BEIRUT: Over the past half century, Beirut’s urban landscape has undergone great change. Aside from population growth and mass urbanization, a 15-year Civil War exacted a frightful toll on the urban fabric. The reconstruction that follows prolonged civil conflict invariably has an impact upon a city’s architectural patrimony. Coupled with reconstruction is property development. Since the Civil War was concluded in 1990, construction firms have razed numerous historic structures to make way for more profitable high-rises.
For those who prize the charming grace of historic buildings and the leafy neighborhoods where they’ve resided, such development is an affront to the city’s heritage.
According to the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage, Beirut was home to 1,600 Ottoman, Mandate and Modernist structures in the 1990s. Today, there are about 200.
“They have ripped out the soul of the city,” fumes Giorgio Tarraf, spokesperson for the cultural heritage organization Save Beirut Heritage. “The only value they understand is the dollar sign.”
Tarraf and Josef Haddad, a founding member of the APLH, believe that it wasn’t the Civil War that wrecked Beirut’s urban aesthetic but subsequent urban development, which has paid scant attention to preserving the city’s character.
“Whatever the Civil War destroyed, Solidere did much worse,” argues Haddad. “Whatever is partially destroyed can be repaired. However, once it is completely destroyed, it is gone forever. Solidere disfigured Beirut. ”
Solidere, a privately owned real estate firm charged with redeveloping the city center in the 1990s, did demolish many downtown buildings. It also selected individual showcase structures for renovation – gutting the interiors and retooling them for contemporary business needs while recreating the appearance of the original facades.
The firm has repeatedly denied conservationists’ accusations that it “destroyed” Beirut. Its downtown reconstruction efforts, it has said, have sought to preserve elements of the area’s archaeological and architectural heritage – pointing out that maintaining such historical richness sets Beirut apart from other regional centers such as Dubai.
Tarraf and Haddad believe that the profit motive driving large-scale private sector construction projects have trumped the public good. They accuse the Lebanese government of having been co-opted throughout the process, and abdicating its responsibility to develop strategies to preserve Beirut’s architectural heritage.
“You need political will to implement changes and urban reform and there is no political will,” Haddad says.
“The politicians are linked to the real estate developers,” he continues. “They are very influential. Even if a politician is transparent and clean, [developers] can influence those around him. Any high-rise will generate at the very least $300 million. It is easy to throw in a $1 million bribe.”
Michel De Chadarevian strenuously denies accusations of graft at the Culture Ministry, where he works as an adviser. However, he concedes that a lack of legislation to protect Beirut’s architectural heritage, coupled with severely limited financial resources, has scuppered preservation initiatives.
The administrations of the then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri oversaw the development of systems to regulate urban development so as to preserve Beirut’s architectural heritage – first seeking to protect neighbourhood clusters, later focusing on the historical value of individual structures.
This system was abused, De Chadarevian complains, noting that more recent initiatives have awaited Parliamentary ratification for the last three years.
“Our ministry is very tough on the issue of demolition,” De Chadarevian insists. “The preservation of culture is the main theme of our work. However, with regard to restoration, neither [the ministry] nor the entire Lebanese government has the financial resources to [re]solve the situation.” He notes that the ministry’s budget of less than $3 million is a paltry 0.018 percent of annual government spending.
The situation is exacerbated by the current rental regime. Rental agreements signed before 1992 cannot be amended. Rents were sometimes set before Lebanon’s currency collapsed in the late 1980s.
De Chadarevian admits that these “old rents” have encouraged owners of historically valuable buildings to sell to developers for a handsome profit.
“The old rental system has been a massive burden on landowners for decades,” observes Tarraf.
“It provides owners with an incentive to demolish.”
Due to a dearth of legislation regulating the height of Beirut’s buildings, there is also a financial incentive to build big, after which the developer can sell each apartment according to the prevailing price per square meter in the area.
The latest historic structure to come out on the wrong side of the developer’s equation is a Mandate-era building in Ain al-Mreisseh that was demolished in late July.
It’s been difficult to find readily available information on its building history, but it was first erected in the early 1900s and augmented with more storys and Oriental embellishments in the 1930s.
“We are selling our history by the square meter,” Tarraf exclaims, producing before-and-after photos of the building. “They claim they are going to preserve the facade as part of the new structure, but is this really a form of preservation?”
Displaying an architect’s blueprint of the structure slated to be raised on the site, he shows how the building’s original three-story facade now fronts thirteen floors of concrete and steel. It does make for an incongruous image.
“If it was the same building outside Beirut,” De Chadarevian agrees, “no one would think of destroying it.”
Haddad observes that in Europe, governments often have a system of grants available to landowners wanting to restore structures of historical value. Such financial resources are unavailable to Lebanon’s Culture Ministry.
He suggests that a potential solution to the problem lies in investment by the Lebanese diaspora, pointing out that the gulf between salaries in Lebanon and the cost of land in Beirut makes it incredibly difficult for those within the country to raise funds for restoration projects.
Echoing De Chadarevian, Tarraf points out that the Culture Ministry’s current annual budget is a mere $3 million. Meanwhile the budget of the Venus construction project in Minet al-Hosn – where Tarraf and others allege a rare Phoenician site was recently razed – stands at $500 million. Tarraf argues that this discrepancy illustrates the financial hegemony of the private sector.
For Tarraf and Haddad it is apparent that preserving Lebanon’s heritage does not rank high on the government’s agenda, arguing that recent incidents are cause for concern.
They refer specifically to Culture Minister Gaby Layyoun’s decision to overturn a decree issued by his predecessor, Salim Wardy, designating the planned Venus Towers construction site as culturally significant.
Earlier, Layyoun had signed off on the demolition of the site without publishing the decision in the Official Gazette. Heritage groups were infuriated when they found out, viewing Layyoun’s move as a deliberate attempt to give the developers a head start.
“It is ironic that the very minister who should be trying to protect Lebanese heritage is the one facilitating its illegal destruction,” Haddad argues. “What is worst is that it seems [that] he learned from a previous mistake.”
Haddad is alluding to the halting of a government-approved construction project on the site of a former hippodrome in Wadi Abu Jamil.
That project was scuttled due to the opposition of civil society groups – a phenomenon which Haddad claims Layyoun successfully averted in the Venus Towers case.
A court has since ruled that the Culture Ministry was guilty of no wrongdoing in the Venus Towers case.
“The light is so far off,” Haddad says despondently. “It’s a civic struggle because there is no political will. When my grandparents visit Beirut now, they [feel] heartache. They don’t want to come here. They feel it is not their Beirut.”