Like an endangered species, Beirut’s elegant old buildings are staring at extinction

(Reuters, September 2010)

In a construction frenzy fuelled by a frothy economy and dollops of cash from Gulf Arab and Lebanese investors, new tower blocks are rising helter-skelter across the capital, many of them over the demolished ruins of its architectural heritage.

A few conservationists are trying to save something from the wreckage, but in a city where money is king, it may be too late.

“Beirut has become very ugly,” lamented Rima Shehadeh, of the private Heritage Foundation. “It will go on, I know, but it will never have the charm it had before, never.”

She is compiling files to secure official protection for a few decaying Ottoman-era mansions in the Zokak al-Blatt quarter, hindered by red tape, corruption and lack of a conservation law.

Some typical Lebanese houses with triple-arched windows, elaborate balconies and red-tiled roofs have survived, now dwarfed by the concrete apartment blocks hemming them in. Any sign of dereliction suggests that they are on death row.

Soaring land prices have etched dollar signs into the eyes of Beirut’s property owners. They have every incentive to sell old houses to developers, who flatten them to build high-rises, unconstrained by zoning regulations or respect for human scale.

“It boils down to money,” said Mona Hallak, an architect who works with Lebanon’s oldest conservation association.

The building boom has accelerated in the last couple of years as Lebanon emerged unscathed from the global recession which punished Gulf real estate sectors in Dubai and elsewhere.

Lebanon, still reconstructing after its 1975-90 civil war, might seem a precarious haven for investment.

Only four years ago, the Israeli air force was bombing southern Beirut into rubble during a war with Shi’ite Hezbollah guerrillas. The country flirted with renewed civil war in 2008.

Now enjoying a respite from instability, the economy grew a startling 9 percent in 2009 and may manage 8 percent this year.

HIGH-RISE HEAVEN

Giant new buildings are piercing Beirut’s skyline, none brasher — or to its critics more hateful — than the 50-storey Sama Beirut tower, set to be Lebanon’s tallest at 200 metres.

Amid the dust and din of construction, it is looming over the narrow streets, small houses and gardens that once made up an intimate corner of the Christian district of Ashrafiyeh.

Many of Beirut’s luxury tower blocks stand almost empty, the apartments owned by Gulf Arabs or Lebanese expatriates who only use them a few weeks a year. Ordinary Beirutis are priced out.

“It’s very sad,” said Emily Nasrallah, an elderly novelist who has lived in the city for most of her adult life.

“We are losing the neighbourhood, the fabric of the normal, natural life that people have always lived in Beirut.”

Some younger Lebanese are waking up to the abrupt changes in the texture of a city that is home to around 1.5 million people.

Take Pascale Ingea, a shy, soft-spoken 33-year-old artist and teacher, who began a Facebook group called Stop Destroying Your Heritage in March in outrage over relentless demolitions in the traditional Ashrafiyeh quarter where she had grown up.

“One day I had enough of being a passive citizen,” she explained in her workshop loft in an old building.

Ingea told how she had watched helplessly from her balcony as workers wrecked a splendid 19th-century building she had known since her childhood. “I had dreamed of buying this palace and restoring it and turning it into a fine arts academy.”

She collaborates with Naji Raji, 22, who races around Beirut like a self-appointed conservation vigilante, checking venerable buildings for hints of imminent demolition, photographing the evidence and contacting the culture ministry to intervene.

“We are working really hard,” he said, describing a struggle to outwit developers who choose odd times like Sunday nights to knock out interiors, swiftly turning old houses into skeletons.

TOMBSTONE BLUES

This month conservation groups launched an awareness campaign that features a picture of tombstones for recently demolished old buildings against a backdrop of dark skyscrapers.

They have won support from Lebanon’s youthful culture minister, Salim Warde, who is determined to halt the havoc.

Any demolition order must now bear his signature. He is also pushing parliament to enact a law that would give tax breaks and other incentives to owners of heritage houses.

“These buildings are part of our national treasures, of our identity, of who we are,” Warde told Reuters. “So we’re not destroying wood and stone, but a part of Beirut and a part of the architectural heritage that’s been left to us to preserve.”

“We are the only Arab country that has not passed a law to preserve heritage houses,” he said. “This is outrageous.”

Even if the law passes — an earlier version has languished since 1997 — it may take several years to implement, a time-lag that powerful, well-connected buyers of old houses may exploit.

“I dream of seeing one intact street in Beirut in 20 years. It’s really wishful thinking,” said Hallak, the architect.

She has spent 13 years fighting to save a single historic building, used by snipers during the civil war, and now, with French financial support, set to become an interactive museum.

“What else can you do?” she shrugged. “Everything is for sale in this city — history, identity, the soul of the city.”

Hallak argues for preserving vibrant old neighbourhoods, not just single buildings of particular architectural merit.

“We need an urban cluster that maintains the soul of the city, with the gardens and houses and the people living in them, the whole ensemble,” she said. “Individual houses are museums.”

Thirteen years ago her group listed four such neighbourhoods with 520 buildings worth preserving. “We know 70 of these have been destroyed. The rest are on the way,” Hallak said.

For architect and urban planner Simone Kosremelli, it is too late to salvage Beirut’s heritage: a few jewels will survive, thanks to their appreciative owners, but the state has long ago missed the chance to buy up old buildings for public use.

“Today this is impossible,” she said, citing astronomical land prices beyond the reach of a cash-strapped government.

Kosremelli said Lebanon should “minimise the catastrophe” by at least saving myriad old houses in mountain villages, where land is much cheaper and vernacular architecture could live on.