Tag Archives: architecture

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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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

Clock Ticks for Traditional Lebanese restaurant in Hamra

17 Aug

Clock ticks for traditional Lebanese restaurant in Hamra
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Friday, August 08, 2008

BEIRUT: In a city seeking to re-invent itself as modern and chic, there are few restaurants left in Lebanon’s capital that aspire to provide diners with the “warm and cozy atmosphere, just like home” – an environment Walimet Wardeh, also known as Wardeh, promises. Thirteen years ago, Wardeh Hawaz and two friends opened Wardeh in a former residential house on Makdessi Street in Beirut’s Hamra neighborhood.

Amid a market dominated by Western fast food, Sushi and French cuisine, Walimat Wardeh al is a throw-back to “the good old days” when the taste buds of the Lebanese were still content with the fuss-free food of their grandparents.

According to Elissar Loghmaji, Hawaz’s daughter, the restaurant’s two chefs not only serve up many of the traditional Lebanese dishes ordinary people might prepare at home, but also dishes that have bizarrely been shunned by many other Lebanese restaurants.

One such dish is fawarigh, intestines stuffed with rice, spices and meat. Freek, wood-smoked wheat or barley ears served like a soup, is another.

Everyday there are three main meals on offer, with the menu set at two-week periods.

“Wardeh makes traditional, home-made food. This is the food of our mothers and grandmothers,” says Loghmaji. “My favorite dish here is molukhiya,” chopped Jewsmallow leaves cooked into a thick soup with tomatoes and chicken and served with rice, she says.

The Walimet Wardeh building is heavy with the atmosphere you might find in a Naguib Mahfouz novel, oozing with the character of a traditional Arab house – well lived in, snug and instantly comforting.

Stained glass windows give the main dining room a soft glow and traditional tiles pave the floors, with each of the restaurants four rooms boasting their own unique pattern.

“Walimet is like my baby,” says Hawaz, who says the best thing about owning a restaurant is that she constantly meets “new people from all sorts of different places.”

The scope of Wardeh goes beyond serving up hearty meals.

On Thursdays, people crowd in for Tango night, instructed by a qualified tango teacher. “He was a customer who used to come, and suggested doing the night,” Loghmaji says.

“The first night was a huge success, so we continued it,” says Loghmaji. Ziad Sahab and his band Shehadine Ya Baladna play Arabic tunes on Fridays.

A number of non-governmental organizations use the premises as a meeting point, too. Wardeh hosts the Committee of Lebanese Families in Support of Palestinian Families (CLF) for a monthly charity lunch, which raises hundreds of dollars for needy Palestinian families in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Helem, a gay and lesbian rights organization, has also used the facilities.

It seems Wardeh’s charisma has bewitched some of its customers, too.

Loghmaji recalls the first time she ever waitressed at Wardeh. “I was serving someone kibbe bi labban [a meat dish served in yogurt sauce], and I dropped it all over him.”

Rather than getting angry, “he just laughed at me,” she said.

But the restaurant’s charm comes with an expiry date.

According to Hawaz, “Wardeh is going to close in about 16 months.”

The premises, along with the greengrocer next door, will be torn down to make way for the new luxury high-rises that are rapidly eating up Beirut of its traditional architectural charm.

“We’re sad because we have been here for a long time,” says Loghmaji. “Actually, the customers,” many of whom come on a daily basis, “are sadder than we are. It’s hard, but this is life,” she says, adding that they are currently searching for a new place to re-open.

“We hope, with the current economic situation in the country, we can find a place similar to this house,” says Loghmaji.

“But really the only place with similar architecture is in Downtown,” which will cost Hawaz much more than her current $1,500 monthly rent.

“I feel a sense of loss and sadness,” says Ikram Shararah, head of the CLF.

“Wardeh was a special meeting place because of its unique, Beiruti architecture. It also served typical national dishes, in a homely, intimate setting.  When it closes, we will lose one of Beirut’s beautiful faces. Lasting friendships have been formed here,” Shararah says.

A glass case near the entrance shows off photographs of Walimet’s notable guests. Among the smiling faces are the late Palestinian academic Edward Said, the late journalist Joseph Samaha, who was Hawaz’s “best friend,” and a number of politicians, artists and other public figures.

“We might find another place with good services, but nowhere will have the same homely atmosphere and beautiful architecture as Walimet Wardeh,” says Shararah.

As the saying goes, all good things come to an end.