Berghain of Beirut | How an Underground Bunker in Lebanon Became One of the World’s Best Clubs
The story behind B018, the legendary nightlife spot that’s just reopened its doors (and roof)
Photo: Courtesy of Bernard Khoury
“In the mid-1980s, nothing could be heard in Beirut but the sounds of missiles and bullets,” Ali tells me, “But while everyone was completely overwhelmed with the raging war, the young Naji Gebran was busy curating his own music in a small chalet with the number: ‘’B018’’ at the door. This unit turned later into a music refuge for his music lovers’ friends in the midst of their misery.”
"The area was so deserted that even my taxi driver was confused"
So begins the story of B018, one of the most influential clubs, not just in the Middle East, but in the world. Ali Saleh, the current managing partner of the club, is a calm, soft spoken guy, but his face lights up when discussing Beirut, B018 and their intertwined histories.
“At a time when nightclubs were not very common, B018 captured the hearts and minds of generations” Ali continued, “It was a musical revelation; an institution that gave credibility and put Beirut on the international nightlife map. It was also the first club to introduce electronic music, not just to Lebanon, but the region as well.”
B018 started out in the 80s as a series of private parties, but quickly became so popular that it was forced to move into a warehouse location in the industrial area of Sin El Fil in the early 90s. It wasn’t until 1998 that it took on its current position and form, when the pioneering Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury designed and built the underground club in an area called The Quarantaine, or “Karantina”, a desolate neighbourhood that was previously the site of a camp for Kurdish, Palestinian and Armenian refugees.
That was until 1976, when a group of local militia-men massacred hundreds of refugees and burnt the camp to the ground in one of the early actions of the Lebanese Civil War. In the aftermath of the slaughter, the area was left abandoned. So it’s a strange, if not controversial, place to build a nightclub.
“In 1993 [shortly after the war ended] there was a lot of great hopes but a lot of frustrations. Around that time a lot of the construction work was aiming to wipe out the recent past, and put everything that was a bit problematic under the carpet,” Bernard tells me, “It was very frustrating for people of my generation who were waiting for this great reconstruction project, not only of buildings, but of a nation.”
“Any morally responsible architect would have turned his back on such an absurd proposition, because of the impossibility of building a nightclub, on a moral level, on such a site,” Bernard continues, “But many of my generation were upset about the lack of history, and B018 was a reaction to that. It was the first architectural project that put its finger literally on the wound in such a manner.”
Twenty years after its opening in the Quarantaine, Ali, Bernard, and the rest of the management team (Romy Habre, Nemer Saliba and Michel Ghanem) decided to completely refurbish the club, stripping away its interior completely. But why now?
“B018's refurbishment has been long overdue,” explained Ali, “We did our best to keep the same spirit and its iconic retractable roof, but we've invested heavily in design, sound, service and overall experience. Given today's competition we needed to step up and remind the people how B018's avant garde design played a major role in its positioning.”
The Quarantaine area is just off the main highway that runs through the whole of Beirut, and Lebanon itself. And as you travel on that road there are a constant stream of buildings towering alongside you. But approaching B018, you notice that the area is completely empty, and the constant stream of buildings stop. It was so deserted that even my taxi driver was confused, and began driving round various empty backstreets, before I spotted a person with B018 printed on their jacket standing in the middle of what looked like an empty parking lot and got out.
“If you look at Beirut on Google maps you will see that for a very small stretch there are no buildings at all and this is The Quarantaine,” Bernard tells me, “The overdevelopment stops here, so what I decided to do is preserve that void. From that stretch of highway B018 is invisible, and its invisibility reaffirms that void in a very dramatic way.”
“The beast is asleep during the day, and the highest point of the roof only lifts 70cm off the ground so when you drive by you don’t see it,” he adds, “And then at night it wakes up. And when it wakes up its metal panels open up, and because it’s in such a desolate area it can make a lot of noise. So its invisibility was my first response in relation to the city from an urbanistic point of view.”
It certainly felt ominous as we walked down the steps and the club’s all-black walls swallowed us up. But sometimes a little nervous anticipation is exactly what’s needed: Like all the best clubs, the unusual facade is part of what makes it an ‘experience’, rather than just a night out.
In the club itself, the revamp had seen its apparently old, tatty furniture completely replaced by black stone. Literally everything was black stone - from the seating to the bar to the DJ booth, to the air conditioning vents. Then there were the four skeletal installations hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the dance floor (also made of black stone, naturally). Looking for all the world like minimalistic animal corpses in a slaughterhouse, they helped add to the overall impression of being inside a some kind of techno tomb - the kind of place you’d expect the cool vampires from Blade would go to party.
“When I first built the site, we filled it with precious furniture, like mahogany and so on - and although it lasted twenty years of abuse, this place was supposed to be temporary, it only had a five year lease,” Bernard tells me, “So when I redesigned it, I made sure I made everything was in stone. So what was initially a set of very precious instruments set underground, has now been petrified forever.”
For all the talk of death, tombs and darkness though, B018 was one of the most lively clubs I’d ever been to. Although not a huge space, it was perfectly formed, and never felt overcrowded at any point. The music never ceased to be anything other than fist-pumping techno and beefy tech-house, with an incredible set from Lele Sacchi, an Italian DJ with international pedigree, that had the crowd hooked from start to finish.
What’s the place like to play, I asked him when he’d finished? “The venue has something special about it,” he said. “You notice it as soon as you walk in. It’s the chemistry between your mixing, the music, the crowd and the environment which makes a set work [and] B018 had all that. The crowd was ready to go for it, the sound was great and the warm up DJ created the perfect atmosphere.”
As the night wore on, with light-beams reflecting off the mirrors down the sides of the club to create beautiful geometric patterns, I noticed that they dance floor they were projected on was never empty. People were always dancing feverishly, with a real passion for it that’s hard to put your finger on. It’s something I haven’t really seen or felt in the UK since my teenage years in illegal raves - a sense that the people were genuinely revelling in the moment, uninhibited.
"It looks like some kind of techno tomb - the kind of place you’d expect the cool vampires from Blade would go to party"
“It’s quite clear to me that people in Beirut have a lot of love for life and for partying,” Lele continued. “Of course many cities have that, but maybe the difference is that Lebanon is so multicultural and has the heritage which comes from a long history of being one of the nightlife spots in the world. Plus the underground electronic music scene is relatively new if you compare it to EU and US, and that also leaves space for a lot of excitement from both the crowd and the players of the scene.”
As dawn began to creep into my muscles, the roof of the club opened up, wafting thick cigarette smoke and pumping bass kicks into the hollowed air of the Quarantine, and letting the gently lifting grey of the Beirut morning sky drizzle down onto the punters’ faces. It was an otherworldly moment even for a creaky, jaded old raver like myself - unique and special, invoking that feeling of wonder, as great clubs are prone to do.
“B018 was never intended to be a memorial,” Bernard tells me. “But it was a nightclub with some kind of political awareness, and some kind of honesty. No one thinks a nightclub will have any political meaning, at least architecturally. We spend our efforts on building libraries and public buildings, because this is where history is written, history isn’t written in nightclubs.
“But then I realised that [places] where history isn’t meant to be written is where things become very interesting. I realised nightclubs could be political projects, and buildings that have a great cultural charge are [arguably] more important than museums - if anything, museums are the cemeteries of culture.”
And if museums are the cemeteries of culture, then surely nightclubs, and B018 in particular, is where culture is born: Forged behind the decks and on the dancefloor, giving people new, unforgettable experiences that go on to inspire them in their daily lives.
Tom Usher is a freelance writer based in London. Keep up with him on Twitter here.