The man who turned Beirut's infamous Burj El Murr into a fairy tale

We meet the architect reimagining the future of a tower block that has stood unfinished for more than 40 years

A still from the short animated film 'Coming Back to Life', which reimagines the iconic Burj El Murr. Courtesy of Jean-Paul El Hachem
Powered by automated translation

On a stormy evening in Beirut, an architect comes home to his dark apartment. Switching on the lights, he makes his way through a room that is littered with the telltale signs of his obsession with a well-known city landmark, and walks to the window, where he recoils in shock.

Silhouetted against the fiery red ball of the setting sun is Burj El Murr, still unfinished, still abandoned, still scarred by war, but with a strange new exoskeleton growing around its concrete form. That is how Coming Back to Life, a new short animation by Lebanese architect Jean-Paul El Hachem, begins. It is a unique architectural film that functions as a contemporary fairy tale, exploring Beirut's past and projecting a possible road map for its future through a surreal reimagining of a single building in the city.

With the Beirut Trade Center in the background, vehicles pass under a highway tunnel Wednesday, April 1, 1998 that was inaugurated earlier this year in Beirut's downtown area which was devastated during Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. The Lebanese goverment has launched a multibillion-dollar plan to rebuild from the war and working to regain its glamour and role as a Middle East center of business and tourism. But more than seven years after the war ended, Lebanon is falling deeper into debt as it struggles with reconstruction costs and hefty interest payments. (AP Photo/Saleh Rifai)

Towering over the centre of Beirut, Burj El Murr – which translates to "Tower of Bitterness" – is an unfinished skyscraper that has been abandoned since the country's civil war. Construction began on the 40-storey building in 1974 and it was originally designed to be an office block. But that work was interrupted a year later when the fighting started.

The concrete shell was occupied by snipers. Tainted by these horrific memories, it remains incomplete after more than 40 years, a prominent sight in the city. It is currently being used as an army base.

Jean Paul El Hachem, the architect and filmmaker behind 'Coming Back to Life'

In Coming Back to Life, El Hachem, founder of JPAG, an architecture group in Byblos, imagines the tower undergoing a symbolic metamorphosis that affects the whole city. The animation, which took a year to complete, paints a surreal picture of Burj El Murr developing a "skin", as well as an exoskeleton that forms around the building as trees sprout within it, transforming the abandoned structure into a public memorial.

I wanted to show that the trees are starting to grow inside the building and the tower – which is only a concrete structure amid all the chaos of the city – will start to act like a lung, a source of oxygen inside the city.

The main problem with the Burj is that nowadays we can't use it as an office building, because the space inside is so small it doesn't work with today's standards," explains El Hachem. "The idea of the skin is to expand this inside space to the outside, and it starts to have multiple functions. It's like an extension of the streets. Usually in the streets you walk horizontally, but in the Burj you start walking vertically."

A series of poetic scenes in the animation take the viewer on a journey from the base of the building, where grass and trees have sprouted, through empty rooms where dust motes swirl in shafts of warm sunlight, to a rooftop memorial space where a crescent of light frames a water feature allowing rainwater to trickle down into a circular pool.

"I wanted to show that the trees are starting to grow inside the building and the tower – which is only a concrete structure amid all the chaos of the city – will start to act like a lung, a source of oxygen inside the city," says El Hachem.

He has played with the interior of the building, removing floors to create an elongated green space, but retaining the distinctive rectangular windows, wider than they are tall, which are the building's defining features. "I didn't get the chance to go inside, so it's all from my imagination. I have the plans of the tower … and I found some images on Google, so that helped a little bit," he says.

El Hachem made the animation after creating a proposal for transforming the tower into a public space for an architectural competition last year. The visuals are accompanied by an original score composed by Lebanese sound designer and musician Hadi Hosri. The haunting music amplifies the emotional tone of the story being told, while the sound effects ground the surreal visuals in the real world, through the pattering of the rain, the rumble of distant thunder and the quotidian sounds of footsteps crossing a stone floor and light bulbs popping and buzzing into life.

Hadi Hosri created the music for the short animated film 'Coming Back to Life'. Jacqueline Hosri

"My storyline was taken mostly from the images – from the light, from the space, from the architecture," explains Hosri. "It's a mixture of abandonment, melancholia and a kind of hope at the end."

The film is an esoteric reflection on architecture, collective memory and the role of public space in the city. But amid its meditative scenes lies a storyline about an architect who is obsessed with the abandoned structure and is stupefied to see its sudden transformation.

“The movie happens on the day when the structure starts to emerge and the Burj comes back to life,” says El Hachem. “When I started the animation, I wanted to have a storyline, because usually when you make an architecture movie or an animation, it is commercial. I wanted to do something ­really different … I wanted to make a fairy tale that would create a new understanding of how we can explain architectural concepts.”

El Hachem's interest in the tower dates back to his university days. "Burj El Murr is one of the most appealing abandoned structures in Beirut," he says. "You can feel that there are ghosts in Burj El Murr. It's like someone is living there."

A scene towards the end of the film hints at this feeling. It captures a large room with dozens of hanging light bulbs that slowly light up to reveal a wall covered with jagged shards of mirrored glass. On an old desk lies a newspaper announcing the rebirth of the tower and written in the dust on the screen of an outdated computer are the words: "Coming back to life." Those watching closely may catch the shadow of a human figure, a phantom caretaker bidding goodbye to the building now that his work is done.

'It's like someone is living there,' says El Hachem of the iconic Burj El Murr. Courtesy of Jean-Paul El Hachem

In the final scene, the building is shown from the outside, seeming to hover above the ground, held aloft by tree trunks. "It's something really dreamlike, but at the same time, it has the meaning that nature is coming back to the Burj," explains El Hachem. "I wanted to do something abstract because I wanted people to imagine things from their own minds. I didn't want to explain everything."

He says he plans to create more animations that build on "this whole idea of storytelling, conceptual movies about architecture". As for Burj El Murr, he says he wishes his dreamlike vision of the building as "a lighthouse for this sinking city" could become reality.

A still from the animated film here shows the tower hovering above ground. Courtesy of Jean-Paul El Hachem

"Burj El Murr is the legacy of the war," says El Hachem. "It's like this monument that evokes the collective memory of what war is about. I don't think it should be renovated for some commercial building, it should be something really artistic and meaningful, because once it becomes a commercial office, all this meaning will fade away."