Beirut Grain Silos

How a Building Shielded a City

How did the grain silos survive Beirut’s blast enough to preserve their form?

On August 6 1945, The Genbaku Dome was the only structure left standing near the center of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb blast. 75 years forward, it was the grain silos of Beirut that stood still in the epicenter of the massive explosion that shook Beirut’s port on August 4 2020. What both these superstructures have in common are their sturdy concrete columns that have strengthened them against shock waves. Strangely, Czech architects were the masterminds behind both structures too.

Beirut’s grain silos after the blast. – (AFP via Getty Images)
Beirut’s grain silos shielded the city from further destruction.

The building’s concrete walls facing east collapsed on the spot. These walls were few meters away from the warehouse where the detonation initiated. However, the ones facing west remained standing, blocking the blast’s shock wave from reaching the western part of the city with full force. Quoting The National Newspaper, military specialists said the silos were crucial in shielding half of Beirut from greater destruction. In particular, this includes the heavily populated areas along the coast in the western part of the city. “That building made a major difference. Without it, the casualties could have been much worse,” said a Western security official.

Aerial view showing the damaged side of the silos. – (AFP)
Who Built the great grain silos of Beirut?

The 50 meter high structure is the brainchild of Palestinian banker Yusuf Beidas, who did not live long to execute his idea. Subsequently, the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development funded the project which was then managed by the CEGP (Conseil Exécutif des Grands Projets). While the Czech firm Průmstav took over the executive part of the project, the Lebanese Dr. Jacques Nasr worked on developing the structural design of the silos. Additionally, the Swiss Bühler Group designed and installed the grain handling system, and the project was built between 1968-1970.

Nevertheless, the expertise of Lebanese subcontractors at Bureau Rodolphe Elias was crucial to bring this project to life. Amongst the countless Lebanese talent working on the silo’s team, we remember Paul Zein, civil engineer, and Sarkis Joulfayan, supervisor of foremen. In 1997, the structure underwent restoration works, and more silos were added by Kettaneh Construction. Then, the total number of silos reached 104 and had a capacity of 124,000 tons. As the CEGP was merged into CDR (Council for Development and Reconstruction) in 2002, the latter had become the body responsible for the project, thus assigning Batco Group and Khatib and Alami for rehabilitation works on the silos.

Aerial view showing the surviving walls of the silos. – (Rami Rizk)
What is the future of the remaining structure?

Continuous maintenance work has preserved Beirut’s grain silos for over 50 years. The building witnessed two wars and withstood missile damage. Yet, the recent explosion has likely dealt the final blow to the building.

In Hiroshima, thousands gather at the Genbaku Dome yearly to memorialize the event that forever changed the world. The structure is now known as Hiroshima Peace Memorial, an UNESCO World Heritage site. Meanwhile, the fate of the last standing structure of Beirut’s grain silos remains unknown. Considered a dominant symbol of the Lebanese revolution, there is a possibility the silos will be saved and restored into a monument to commemorate the victims of the blast. Otherwise, the authorities may sentence the structure for demolition, thus crushing the community’s collective memory with it. Time alone will tell.

Lantern floating ceremony at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

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6 Comments

  • In regard to your article How a Building Shielded a City, please note that the structural design was made by Dr. Jacques Nasr, one of the leading structural engineers in the middle east at that time who also happened to hold a patent on thin shells concrete designs. The Czech company did the execution part. The reinforced was done by Dr. NASR.
    In this respect Dr Jacques Nasr had made the design of the Beirut Silos take into account two important factors that are often overlooked for those structures. He knew that silos could fail unexpectedly in two key ways. First, in some cases when the silos are filled too rapidly, the grains end up “pushing against the walls”, exerting a pressure that is three to five times larger than the “hydrostatic” pressure most engineers would design for. Second, the silos should be specifically designed to survive explosions, as the grain inside may ignite and explode under specific conditions.

  • In Lebanon we allowed the destruction of some of the great palaces of Sursock, will they preserve the silos?!

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