Beirut’s Grainscaper by Gioia Sawaya

Beirut’s Grainscaper

Several days have passed and still the silos at the port of Beirut are burning as a result of the fermentation of thousands of tons of spilled grain under high temperatures. The fire is still going and extending, and parts of the silos are already collapsing. The concept was all about how to prevent a new disaster which indeed happened, and how to positively recycle the fermenting grain into a bio-composite material that could actually become a new building material.

Presentation of Site
On August 4th 2020, Beirut was devastated by a huge explosion of ammonium nitrate at its city port. With its notable scale and robust typology, the silos, standing meters away from the warehouse where the detonation initiated, absorbed some of the shockwaves of the blast by acting as a massive concrete wall shielding the Western part of the city from further damage, thus saving so many lives at the moment of the explosion.

East-facing walls collapsed at the spot; yet West-facing ones remained standing. Today, Beirut’s gutted silos lie as witness ruins, and the space around them records the impression of the event like a scar. Following devastation, and at such moments of crisis and recovery, it is the presence of what remains that is the most powerful.

Concept: Announcing an “Architecture of Memory”
From a “shelter of grain” to a “shelter from grain”, what once contained the grain reserves of a nation is now a place of remembrance for a community touched by tragedy. Following the blast, the site has become sacred in a sense and can no longer be considered in the context of economic profit.

That being said, the silos are the memorial. The role of the proposal is to value this monument for its ability to convey an emotional dimension beyond the physical, reconciliating emotional space with real space through the creation of an ephemeral infrastructure that is constantly receding, constantly threatening to evanesce.

By redefining the relationship between (1) the silos and the site of the blast, (2) the silos and the Beirutis who share a collective frustration, and (3) the silos and the city, the temporality of the infrastructure is born from material found in the site, to be degraded and returned to the site itself.

Structure and Material Used
Based on the idea of the disintegration of territories as discussed by Paul Virilio, the degradation of material elements shows how grain was always part of the silos’ life and should be kept, and how this superstructure was able to survive time. The spilled grain is therefore to be removed, manufactured into a grain-based bio-composite material, and transformed into biodegradable blocks used for construction.

After degradation due to weather conditions, these organic blocks return to their original site while no longer posing any risk as they decompose into fertile soil. The main infrastructure of the memorial utilizes the recycling of steel, made from the affected warehouses found in the site, to be constructed and further dismantled.

To commemorate the idea of the silos’ front row which protected the Western part of the city, the proposal adopts similar metrics in its scale (length, width, and height) as those of the original structure. The memorial’s lane is articulated through a series of ramps – red in color to symbolize the blood of the victims who lost their lives during the blast.

The path is continuous and U-shaped, giving the impression of walking inside the cylindrical walls of the original grain elevators. By redefining the role of vertical circulation, the memorial’s lane represents a “topography of remembrance” and is a homage to those who are gone. Source by Gioia Sawaya.

  • Location: Beirut, Lebanon
  • Architect: Gioia Sawaya
  • Status: Concept
  • Date: January 2022
  • Images: Courtesy of Gioia Sawaya