Combatting a memory for forgetfulness

3 Jun

Sodeco’s war-weary Barakat building to be renovated
Structure to house public memorial to civil conflict
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Wednesday, June 02, 2010

(NOTE: Pictures of how the building looks now and how it will be transformed will be posted shortly. Sorry for the delay)

BEIRUT: For years, architect Mona Hallak lugged a beautiful antique floor tile around Beirut, eager to show it to anyone who would spare her a few minutes of their time.

She had pinched the tile from a war-ravaged building in Beirut’s Sodeco Square that she’d lost her heart to in the 1990s.

Even in its decrepit state today, it’s not hard to see how it captivated her. The architecture of the Barakat building, an imposing yellow structure straddling Independence Avenue and the Damascus Road, is one of a kind in Lebanon.

Built by two different architects in the 1920s and 1930s, the Barakat building mixes elements of Art Deco with sweeping Islamic arches, stain glass windows and oriental balustrades. Although it is impossible to tell from outside, the four-story building actually consists of two distinct structures unified by freestanding balcony columns. “The building symbolized the whole of Beirut,” says Hallak. “It symbolized how divided the country was and how it was camouflaged as being united.”

When sectarian tensions spilled over into Civil War in 1975, the Barakat building was one of the conflict’s many casualties. It was taken over as a militia headquarters, with snipers taking advantage of commanding views from every room in the building to kill those on the streets below in relative safety.

The fighters added their own layer of architecture to the structure – concrete buttresses to fortify the walls and ceilings, sand bags, and lots of graffiti. Within a few years, the Barakat building, once a sign of liberalism, progressive thinking and cross-cultural dialogue, had been transformed into a pock-marked symbol of bitter hatred, division and ruthless killing.

When the war ended, the Barakat family hoped to cash in on the post-war construction craze and sold the building to a development company. It would have been demolished if one day in 1997, Hallak, who was passing through the area, hadn’t looked up at the building’s façade and noticed the iron railings from the balconies were missing. Hallak rushed inside to find workers preparing for demolition. “The tiles were piled in a corner ready to go and the destruction permit was hanging on the wall,” she recalls. “I never thought this building would go down … I went crazy.”

Slipping one of the tiles into her handbag, Hallak hurried to her office, rallied her colleagues and began a concerted media campaign to preserve the building.

The architect visited officials from the Culture Ministry, the governor of Beirut and foreign ambassadors hoping to find a sympathetic ear. She would pull out the filched tile and tell her audience, “this is the tile- imagine how beautiful the house is!”

After years of tireless campaigning and with the support of the Italian and French embassies, Hallak finally achieved what many had thought was impossible. Beirut Municipality revoked the demolition order and in 2003 expropriated the building.

The war-weary structure is now being renovated and converted into Beit Beirut, a museum of memory, war and contemporary history. Prime Minister Saad Hariri inaugurated the project in early April and actual restoration and construction is due to begin in October at an estimated cost of $10 million.

Its restoration and modernization is being carried out by architect Youssef Haidar, with technical assistance from the Municipality of Paris.

Once opened, Beit Beirut will be the closest thing Lebanon has to a public war memorial. Traces of the war like the fighter-built fortified walls will be preserved and incorporated as part of the museum’s permanent exhibition. “When you are there you feel the futility of war,” says Hallak. “It is exactly what a war memorial should be.”

Although Beit Beirut will chiefly be a museum, it will be “much more” than that, says Haidar. He hopes the building will help the Lebanese confront and reconcile their painful past.

The revamped Barakat building will connect to a new edifice built on an adjacent lot through a large spiral staircase, with both structures boasting state-of-the-art solar power systems. Just as the Lebanese themselves should be, says Haidar, the building will look firmly into the future while paying tribute to its past. “We are dealing with the building as if it is a war wounded that is starting to heal again,” says Haidar. “These traces cannot be erased, they are like scars.”

The museum will have an auditorium for lectures and workshops for young people on issues relating to memory, history and war- issues Haidar says have not been addressed at all in Lebanon.

“We went from amnesty to amnesia,” he says. “It’s important that at Beit Beirut, we can make a start in order to be able to say ‘never again.’”

Hallak envisions Beit Beirut as a living museum where visitors can interact and contribute to building up knowledge about their city. She’s put forth a proposal to have a “Beirut for Everybody” section on the ground floor, where locals can bring in and exhibit anything from their grandmother’s traditional Beiruti recipes to old cinema tickets. “We want to create a relationship between the city and the museum,” she says.

In addition to a permanent installation of personal items collected from the building, Beit Beirut will also host rotating exhibitions by artists, architects and urban planners on themes relating to the war, public space and contemporary history.

“It will be a place that will teach Beirutis to love their city,” says Hallak. “We don’t love our city because we don’t know it.”

Haidar and Hallak also hope the success of the project will encourage municipalities across Lebanon to preserve other traditional buildings as Beit Beiruts.

“There are other buildings that can be worked in this way,” Haidar says. “We don’t want to just reduce the idea to this one building.”

Although pleased with the renovations, Hallak has one minor criticism: she wishes a large ficus tree outside the Barakat building hadn’t been chopped back.

Only a few feet tall when the war broke out in 1975, the tree had grown several stories high by the 1990s.

“The tree was the memory of the war,” says Hallak. “That would have been the most romantic way to remember the war – with life.”

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One Response to “Combatting a memory for forgetfulness”

  1. Benoit June 8, 2010 at 2:31 pm #

    I’m impatient to see the pictures of the future project! The actual Barakat Building was the cover of my mémoire about Lebanese urban heritage, and I wished I could meet Mona Hallak when I was writing it… I hope I’ll have more time give news soon, but I actually never stop working. Anyway it’s always a pleasure to read you Madame! Take care x

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