Urban design magazine

Public spaces

The Souks of Beirut

Image of Beirut Souks - Photograph by Yam Studio
Photograph by Yam Studio

In 2009, construction work to rebuild the souks in the Lebanese capital began.

The site is huge. Badly damaged during the civil war, the centre of Beirut needed several years of work in order to be completely renovated under the guidance of Solidere, the Lebanese development and reconstruction company. The historic souks are a particularly sensitive area as its remains are an integral part of the city’s identity. How can you preserve this identity while renovating almost the entire area? Several architects helped modernise the souks including Spanish Rafael Moneo and French landscape designer Olivier Vidal, while Aurel Design Urbain designed the street furniture.

Necessary renovation: history and modernity

Although the historic souks remain intact in the Lebanese memory and history, they were badly damaged during more than fifteen years of war and left abandoned for another thirty years. It would have been utopian to try to completely conserve the spirit of the ancient souks, of which some traces have been preserved or evoked, such as plaques indicating the former street names. Their architecture was completely rethought as part of a radical modernisation plan involving six urban complexes covering over 60,000 m² at an estimated cost of $100 million.

Image of Beirut Souks from above

The Beirut Souks – a cultural journey through space and time

This new area includes business, offices, cinemas, restaurants and green spaces. Integrated into this urban landscape, the archeological remains coexist harmoniously including the restored mosaic from the Al Franj Souk and the medieval lining the Jamil Souk. The spirit of the souks can be found in the architecturial lines of the high elegant colourful vaults, the elongated spaces where the interior and exterior blend, the interlacing streets and the mineral colours.

‘Today visiting the souks takes you on a cultural journey through time and space. The history glimmers through the contemporary design,’ explains Solidere, emphasising the labyrinthine nature of the Souks where you can get lost and explore its a complex yet open, streamlined and comfortable spaces.

Furniture for the souks: the comfort of your living room

How do you create street furniture in an almost entirely renovated space? We based our work on the design by Rafael Moneo, whose sophisticated architecture eliminates barriers between the interior and the exterior to create a continuous spaces that facilitate the visitor’s journey.

The exterior spaces provide the same comfort and quality as interior spaces. The spaces outside become an extension of those on the inside like living rooms. Seating looks like sofas and window boxes are inspired by vases. It’s all about designing objects that look familiar to evoke the intimacy and comfort of home, to encourage users to appropriate them and to ensure that they are fully integrated into the architectural environment.

Through their furniture can the souks become places where people walk and shop, in which people stop as often as they cross. Living spaces.

Materials and colour: harmony and singularity

To create street furniture with the same level of quality, beauty and comfort as interior furniture, the materials, patterns and colours are essential. Once again, choices were guided by our desire for continuity between the architecture and the furniture. The rich brown and ochre in the architecture inspired us to create colour ranges to complement the different textures.

The shiny satin surfaces of the furniture contrast with the matte stone walls and floors to a highlight the fact that they belong the world of the interior spaces. Unexpected materials such as ceramics or copper and textured patterns on the seating enhance the beauty and comfort to offer a sensory experience beyond the functionality of the elements.

Image of Spagetti Bench in Beirut Souks

Spaghetti Bench by Pablo Reinoso in the Beirut Souks

By working with Solidere, we were able to develop new uses and materials, such as ceramic,s adapted for urban furniture in terms of durability, maintenance but also aesthetics and texture. The furniture elements designed for Beirut include woven ceramic on an aluminium and steel structure, as well as resin treated with ceramic that creates a porcelain effect.

This high quality in the details, materials and finishes required two years of work with different companies to achieve the desired result. This important, atypical and demanding project allowed us to rise our own high standards and encourage our industrial partners to do the same. We were able to create a strong identity that frees the imagination from the conformity of existing urban design.

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