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French Version

A unique view of Beirut from 300 meters up

Round Concepts' balloon project offers tourists and the capital's residents an unprecedented awe-inspiring ride

One of the more absurd (as well as crass and offensively flip) rumors to circulate Beirut in the aftermath of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination held that the perpetrators of the crime detonated his vehicle by remote control and used the giant new helium balloon docked on a plot nearby as a getaway vehicle.

Too bad the balloon is tethered by steel cable to the ground, rises 300 meters above Beirut, and has no where else to go from there but straight back down again.

It is true, however, that the balloon was levitating above the city at the time of the bomb blast that ripped through Hariri's motorcade. The site had been under construction for nearly six months. At the behest of Downtown developer Solidere and a local company named Round Concepts that had taken a temporary lease on the small area, Lebanese architect and academic Hashim Sarkis had drawn up a design scheme to convert the vacant gravel plot, squashed and sloping between the Phoenicia, Monroe, and Holiday Inn hotels, into a vast green space to serve as a landing park called Skygate, replete with a wood, concrete and asphalt structure to house a waiting area, ticket booth, nursery, video arcade, and cafe.

Sarkis had been checking the final details on site in late January and the balloon project was approaching completion by mid-February. The balloon itself had been installed and a team from Paris had come to Beirut for the purpose of training new staff at Round Concepts, which was getting reading to move its offices from the Gefinor center to the site. The Parisian team was doing a test run of the balloon ride on the morning of February 14. Had it been docked on the ground, the balloon, which is permanently inflated with 5,500 cubic meters of helium, would have burst from the force of the explosion.

The balloon project is one of several temporary initiatives in the Downtown area geared toward activating different parts of the city that are still theoretically under construction. The stretch between the Starco buildings and the hotel district has become something of an amusement park and leisure center, with a children's science museum, basketball courts, pony rides, go carts, and more. The inside streets running parallel to the sea are closed to vehicular traffic on weekends, filled with kids and adults careening around on bikes rented from nearby Cyclo Sport.

Round Concepts' balloon, the "Aero30," is the largest of its kind in the world. Though there are 30 other projects like it, this is the first in the region. Built by a French company called Aerophile, these balloons tend to work best in cities in flux, such as Berlin, because multiple rides over time yield views of a dramatically changing landscape.

Beirut's balloon is particularly apt in this regard. It is meant to attract lifelong residents as well as tourists, and gives them all a chance to survey a city still very much in the throes of a reconstruction effort. Because no one can fly above Beirut except for the army, the balloon ride is something of a rarity, and allows for an otherwise impossible opportunity to visually grasp the full spatial scale of the city.

That said, because of its inopportune timing and proximity to a massive and symbolically crushing crime scene, the balloon project has suffered. Bank Audi's advertising banner, strapped around the girth of the fluorescent green sphere and stating "Grow beyond your potential," has taken on an unintended wince of political relevance, given the events (hopes, aspirations, political visions, and alliances) unfolding and collapsing and reconstituting themselves monstrously all over the Downtown area.

But now, some four months after its first maiden voyage, the balloon is, according to one operator, making some 40 runs a day on weekends, and can be seen floating above the tips of buildings throughout the day. It also regularly appears ghostly against the night sky beneath a blinking red light. At full capacity, the balloon takes 30 passengers on each 10-to-15-minute, 150-to-300-meter trip, and it can go up and down four times an hour. For the month of June, Round Concepts has slashed its rate down to LL10,000. Marketing manager Hisham Abushakra says the ride is now attracting tour groups, travel agencies, and children's associations including the scouts, the Red Cross, Future Television, and innumerable birthday parties.

For anyone with vertigo, the balloon may be unsettling. It operates on a hydroelectric winch, so as a steel cable unfurls, the balloon floats up, and in a slight breeze it drifts, over the Holiday Inn, toward the Monroe, over Wadi Abu Jamil, above that open wound in the ground in front of the Hotel St. Georges. The gondola holding passengers beneath the helium sphere is remarkably light, which can make you acutely aware of the precarious nature of your own physical being. But the views are breathtaking. Anyone with a psychological attachment to the Holiday Inn and all its history will relish the opportunity to scale its height. On a clear day, you can see all the way down the Corniche.

The real contribution to Beirut, however, may be the lush green grass of the landing park in addition to the ride itself. Sarkis, who offered one of the most trenchant urban analyses of Beirut to date with his third-place design scheme for the international Martyrs' Square ideas competition, says he wanted the landing dock to be "a public space, a park, and to keep it open."

Because the plot is laid out of a steep slope and because the balloon needs a flat surface on which to launch, Sarkis decided to essentially lift the ground up and tuck the services (the waiting area, ticket booth, nursery, etc.) underneath. "The different levels of ground describe the stratification of the city," he explains, creating "a dialogue between the natural and the manmade."

For the interiors, he wanted a populist aesthetic to keep the project from being too exclusive. Because the site lies close to not only the hotel district but also to a number of overpasses and tunnels, Sarkis incorporated highway signage into the design. Whether pigmented concrete or woodwork, all the vertical surfaces bear cross-hatching similar to an arrow or directional.

On the ground, the project still remains unfinished - not because of political uncertainty but because Solidere unexpectedly sold the plot just prior to Round Concepts' opening. The balloon has, at most, a three-year lifespan. Because there is no longer any chance of it lasting further, budgets have been trimmed. The area for the glassed-in cafe became stripped down and open air. As yet, the cafe itself remains an idea at best. Abushakra is cagey on its potential but doesn't rule out the possibility of it eventually becoming a reality.

Beirut 27-06-2005
Kaelen Wilson Goodie
The Daily Star

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