From Our Own Correspondent

27 Nov

You can listen to me talking about Lebanon’s architectural heritage and transformation, on the BBC’s From our Own Correspondent program last week. You can also read it (unedited) below:

Dalila Mahdawi in Beirut

They wake me up early every morning without fail. The construction workers in the lot behind my house bang away at steel, shift concrete blocks and yell instructions at one another. Workers on the other side of the street soon join in, busying themselves with the demolition of a building.

Beirut has for so long been synonymous with conflict and destruction.  But now it’s a city in rapid transition, changing into a modern and sleek metropolis. In almost every neighborhood, the sound of building or demolition is constant, ringing out as regularly as a heartbeat.

Lebanon is well versed in destruction – a fifteen year civil war ending in 1990 saw hundreds of thousands die or disappear.  Many buildings became sniper towers and battle grounds between warring militias. A war with Israel in 2006 also saw large swathes of the country reduced to rubble.

The conflicts have left behind a vast number of shambolic buildings in need of demolition or renovation.  But they have also provided an unprecedented opportunity for construction companies and investors to transform the country’s very character.

The current stability has encouraged previously cautious investors, as well as expatriate Lebanese hoping to reconnect with their country, to put up big money for real estate projects. It seems demand for housing has never been higher, and so the pock-marked or low-rise buildings are torn down … and the fancy apartments are bought up even before they are built.

But in the frenzied rush to reconstruct, many structures of architectural interest or historical importance are also falling victim to the wrecker’s ball. Fifty years ago, the Beirut skyline was made up of low-rise apartment blocks and picturesque stone houses.  Those have quickly given way to impersonal glass and concrete tower blocks.

On my street alone, a total of seven buildings have disappeared in recent years, including some real treasures – a 1950s art deco apartment building and two smaller houses that were at least a couple of centuries old. Soon, only the older residents will remember what this area used to look like.

Not everyone in Lebanon is quietly accepting the architectural transformation of their country.

Nestled in the lush Chouf Mountains, the charming village of Deir Al-Qamar, with its 17th and 18th century stone houses is proof that modernization and architectural heritage can find common ground.

The village boasts some of the best-preserved buildings in the country, including a mosque from 1493, winding stepped alleys, the palace of a former Ottoman governor, a restored merchants inn, and a 16th century emir’s palace. The local municipality hopes to preserve the area’s architecture by stipulating that today’s house builders must use traditional limestone brick, and red tiles for the roofs.

Meanwhile, a synagogue in downtown Beirut badly damaged by Israeli shelling is being refurbished after receiving donations both from Lebanese Jews and the international community. It is one of only a few remaining Jewish sites left in the country.

A few activists have also drawn attention to the need to preserve buildings associated with the Civil War. If all signs of war are erased, it makes it all that much easier to repeat the violence, the activists argue. One of these passionate people is architect Mona Hallak, who is largely behind the saving of one of Beirut’s true architectural delights.

The Barakat Building, a magnificent four story Art Nouveau apartment block built in the 1920s, was transformed into a militia headquarters during the civil war because of its strategically important location on the front line between divided East and West Beirut. Every floor had large, stained-glass windows offering views of the streets below, allowing snipers to pick off their targets with relative ease. The building was pulverized by rocket fire, grenades and bullets.

Today the land on which the Barakat Building sits is prime real estate worth millions. Its owners had decided to tear it down and sell it to developers. But Hallak’s efforts meant it was saved at the last minute, even as workers had already begun tearing up the marble tiles and removing intricate iron railings.

With the help of a few like-minded friends, she launched a petition and newspaper campaign demanding the building be preserved. Eventually the demolition permit was rescinded and in 2002 the city government took charge of the gutted structure. The Barakat Building is now set to become Beirut’s first museum of municipal history.

Still standing in spite of all its glaring wounds, and almost in defiance of the glass tower blocks popping up all around it, the Barakat Building offers people here some reassurance … the actions of a dedicated few architecture lovers don’t always go unnoticed. (C) of the BBC and Dalila Mahdawi

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