction: 1964 Floors: 7 (+5 underground) Use: Commercial, Offices and Residential

The building is composed of two wings, an office block along Hamra Street and a residential block along quieter Jeanne d’Arc Street, with a shared core and a commercial base. The Strand building is iconic for its aluminum façade meant to veil the structure from the southern sun exposure and to cover heating and cooling pipes. However, its cultural significance goes beyond mere aesthetics. During its peak, the Strand building was a center for commercial and cultural gatherings, with a clear passage linking Hamra Street to Jeanne d’Arc Street (which in turn starts at the American University of Beirut’s Main Gate), allowing more accessibility to the shops, the open air courtyard, and the cinema. The latter was the first in the Arab world to screen Omar Al Charif’s “Doctor Zhivago.“ Today, the theater is hidden within the MAX discount department store at the eastern portion of the ground floor on Hamra Street.