x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Beirut's most famous bullet-scarred buildings await new futures

Plans are afoot to transform one of Beirut's prime sniper locations into a museum, as the future of another concrete shell remains shrouded in uncertainty.

Beirut’s remodelled downtown shops today are surrounded by some empty, concrete shells.
Beirut’s remodelled downtown shops today are surrounded by some empty, concrete shells.

BEIRUT // Today the building lies in ruins, on the edge of what was the dividing line between east and west Beirut during Lebanon's 15-year civil war. Two decades after the end of the conflict, the structure known as the Barakat building still bares the battle scars of its years as a prime sniper location, its facade and colonnades riddled with bullet holes.

Now, plans have been launched to transform the four-storey building designed in the 1920s into a museum and cultural centre. Last month, the US$20million (Dh73.4m) Beit Beirut project to restore the venerated structure was officially kicked off by the city's municipality, with the hope of opening by the end of 2014.

Bilal Hamad, Beirut's mayor, has described Beit Beirut as a "museum of memory".

"It's an archive of the history of Beirut. I want Beirutis to be proud of their history and go to that place and look at their history," he said.

Not far across town, another empty, concrete shell looms over the city's downtown, standing out near new developments in the prime real-estate district. The drab edifice - a relic of the early years of the civil war - is still known simply as the Holiday Inn, though it has not seen a paying guest in more than three decades. It remains a hulking reminder of the Battle of the Hotels during the civil war that left more than 100,000 Lebanese dead.

The glass and curtains are long gone from the building's windows. Instead, resilient plants can be seen growing in some of the upper floors. A barrier has been placed around the property, which is guarded by Lebanese soldiers, and a dozen armoured personnel carriers are parked by the building.

While work is due to start on the restoration of the Barakat building, any plans for the shell of the Holiday Inn remain shrouded in uncertainty. Various reports about renovating or demolishing the building over the years have not amounted to anything. St Charles City Centre, a Kuwaiti-Lebanese company that owns the complex, did not respond to requests for information about its plans for the hotel.

"The Holiday Inn cannot just be erased. Seeing it prevents people from getting rid of what they want to forget [about the civil war]," said Sara Fregonese, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of London who has been studying the building as part of her research on the impact of conflict on urban life in Lebanon.

"There are multiple rumours and even an aura of mystery around the hotel. We've got more information about its past, than we do about the building now." she said.

The complex was completed in the early 1970s, with an adjacent office building that is still in use. The hotel - which had a dramatic, but short-lived role in the civil war - opened just a matter of months before hostilities broke out in 1975.

By 1976, the Holiday Inn had been overrun by rival militias as the Battle of the Hotels raged. Christian militia and their allies fought to push towards west Beirut, battling the pro-Palestinian, leftist coalition in the downtown hotel district.

The Holiday Inn and other hotels became battlefields for rival militias who fought each other in close quarters. Eventually the Christian fighters were pushed back and the leftist-coalition took over the Holiday Inn.

Lokman Slim, who runs the Umam Documentation and Research centre in Beirut, said the battle over the Holiday Inn was one of the early turning points in the protracted conflict.

"The Holiday Inn meant a military victory for the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation] and its allies and it meant a big defeat of the Christian forces," he said.

For this reason, the building today is more of a partisan "site of consciousness", Mr Slim said, in a still deeply divided Lebanon, which has not seen a concerted process of reconciliation since the end of the war. For some, the battered buildings have simply become part of the skyline with no special meaning or connection. But the scars of the civil war are still present within Lebanese society and visible on Beirut's streets.

Mr Hamad, speaking of the Barakat building - also known as the Yellow House, said: "We will leave the architecture to remind us of the civil war. I want this place to remind Beirutis that we should finish wars. We're done with war in Beirut."

During the civil war, the building was occupied by Christian militias, who battled fighters across the other side of the Green Line that largely divided Muslims and Christians in the 1970s and 1980s.

Despite the extensive development that has taken place in downtown Beirut since the civil war ended, it is not hard to find buildings around Lebanon's capital that still bare the scars of that period.

While there have been concerted efforts by architects and activists to save the Barakat building and other war-scarred buildings, there are still civil war-era properties in central Beirut that face an uncertain future.

For some, the battered buildings have simply become part of the skyline with no special meaning or connection. But others see structures such as the Holiday Inn and the Barakat building as an important reminder of the tragedy of Lebanon's past.

"For social scientists, for civil society at large, these few buildings represent the evidence of how ugly we were," said Abdul-Halim Jabr, a Beirut-based architect and urban design consultant. "And a kind of lightning rod for some kind of truth and reconciliation."

zconstantine@thenational.ae