x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Developers threaten Beirut's architectural heritage

After years of civil war, much of what remains of Beirut's breathtaking Arab architecture is under threat from property developers keen to replace heritage buildings with modern skyscrapers.

Graffiti in Beirut urging Lebanese to conserve historical buildings.
Graffiti in Beirut urging Lebanese to conserve historical buildings.

Metres from a French and Arabic sign reading "Quarter of Traditional Character" is another sign advertising apartments for sale in a "modern skyscraper" that is under construction in this classically pretty Beirut neighbourhood.

Throughout the Lebanese capital, 12-storey buildings are quickly rising above traditional-style homes.

Once the jewel of the Mediterranean, parts of Beirut are now in a state of shambles. Decades of civil war and Israel's bombardment five years ago has left some buildings pockmarked with bullet holes, others just bombed-out shells.

The Phoenicians, the Ottomans and the pre-civil war glory days have left Beirut with a rich composition of millennium-old ruins and modern Arab architecture.

But the buildings that survived bullets and bombs are now under threat from the wrecking ball.

Post-war anarchy has paved the way for reckless reconstruction and, as developers rebuild the city, heritage buildings are being demolished to make way for more lucrative construction.

In 1954, when Lebanon drew up a master plan for its capital city, it looked to the US for inspiration. At the time, US cities were being zoned with dense urban centres. "But in most of those American cities you didn't have a historical core," said the architect Serge Yazigi, head of MAJAL Academic Urban Observatory, a body set up after the 2006 war to monitor the reconstruction and promote sustainable development.

Unlike a newer US city, central Beirut is rich in architecture and ruins. The current plan for Beirut has much of this district zoned for up to 14 storeys. This essentially gives property owners the capacity to build much higher than their original structures. "The municipality and local authorities are weak and at the same time you have a property investment sector that is so strong and so powerful - they didn't allow the municipality to revise it," said Yazigi. "Even now, more than 50 years later, we are incapable of putting in a new master plan for Beirut."

The financial incentive to rip down a two-storey Ottoman-era home and put up a 10-floor glass tower is too tempting for most Beirutis to cling to the nostalgia of historic homes.

"Land values all over Lebanon, but particularly in Beirut, have tripled in the last few years and what we are seeing is more heritage houses being destroyed," said Salim Wardy, minister of culture.

In 1999, 1,200 Beirut structures were nominated for heritage status - but many of those were torn down and others not approved for classification.

Just 300 buildings are now on the protected list. Wardy's ministry is still venturing onto the streets to identify and list heritage properties "but we are understaffed and underfunded and this is the main challenge we face".

Activists say even structures that earn protected status are often simply left to crumble until they can be designated as beyond repair and torn down.

In Beirut's Monot district, just south-east of the city centre, Giorgio Tarraf of Save Beirut Heritage climbs the stairs of an apartment block he says is experiencing just this.

Until recently, the second-floor apartment, with its tall, stained-glass windows and arches separating the living and dining areas, was occupied by a young Lebanese clothing designer.

"He didn't want to leave but he was renting and the owner wanted to sell," said Tarraf.

"What's most ironic is the people who are demolishing these houses know the value, [they] know it's beautiful, that it's worth a lot of money, but something like that," he said, pointing to a massive residential building near completion across the car park, "is worth a lot more."

Next door, a hole in the ground with a sign advertising "The Urban Dream" marks a site where a similar heritage building once stood.

Tarraf is part of a band of young Beirutis who campaign to save the city's remaining architectural charms, taking to the streets armed with simple posters to raise awareness of what is being lost as developers rapidly rebuild their capital.

The group has taken on big business with face-to-face campaigning and social media, including a Facebook group with 5,000 members.

Within minutes, three men from the new building arrive in the apartment and insist we leave, saying they represent the building's new owners. The conversation quickly deteriorates into a screaming match between Tarraf and the men.

This clash between young preservationist and big business usually results in a win for the developer.

Often, even if the activists are able to get a stop-demolition order, the building will be torn down under cover of night, the morning revealing just a pile of debris.

The problem, said Yazigi, was that these actions were rarely punished, thanks to minimal regulation and even weaker enforcement. "Those who destroyed houses were not sent to jail or asked to pay compensation, so it is indirectly telling them, 'You can do whatever you want'," he said.

But the preservationists have won some battles.

"This was supposed to be demolished," said Tarraf, pointing at the Barakat Building.

The landmark yellow residential complex on a busy corner near Sodeco was designed in the 1920s by famed Lebanese architect Youssef Aftimos, who also designed the downtown municipality building.

"What's special is it is sitting right on the line of demarcation during the war separating East Beirut from West Beirut," said Tarraf.

"The legend says Christians used to live on this side and Muslim families on the other - they used to meet on the balcony here in the middle. So it's very symbolic of Beirut's pre-war history."

During the 15 years of civil strife, the Barakat Building became a favoured sniper's nest. Now, it is little more than a shell, every foot pockmarked with bullet holes. Much of the facade and roof is missing but, thanks to cooperation between Beirut and Paris municipalities, the building is destined to become a museum.

"This is safe now as it's very much in the public eye and people are expecting it," said Tarraf, cautioning that this was a small victory in a game of jeopardy.

Along the former Green Line, near the Mediterranean, is the most controversial of all of Beirut's developments - the overhaul of the city's core by Solidere. The joint public-private partnership was charged in 1994 by then-prime minister Rafik Hariri with the reconstruction of the flattened city centre.

For much of the civil war this area was the dividing line between East and West Beirut and a battleground for the militants.

When armed factions withdrew they left a shattered landscape of rubble and undergrowth, while those buildings that were still habitable were occupied by thousands of squatters. The old souq was heavily damaged and mostly abandoned. Nevertheless, families still held the deeds to their homes in the city centre and shops in the souq. Solidere devised a pricing system to value properties and the owners were given cash and shares in the new development company in exchange for their property rights.

For many title-holders, however, this proved to be meagre compensation for their homes and livelihoods. Some wanted to return to the souq but only a few were permitted.

Instead, what Solidere called "Beirut Souks" hosts high-end European labels and a massive supermarket.

"At the end of the war here you had a government with very little cash," said Angus Gavin, head of Solidere's urban development division. "There was no ministry capable of setting up and running a project like this."

Gavin argues that, with the Lebanese government's coffers virtually empty, were it not for Solidere the 200-hectare area would have remained devastated.

On top of the lack of funds, he said, the inheritance system meant that "buildings had thousands of owners, so it's hard to imagine a regeneration or reconstruction process happening by agreement".

More than a third of historic buildings in the city centre were preserved. To Gavin this was an accomplishment; to the young activists it was a failure.

It comes down to a matter of money. There is no incentive for restoration and few private developers are willing to sacrifice profits for arched window frames.

The swanky new apartments in Beirut's city centre remain out of financial reach for most resident Lebanese, but the city's charm and climate have made properties attractive to Gulf Arabs and Lebanese who live abroad.

"It has out-priced Beirut for the people who used to live here. I can't afford to live in Beirut anymore," said Tarraf, who grew up in the district of Ashrafieh.

Wardy has a solution to circumvent the current zoning - a draft law that would allow property owners to sell the potential storeys above their historic homes - essentially the right to build - to developers in areas of the city where there is less heritage to lose.

The new law would replace now-obsolete preservation laws that date from the Ottoman era and the French Mandate and would offer degrees of exemption on property taxes and licensing fees for those who preserve historic buildings.

"Everyone gets a share and the owner of a heritage building will get money for just preserving an old heritage house," said Wardy.

But the law has been awaiting parliamentary approval for years. Wardy declines to speculate on what is holding up the bill - but Tarraf is quick to point a finger.

"It's sitting there because basically everyone in the parliament has [property] interests," he said.

Since Wardy took office just over a year ago he has managed to pass two other laws designed to protect heritage buildings - one prohibits demolition without the ministry's approval and the other formalises heritage listings.

"Preserving heritage buildings is not only preserving the stone and arches," said Wardy. "We are preserving the integrity of the Lebanese identity."

Rebecca Collard is a Canadian journalist and photographer based in Jerusalem.