Sursock – Hopeless helpless Lebanon

(NowLebanon, November 17, 2010)

Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane has been fighting to preserve Lebanon’s heritage since 1960 when she founded the country’s first organization on the matter, the Association for the Protection of the Natural Sites and Ancient Buildings (APSAD). She presided APSAD from 1960 until 2002. Today, she continues in her battle, although pessimistic about prospects. NOW Lebanon spoke with Lady Cochrane in Sursock palace to address her concerns in more depth.

Tell us about your involvement in APSAD and the organization.

Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane: I founded APSAD at the end of the 1950s because, looking out of the windows of this house, I realized the view, which was absolutely magnificent, was becoming less magnificent due to anonymous building creeping up and taking up space, buildings that have absolutely no architectural value of any sort.

I noticed this was the trend, and something needed to be done about it. At the time, Beirut was still beautiful. We started as three [people], and gradually formed a committee of more people. We tried to get more people involved, but as you know, we’ve seldom had people of culture in our government.

At first, the government didn’t take us seriously and looked at us with a condescending kindness. To them, why should men deal with such futile questions? But, gradually they realized we meant business and became more cooperative. The problem is with parliament, which is a disaster.

We grew and formed a committee of 12 people, and we started trying to explain to people we had a magnificent heritage. We published the first book on the subject, “L’habitation au Liban” [lebanon’s habitat]. Today, there’s almost a book a week on the subject. Unfortunately, it doesn’t translate on the ground because, to begin with, people in our parliament are uncultured. They just don’t understand what they are talking about, despite [the presence of] some very good ministers.

Can you name a few of them?

Lady Cochrane: Well there are good ministers, but nobody listens to them! [Former Culture Minister] Tamam Salam made a series of good proposals; none of them passed. [Current Culture Minster Salim] Warde said to me, “There is not one of my proposals being accepted. There’s nothing I can do. I’m just sitting there.” [Former Culture Minister Tarek] Mitri told me he tried to pass a law suppressing [the inheritance tax] on listed houses, four years ago. But these people [parliament] just don’t understand that we have very few listed buildings and that in most countries, you remove the [inheritance tax] on listed buildings so people have a possibility of restoring. There are so few listed buildings, how much could they lose anyway? Taxes are important they say. But they are losing heritage!

But now moving on to the second reason, you talk about municipality in Lebanon? It just doesn’t exist in this country! The municipality is a very complex organization. A permit to build should be subject to a team of architects, lawyers, doctors etc. Not just one person. And the teams all form a municipality. I have taken good use of what has been done in Bordeaux and reduced it into a proposal based on the French that I submitted.

So the bulk of the problem is the government and municipality. What are your thoughts about civil society initiatives such as Save Beirut Heritage?

Lady Cochrane: They are very good and work with APSAD and are trying to get all the different organizations together. It is very important to have the young actively involved. That is why I’ve been trying to get universities, like [the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts] ALBA and Kaslik to organize to teach [students] about this. There are so many things they don’t know. Do any of the students know that in capital cities like Paris, there are no land prices? The speculation there is on the building, not on the land itself. In Lebanon, it is based on land prices. Most of our skyscrapers are empty. The Lebanese are so keen on copying. They copy Dubai, Manhattan. Lebanese copy and don’t realize that top society Americans live in old homes outside of Manhattan, for example.

Some architects have voiced criticism of Solidere’s work downtown. What are your thoughts?

Lady Cochrane: When Solidere started destroying Beirut, APSAD was upset. We sent articles in Europe, everywhere, about what was happening. Of course, this upset [former Prime Minister Rafik] Hariri, who, let’s face it, was a very intelligent man. And he wrote a book called Beirut Reborn which he sent to me and said, “I hope you’re satisfied.” What ended up happening was that some buildings that were going to be destroyed were restored. So he did a lot of restoration, which were the parts of the city that are the most popular today.

Lebanon is the only country in the region without a law to preserve our heritage. Is there any hope this will change?

Lady Cochrane: I know Warde and Mitri both tried to pass a law. But there is no hope; I think that in the next 20 years these empty skyscrapers will be taken by squatters. Look at what [MP Nicolas] Fattoush is doing with the quarries! That’s another problem. They also want to build a village on Sanine [mountain], one of our most important sources of water. Lebanon will just become a desert! We’ve tried to stop them from doing this, but they are decided to build.

If you had one recommendation for Lebanese youth, what would it be?

Lady Cochrane: I think people are realizing Beirut is becoming a monster. But it’s too late. It’s very difficult to change anything now. Beirut is overbuilt and destroyed. The only hope — I mean it’s a joke — but it’s to do what happened in Dresden, which was completely razed during the World War II. They took the paintings of this Italian painter who had represented Dresden and reproduced the city based on his work. In Beirut, you’d have to tear down all the skyscrapers. Or have a mixture. And rebuild Beirut according to the prints we have, Beirut as a garden city. It was a lovely garden city along the Mediterranean.

But practically speaking, what can young Lebanese activists do?

Lady Cochrane: What we need especially is a municipality. We should have trains. We’ve had them before. But Lebanese don’t go in the train. “Ayb” [Shame]. They don’t walk either.

Is there any hope for public transportation in Lebanon?

Lady Cochrane: No, because they make too much money with the cars coming into the country. Any time a car comes in, someone makes money. It means that in a few years, we won’t be able to get out of our houses. They don’t think of things like that. They are not interested.

Many have inquired about the tower being built over what used to be the Sursock gardens. Can you tell us a bit about this?

Lady Cochrane: It was neither me nor my son, who sold this land. It was the three daughters of my cousin, Linda Sursock. There was a garden between the Sursock Museum and the “Villa Linda” and the daughters sold it. I am very irritated by this and sadly, my cousins did not know how to preserve our heritage and our family treasure.