Lebanese activists fight to save Beirut’s architectural heritage

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As its landmarks disappear one-by-one, Beirut is suffering from a severe case of architectural amnesia. With the guns of civil war long silent, the Lebanese capital is still losing magnificent pieces of its past through the razing of its longstanding memorable buildings.

The city once known as “the Paris of the Middle East” is today a hodgepodge of unsightly high-rises made of concrete and glass that have replaced the grand old structures.

The one thing that has unified the Lebanese political and economic power-holders amidst decades of political strife, armed conflict and sectarian confrontation is the pouring of money into Lebanon’s property market, which has accelerated the process of demolishing legendary houses.

“This is not a new phenomenon in Lebanon ; politicians have always been unresponsive to these issues,” Elie Karma, a preservation activist from Beirut, tells Equal Times.

“Authorities enforce strict laws to protect historical buildings and architectural heritage in the developed world. But in Lebanon, politicians don’t seem to care about these valuable elements of our identity,” he explains.

Karma is one of the activists stressing the importance of maintaining the city’s dwindling heritage. By organising events such as the Beirut Old City Walk, he provides an opportunity to explore unknown corners of old Beirut – a city where the neighbourhood borderlines have been drawn along sectarian divisions.

Within Lebanon’s deeply fragmented society, real estate developers are the only ones who do not differentiate between Shi’a and Sunni Muslim districts, or Maronite and Orthodox Christian quarters.

As a 2015 Blominvest Bank study outlined, the Lebanese real estate market has always been “one of the backbones of the Lebanese economy.” According to this report, Beirut in recent years has continued to snag an important share of the built property transactions’ value.
Meanwhile, the on-going civil war in neighbouring Syria has not had a negative impact on this market. In fact, it has actually brought new customers into the market.

“Syrian and Iraqi nationals began to consider acquiring apartments in Lebanon after hanging around for four years in the rental market,” the same study added.


Post-war deconstruction

Since the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in 1990, developers have indiscriminately razed hundreds of historically valuable buildings throughout the city only to replace them with blocks of expensive apartment complexes.

Developers faced similar criticism over 70 years ago in post-war London, where Prince Charles contended they caused more damage to the London skyline than the Blitz.

The deconstruction of old Beirut is not confined to Ottoman era buildings and Levantine architecture. These days, even the modern architecture of the mid-20th century is rapidly disappearing from Beirut’s urban fibre and giving way to soulless skyscrapers.

“We are losing any trace of the modern era of architecture in Beirut,” says Mazen Haidar, a Lebanese conservation architect. “The buildings from that period of time are not as old as the Ottoman houses, but they play a very important role in shaping the characteristics of different neighbourhoods in the city,” he says.

Currently, there is no law or directive protecting the architectural heritage that comprises the different areas noted within the Lebanese capital. The only official document that can theoretically protect Beirut’s endangered buildings is a 1996 survey listing 1,051 historical buildings in the city.

However, according to the NGO Save Beirut Heritage (SBH), only about 200 of those designated buildings have survived the two-decade post-war reconstruction era.

The Lebanese government’s wilful lack of regard for these former buildings has prompted non-governmental organisations and individuals to enter the struggle to save the country’s architectural heritage.

Groups of activists are raising awareness of the issue by organising demonstrations, conducting and publishing research about the history of their city, and negotiating with authorities to save the city’s historical houses.

In recent years, even the non-Lebanese residents of Beirut have participated in the quest to save Beirut’s historical buildings.

In November 2014, Tom Young, a British painter, turned a 19th century mansion in the Ras Beirut district into an exhibition space for his paintings. By choosing this location for his project, he hoped to shed light on the problem of Beirut’s dilapidated beauties.

“Living in Beirut, I see these beautiful old buildings being torn down,” explained Young in a short video. “Every time one of them gets torn down a light goes out in the city that will never be replaced.”