What would you do with the Holiday Inn?

I will be the first to admit that before I moved here, I didn’t know much..if anything..about Lebanon’s war torn past.   A fact that has made me the brunt of much criticism when I first moved here, and even through to today!   So, whatever chance I get, I try to read as much as possible to get a sense of what happened then, and what is happening now.

In the process of some research I was doing on Beirut’s Golden Age, I came across an essay written by Dounia Salame which appeared in the Concordia Undergraduate Journal of Art History.  The essay titled, “On Memory and Commemoration in Beirut: The Holiday Inn in Bloom,” goes onto suggest that the Holiday Inn be turned into a Center for Memory and Arts – where the first two floors would house a “Museum for the Memory of the War,” the upper floors be used as offices for associations that work on memory and history in Lebanon, and the rest of the building turned into low-cost dwelling and studios for artists, as well as for contemporary art exhibition spaces.

The essay was fascinating to read and presented such a noble use for the building that serves as a glaring reminder of the ravages of the Civil War.  I have included parts of the essay here for you to read, and am interested to know if you share her (and now my) same sentiments or if you would rather see the Holiday Inn turned into a functioning hotel, demolished, or remain as is.

Hilton Hotel next to the Phoenicia

Oh the contrast

photo credit

On Memory and Commemoration in Beirut: The Holiday Inn in Bloom

By Dounia Salame

“I chose the Holiday Inn for my intervention because it is positioned as a historically iconic building, as much for the Golden Age of Beirut as for the “hotels war.”  Some of these hotels were completely destroyed, while others remained damaged until their renovation in the early 2000’s, but the ruins of the Holiday Inn stand alone in their imposing architecture and size.  It is also situated between the post-war Beirut in ruins and the frenzy for reconstruction that lacks a consideration for the in-between period of the war.

In the spirit of commemorating all who died in the war, the Holiday Inn was also appropriate since it saw fighters from many parties die.  The gesture of laying flowers in front of the building recalled, for me, the gesture of laying flowers on a tomb and the evolving nature of memory.  My intervention was an attempt to enable memory in its space and to briefly turn it into a memorial.  This approach was inspired by that of American historian James Young, whose works on Holocaust memorials insist on the importance of monuments to represent this evolving nature of memory.

Holiday Inn Beirut

Dounia's intervention at the Holiday Inn Beirut

The building that was once a symbol of the Golden Age now stands as a reminder of the damages of the war in the city, contrasting with the Phoenicia Hotel which looks exactly as it did in 1974.

The first thing I learned in the process of doing my intervention was that the building was not left in ruins purposely.  Since it is so massive, it would be very expensive to renovate it, but even more to destroy it without damaging the buildings around it.  Therefore, I had to be very careful about relating the building and its space to issues of memory, since its owners considered it only an engineer’s challenge.  And indeed, enabling a certain memory of the space was the first step of my intervention.  One of my first encounters during the process of my intervention was with the director of the St-Charles Society.  She recounted the story of her visit to the Hotel during her early childhood, in December 1974, and how she precisely remembered the Christmas decorations, the purple velvet curtain and the imposing ceiling light.

Holiday Inn Beirut

Flowers left on the Holiday Inn tomb

The process for my intervention and research was driven by a question: if restoring the Holiday Inn to the way it was in 1974 would make it disappear as such in the Lebanese collective memory, then what can we ideally do with the imposing building?

I will be mainly drawing from Young’s theories around the monument and the “countermonument” to defend my position for a Holiday Inn used as a memorial for the war.  Young details the ambiguities of the memorial.  As I am not looking for an exhaustive analysis of his theories, I will take one element that he develops as being paradoxical with its function.  As memory is a construction that evolves with its society, a monument can appear to be immobilizing it in stone and “[inviting] viewers to mistake material presence and weight for immutable permanence.  It can also bear the illusion of embodying common memory, and hide the reality of plural memory.

The monument I imagine for the Holiday Inn would be a Center for Memory and Arts.

Holiday Inn Beirut

Could the Holiday Inn function as a Center for Memory and Arts?

photo credit: @jeremyet

As it is a very large building, it could contain on the first two floors a “Museum for the Memory of the War.”  The upper floors would be used as offices for associations that work on memory and history in Lebanon, and the rest of the building could be used as low-cost dwelling and studios for artists, as well as for contemporary art exhibition spaces.  The museum would gather accounts of the experience of the war from individuals, maybe even accounts from the war in the Holiday Inn only.  Gathering these individual memories would transform the actual violent events at the Holiday Inn during the war into legible knowledge, accessible to the Lebanese who currently have access to only a single version of suffering from the war.  In this scenario, the building would be restored to allow for use, but the facade would be left wounded so that the memory has a physical counterpart in the city, to be preserved in stone like a “traditional” monument.

Young writes: “as I leave the space and others enter, memory in the monument changes accordingly.”  This idea is the main functioning concept in my utopian memorial.  The constant presence of people who work on memory inside the Holiday Inn would enable and embody the complex interrelations between memory and history, suffering and oblivion, present and past.  As those artists and researchers evolve in their reflections on memory, memory itself evolves; and the building that has seen many layers of history settle on its rocks would be the perfect frame and setting for this constant fermentation.

Holiday Inn Beirut

Aerial view of the Holiday Inn and the Phoenicia, Beirut, c. 1974. Photo: Ministry of Tourism, Lebanon.

In Lebanon, a monument to remember is needed for people to feel that their dead are honoured, and to teach a unified history: a nation’s history.  The Holiday Inn is a special building, because its ruined monumentality makes it visible in the city.  The building’s size made it symbolic in its first function as a luxurious modernist hotel, then in its use during the war, and it is that same size that allowed it to stay in ruins while the rest of the city was being rebuilt without consideration of the past.

The flowers I laid in front of the Holiday Inn were an acknowledgement to the layers of history the building created by means of its own design.  It was a declaration of the death of the prosperous Beirut of the 1960’s and a silent homage to the dead of the war.  And, in the end, it was perhaps also an homage to the building itself, still standing.

Read the entire essay, “On Memory and Commemoration in Beirut: The Holiday Inn in Bloom,” by Dounia Salame here.


So, there you have it.  She definitely has my vote.  Does she have yours?  What would you do with the Holiday Inn?


Filed under life in Lebanon

24 responses to “What would you do with the Holiday Inn?

  1. Its so interesting to see artform taking a dark memory and transforming it into positive visual work that causes interest & fascination.
    It kind of reminds me of the graphical work produced on the Berlin wall in the past, its from these memories and ideas that new trends specific to the country spur out into life.

    I believe there is so much potential “cultural boom” possibilities that are lurking in the shadows of our problems and past…I hope one day these will be let go of to create a massive uprising of cultural breakthroughs.

  2. An excellent idea! 🙂

  3. Turn it into affordable apartments for Beirut’s youth

  4. Youssef Chaker

    Danielle, first an foremost, a HUGE thank you to you for caring so much and showing more love towards Lebanon than some of its own sons and daughters.

    The idea is brilliant. Touching on the emotions that are expressed towards a massive cement structure and its significance is fantastic. And finding the solution within arts is something Lebanon is in desperate need of. It’s been a thought on my mind for a long while. Every time I hear of a new restaurant opening I wonder why wasn’t it a art gallery or a performing arts center or even a community center for youths.

    There is a huge need for the development of local talent and people who can take us beyond our present troubles and stress into a world of their creation. Honoring our past and sculpting our future through creativity is definitely an idea that gets my vote.

  5. She has my vote too. I think its a great way to preserve the location and its memories without bringing back the hotel and to find ways to use the space as a reminder of why the war and its effects is so symbolically and historically amazing. I hope one day this is where the development goes.

  6. Fadi

    excellent idea, but I think I heard once that the building’s damaged beyond repair and the only option is to demolish it but I’m not sure

  7. It’s been said that the Lebanese have short term memory loss because they resume life after tragedy. Beirut has been rebuilt 7 times and this Holiday Inn just happens to be one of the biggest and last standing. I would guess it’s more about the money/legalities and less about sentiment. Is there anything marking where the US Embassy stood on the Corniche? Where would you start with the markers? So many names we say daily were synonymous with someone’s tragedy. So many roads and tunnels hold horrible tales. Do you know where the Green Line is/was? Maybe this is why martyrs are commemorated and places are not.

  8. OH

    As I understand it, the problem with the Holiday Inn is ownership. There is a dispute over who actually owns it, which is why nothing has been done there. The issue (which is an intractable dispute) seems to involve one foreign investor who owns more shares by proxy than was actually entitled under the early 70’s law. The inheritors of the local proxy (who died many years ago) are not recognising the claim…or something along those lines. This appears to be a genuine dispute over ownership, rather than a case of Byzantine inheritance laws (which is the reason so many old buildings in Beirut are in a derelict state).

  9. Nah!

    They’re gonna have a museum of war or something on Sodeco intersection (or so the sign says!)

    In commemoration of the war, I say they turn this into an extreme sports facility: bungee jumping (like when snipers were thrown off the top (true story!)), paint ball and laser wars, and wall climbing! “You get to the top and see Beirut as one!

  10. I have always wondered why nothing has been done with it yet, but definitely not additional memories from the worst part of our history. Going back to these memories is what is keeping the people’s minds from evolving and forgiving.
    The problem is that any activity center built in that area would be too expensive for middle class people to enjoy. A scientific center for kids is nearby, a 5 * hotel right next to it, and apartments would be ridiculously priced. The owners would never agree to something that would not bring them great profit in such a prime location. I would rather see a structure designed by one of the world’s top architects such as Jean Nouvel or Zaha Hadid, it would be attractive and an icon as well.
    Thank you fro bringing this topic up 🙂

  11. Jason Stainer

    I just got back from a trip to Beirut yesterday. We were told by our tourguide (who is an expert on Beirut) that the hotel is actually owned by the Emir of Kuwait and he refuses to let anything be done with the building.

  12. Pundit

    I went to Beirut last year. As a non-Lebanese with very basic knowledge about the war, I could see the scars all around me and they inspired a desire to learn more. One of the most potent symbols was definitely the Holiday Inn. It would certainly have been nice to have a museum or centre dealing with Beirut’s recent history on the spot. I wanted to be able to visualize what the places I was walking through looked like before and during the war. I wanted to be able to understand how the divided city operated and some of the motives for the conflict.

    I imagine the Lebanese would also benefit, especially the younger generations who did not live through the conflict. These types of projects have been used not only to understand conflicts, but as a vehicle for reconciliation elsewhere.

    I like the idea of such a centre on the first two floors, but would preserve the rest of the scarred building as-is to remind people of the war. Perhaps the scars are too recent for the current generation of Lebanese, who would like to erase all traces of the war. But, from a long-term perspective, something will need to be done to mark this period in history so future generations do not repeat the mistakes done in the past, so visitors can understand, and generally just to have a culturally-rich urban environment that reflects traces from all the different periods in its history.

  13. amanda

    it is a great idea!! shame that it cannot come true… some day…

  14. Eli

    i have previously made work and written an essay/ intervention on the topic of the holiday inn and its memory. let me know if you would like to read it and i will send you a pdf of it.

    great blog

  15. Simone

    I agree it should be a great idea and would give a little of life to this poor Holiday Inn… We cant miss it when we visit Beirut.

  16. Nizar

    This building was one of the best engineering structures and design and one of the most luxurious places built in Beirut’s golden years, every day i passed in front of this hotel on my way to my university, i stood and looked at it, wondering how might it have looked 40 years ago and just searching for some one still alive who might have stayed there and tell me how was it. i found that person, she was a lady (grandmother of a friend) from south Lebanon, she was 87 years old, that is when she described here stay there, i cant express and tell you how her eyes were glittering in tears when she was talking and she said “i can still remember my room number, it was 13-06, and what i cant forget, the balcony sit nearly 7 to 8 pm every day, watching the sunset with my husband, waiting the wish moment”. I believe this should be renovated and reopened as 5 stars hotel, its really a great hotel and should remain a touristic place, since i believe we have enough places to remember the civil war past….let this place be a future, a glamorous place to continue reviving the wounded beirut

    • AlRifai

      I really think that it should be reconstructed, because it lies in such a beautiful area today (Zaitunay Bay), and also because it would be great with redeveloping “the great Beirut” again. It is weird that the government just lets it stand there as a dead building that looks ugly. I hope they rebuild Beirut and return electricity etc. to the people of Lebanon, because it would create a future for Lebanon.

      With the power of the people and God they can succeed.

  17. Simone

    in fact the building has two owners, one would like to renovate it and one (a Kuwaiti group) I think who want to demolish it and to build a new tower. That is why the building stayed like that so many years. But soon they will have to decide. I really hope they will renovate it because the old Holiday Inn is a big part of the heritage and history, we would preserve it as we would also do it for the old lebanese houses….I was wondering if it would not be dangerous to demolish it, as the luxurious Phoenicia is on the other side of the street and now new towers are around the building. It could commit damages around. The ex Holiday inn has twenty six floor, and very impressive.


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