Special report: Construction in Beirut
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Lauritz Valvik Raustøl
Last updated: September 17, 2012

Saving Beirut’s architectural heritage

Pockets of Beirut’s architectural heritage have survived a history of destructive earthquakes and several long and bloody wars. Its survival is now determined by a different threat: politicians and real estate laws that value profit over heritage.

The Mediterranean capital expanded during the second half of the 19th century and became one of the most prosperous cities of the declining Ottoman Empire. According to Fadlallah Dagher, a former executive member of The Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings in Lebanon (APSAD), the “Lebanese house” was invented during this period.

It can roughly be described as “a cube with a pyramidal red tile roof and a central bay of three arches on its north facade”, he says. In a country devastated by sectarianism, the house also symbolizes unity since its style was used among all communities in Lebanon. Such houses are now being destroyed to make space for modern profit-generating buildings.

“The situation is so bad and until now no actual law has been passed or even discussed. The municipality has no perception or view for the future of the city. The actual ruler is money and ignorance,” says Jana Aridi from the organization Save Beirut Heritage.

Walking through Beirut is, despite Aridi’s description, a fascinating experience. Lebanon’s history has shaped the Mediterranean capital into a peculiar mixture of war-torn houses, skyscrapers and old traditional architecture.

Yet, the central area of ‘Downtown’ is a perfect example of how the Lebanese are trying to modernize, earn money and forget past wars. It is fashionable, expensive - and new.

According to Aridi, several old pieces of architecture have been wiped out in order to construct the present buildings.

“The worst are the souks which represent a tragedy to the history and the original Beirutis. The big cinema, Rivoli, on the square from the 60s and the police stations are two examples,” she says.

A bit further north, in the area of Sodeco, there is a traditional Lebanese house built on high stone arches. It has a six meters high-carved wood ceiling, and some of the most beautiful glass facades in the city.

This old piece of architecture is, according to Save Beirut Heritage, in danger of being demolished.

In the end of May, the organization stated that “while its demolition was initially refused by a council of architects and urban planners appointed by the Ministry of Culture, we have learned that Minister Salim Wardeh has overwritten the decision to preserve it and has granted a permit for at least its partial demolition. The council has since resigned”.

Minister Wardeh has not responded to requests by Your Middle East for a comment.

However, it looks like the demolition has been put on hold.

“It seems like the owner is aware of all the attention towards him from the media and public sector,” Aridi says.

The state of the building is, nevertheless, poor. According to Aridi, all the tiles have been removed, it has become a home for squatters, the water system is leaking into vaults on the ground floor, doors have been removed and the lime paint is peeling off.

She explains that owners of such houses that are interested in profit often ruin them intentionally.

”Making the house look in bad shape gets them closer to the demolition permit,” she says.

This is echoed by Dagher. He explains that the reason why many people would like to sell these old buildings stem from the problem that many old Lebanese houses are owned by too many people.

“The easiest way to get any benefit for each owner is to sell,” he says.  

Dagher used to represent an organization that has for many years struggled to preserve old architecture in Lebanon. APSAD was founded in 1960 and has since then tried to raise awareness amongst the general public and the authorities.

The long fight for preserving old buildings has been a tough one, and has until now not convinced the government to change its policies.

“There is a conflict of interest”, Dagher explains, and refers to the fact that many Lebanese politicians are construction developers themselves.

As an example, Solidere, a company established by former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, carried out the construction in Downtown.

“APSAD has collaborated on the Heritage Law with the Ministry of Culture, still the law sleeps in the drawers for nearly 10 years now. In the meantime, heritage is disappearing”, he says.

Dagher does, however, state that “the efforts to preserve heritage are perceived as an unfair measure, especially with prices of land going up.”

Asked about what that can be done to change the pessimistic situation, he says that “the government should give a plan that tells people what they can do if they own a heritage building, rather than just ordering that it cannot be demolished.”

Strolling along a new seaside construction area that has been named the new Corniche, places things in perspective. It is the quietest part of Beirut - away from traffic, pollution and shops. Such an area of tranquility is luxury in a city where noise is the norm, and many Beirutis have come to discover this hidden spot. But construction is looming, and the shops and hotels are on their way. Money is again the ruling factor.

“Beirut is losing its character. The Mediterranean city has disappeared. The city is going into built chaos. Traffic is more than bad. Green areas have been replaced by high-rise buildings. Investors from the Gulf are purchasing land in strategic areas Inhabitants from Beirut have to leave the city to get to the suburbs where prices are affordable”, Dagher pessimistically concludes.

Footnote:

Several sources have accused Save Beirut Heritage of spreading false rumors about potential buildings in risk of being demolished. In the well-known blog ‘Beirut Spring’ by Mustapha Hamoui, it becomes clear that the organization has given false information about the destruction of ‘The Egg’, a former cinema located at Martyr’s Square.

Aridi says that Save Beirut Heritage is aware of such complaints, but that “those rumors actually came from an origin” and that even though the organization “realized they were false afterwards, we believe it is always better to have raised awareness to be alarmed at any time in the future”.

As for the criticism of media attention, Aridi states that the organization has “had that attention long before those things happened and anyone can check our media history. Our sole aim is Saving Beirut's Heritage and we are working towards just that.”

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