Beirut Heritage – A New Local NGO Against Destroying Old Lebanese Houses

(The Daily Star, September 23, 2010)

Lebanon’s cities have a peculiar relationship with their architectural patrimony. When the country’s long Civil War (1975-1990) was finally brought to an end, the urban fabric of Beirut and Tripoli was festooned with jewels, built in the Ottoman and French Mandate periods. Entire urban clusters could be found intact.

While Lebanon’s reconstruction regime focused its energies upon erasing much of the downtown core and retooling a handful of historic buildings into antique-looking modern structures, elsewhere in the city historic buildings lingered. Though often derelict, sometimes squatted by displaced families from contested parts of the country, these buildings had been saved from destruction, preserved like peroxide frogs in a solution of legislative and economic stasis.

Naturally, the Lebanese state was unwilling to provide any sort of financial incentive for property-owners to renovate or restore their inherited properties. Local landlords and developers, on the other hand, have had to contend with convoluted rental laws and ownership patterns – with so many individuals having a stake in individual properties that it was difficult to reach consensus about how to dispose of a property. International capital flows, meanwhile, hadn’t yet been brought to bear upon Beirut’s real estate market.

This situation has been oscillating, along with the regional and domestic political developments, and Lebanese emigration patterns, since 1990. Then, in 2008, the Doha settlement facilitated a reconciliation between contending interests associated with the Future Movement, on one hand, and those aligned with Hizbullah. Since then, the Beirut real estate market – miraculously immune, it seems, from the international financial meltdown, has boomed.

The Beirut stage has seen its share of dissidents to the state’s laissez-faire attitude toward the country’s architectural patrimony. The newest of these is the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage. What began as a Facebook group designed by a number of motivated individuals has developed into an NGO fighting the demolition of Beirut’s historic architecture.

The organization held a press conference at Gouraud Street’s Qahwat al-Azaz (aka the Gemmayzeh Cafe) on Monday, where it publically announced its plans for a peaceful protest on Saturday. This demonstration will take the form of an hour-long candlelit walk commencing from the vicinity of Gemmayzeh’s Paul franchise at 6 pm and coming to a halt in Mar Mikhael, a few kilometers east.

Monday’s conference included speeches by organizers Pascale Ingea and Georgio Tarraf and guest speaker, Lady Yvonne Cochrane-Sursock, founder (and from 1960-2002 president) of Lebanon’s Association for the Protection of Natural Sites and Ancient Buildings (APSAD).

Ingea underlined the cultural significance of historic structures and the dire need to preserve what traces remain of them in Beirut.

“Tourists aren’t interested in our malls, supermarkets or skyscrapers,” he said, “as they are used to seeing those in their home countries.”

In recognizing the plight of property-holders who wish to sell their historic homes due to “financial difficulties,” Ingea called upon all state agencies to help support the owners of Lebanon’s traditional houses.

Citing the findings of a recent United Nations Development Program report – which suggests that in the next decade 300,000 new buildings will be added to Beirut’s already-crowded urban fabric – organizers say the city will be left with virtually no public spaces or natural “green” areas. As such, there exists a need to enact legislation to protect the city’s architectural patrimony. This law, they explained, has for eighty years been rejected and not voted upon in Parliament.

The new NGO demands that old rental contracts be renewed and modified in order to protect the rights of property owners.

“Many old properties are currently leased at costs that, in this day and age, do not exceed the price of half a pound of coffee,” Tarraf explained, “and, according to the letter of old rental contracts, renters are allowed to pass on their rent from generation to generation without informing the landlord. Something has to be done about this.”

Other demands include creating a fund dedicated to renovating areas that have managed to retain their rustic appeal. The proceeds of this fund should derive from a fixed percentage of the payoff from construction licenses. The NGO also wishes to see an official urban plan that preserves the traditional nature of certain neighborhoods by applying limitations to the height, architectural nature and proximity of modern constructions to these areas.

The Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage has thus far prevented the demolition of over 20 historic structures. Its spokesmen say, however, that the future of many locations is threatened by the “greed of investors.”

Organizers hope that, as Ingea pointed out with some irony, “Lebanese join us in our protest, just as they gathered to witness the making of the largest plate of hummus in the world – clearly a testament to their heritage.”