BEIRUT: As she painted the soft curves of a cherub’s baby face and gave leafy vines a pale drop shadow, Nathalie Yared imagined the original artist 150 years ago painting the same brush stroke, feeling the same strain in his shoulder and taking his coffee break on similar scaffolding.
Yared puts the final touch on Beirut’s restored buildings. She repaints the elaborately decorated walls, faded and chipped after a century or more of disrepair.
“What is great about this job, [is that] you really feel you are working in the same place as someone years ago, the same scaffolding, almost the same techniques,” said Yared. “I learn what they did, and I have a lot of respect for them.”
Yared’s is a rare art form in these parts. Instead of bringing the country’s Ottoman-era homes back to their noted glory, most property owners opt for very profitable apartment construction. For the scarce restorers, Yared’s work ensures the interior remains as authentic as the red-tiled roof and sandstone facade of homes now hidden by the city’s skyscrapers.
Most of these classic buildings date back to the Ottoman period of 1850-1910, while other remaining homes are from the late-Ottoman period of 1920-1940, said architect Fadlallah Dagher, who has led a handful of restoration projects including his own home.
Most are old family homes, now dilapidated and bereft of infrastructure like heating, electricity and modern plumbing.
In Beirut, the high price of land has made high-rise construction easy money. Demolition of old Lebanese homes has become a rational investment when compared to the price of restoration – which costs on average $2,000 per square meter, Dagher said.
Restoration is also a timely process. Detailed surveys of the home, deconstruction, reconstruction and final details like Yared’s restorative painting take about four years to complete.
“When you do such a thing, you have to survey all the details,” Dagher said. “You have to dismantle the house, sometimes you have to reinforce the structure, put in the old tiles or new tiles, waterproof the roof – yes, it’s a long process.”
It’s during this survey when a scratch to the wall could uncover an original fresco, he and Yared said. Yared wagered that under years of paint, most of Beirut’s Ottoman-era homes hide elegant paintings.
So far, Yared has worked on a handful of homes in Gemmayzeh and Ashrafieh, where she repainted neoclassical scenes of colorful fruits and vines, gold leaf embellishment and chubby angels.
Her work starts after most of the construction is complete. The paint restoration alone can take up to six months, she said.
Restoring frescos turned Yared into a type of archaeologist. The artist uses fragments of the remaining paint to piece together the original ceiling design, and simply washing the walls can uncover an unexpected color palette.
“In one house, we all thought the walls were brown, but they were pink,” she said. “We were all surprised.”
After cleaning, Yared traces all of the remaining artwork, a job done with arms extended to the ceiling for hours.
After the drawings are complete on paper, Yared pokes tiny holes along the pattern. White powder is splashed through the holes to transfer a fragile powder copy onto the wall or ceilings – a technique Yared discovered dates back to the original painters.
“While I was working, I saw little dots on the wall,” she said. “The original painters used this exact technique.”
Yared and her working partner Mireille Farah then get down to business, with months of repainting meters and meters of repetitive patterns.
The process of reviving a room brings it to historical limbo, Yared said, as fresh paint links 150-year-old fragments into a fresco that is both new and old. In this solitary space for months, Yared develops a relationship with the walls and their history.
“You live in that space – it’s your desk. You bring your moods, you give a lot to that wall, and when you have to give the place over to the owner, it’s hard. You’re suddenly a stranger in your room,” she said.
“It’s a little bit frustrating when you finish, because you forget how it was,” she added. “I spent so much time on it, but if it’s successful it looks old.”
Some of Yared’s projects were never finished.
Yared led the restoration of the niches in Saint Elias Cathedral in Downtown. Years of war left the 150-year-old church destroyed and vandalized, said Elie-Pierre Sabbag, who led the architectural restoration.
Though structurally the church is finished, Yared never painted the saints who once occupied the niches alongside decorative oriental patterns.
It’s one more, tiny piece of Beirut’s history she hopes one day to revive.
“I love modern art and modern design. But when you find, for example, a table that was in a kitchen for so many years, it has its own spirit,” she said. “I feel like we have to know what happened before. I’m really happy to work on something that has a history.”
For more information on Yared’s restorative painting, contact Nathalie Yared Peinture Decorative at 03-328-312.