BEIRUT: Merging the renovation of a historical building with the development of a skyscraper sounds in some ways like a clash of interests. But for one company, it has been a financially viable way of preserving the country’s heritage for future generations.
“What we had in front of us was a traditional house from the beginning of the 20th century. It was one aspect of the city that was slowly disappearing because of a lack of regulation and interest – mainly by the authorities, and the developers were also not doing things in a constructive way,” says Karim Saade, general manager of Johnny R. Saade Holdings, a Beirut-based company involved in real estate development, tourism and winemaking. The holding company’s real estate arm, Greenstone, came across the $5 million property in 2005 and took on the unusual task of saving the facade of the old building while attaching a tower behind it.
“We feel like we’re contributing to something bigger than ourselves, even if we’re talking about one building,” Saade says, as he points to a model of the project at his office, noting that pedestrian traffic will first see the heritage building as they’re walking down the street. “We want to find harmony.”
The project, which they call L’Armonial – a contraction of “art” and “harmony” – has taken an original four-story 1920s apartment building on Abdel-Wahab al-Inglizi Street near Monnot in Ashrafieh, adding two floors, and then building a 20-story tower behind it. The entire luxury complex will have 26 units and a swimming pool, spa, wine cellar and visitors’ parking.
To move forward with his company’s vision of keeping the old building’s facade in their new development, he brought on board renowned architecture firm Atelier des Architectes Associés, which had done the renovation and extension of the nearby Albergo Hotel in 1998. Bringing the hotel from three to eight stories, the project was criticized by many as disrupting the integrity of the original structure, but is now hailed as a success story in historic preservation.
“A lot of people were critical then,” recalls Georges Khayat, an architect with AAA. “But when you look at it now, it’s not a huge building.”
For the design of L’Armonial, he says he enjoyed the challenge of blending the old with the new, and he and his colleagues worked to make the tower minimalist to highlight the older building. At the same time, the new building has its own character, as they didn’t want to make a photocopy of the old building, taking inspiration from similar designs in the United States.
They see L’Armonial as one solution to a larger problem in Lebanon: a lack of government oversight or creative solutions for the protection of historic buildings. The preservation of the old building adds another $1 million to the $30 million project – a sign that the firm is taking the building preservation seriously, but also that it is indeed a moneymaking project.
“We need to find practical solutions to problems. Awareness is not enough,” says Saade, who is not only critical of the government’s lack of interest in historical preservation, but also activists who he thinks are often unrealistic about their aim of keeping entire structures intact. His ideal would be for activists to work with developers to find solutions. Saade is also quick to deplore the loss of historical landmarks like the house of Amin Maalouf and Roman ruins by the port of Beirut.
He said he sees his company’s project as an opportunity to show that development and historical preservation don’t always have to clash in Lebanon. Indeed, before the construction had even neared completion, Saade said he had noticed other developers embarking on similar projects, such as one in Mar Mikhael. This is the first such project for Johnny R. Saade Holdings, and the firm hopes to do similar ones in the future.
“When you look at Beirut, it shouldn’t stay the same, but it also shouldn’t be completely destroyed,” Saade says.
For Saade, it is a small part to play in moving forward without forgetting the past: “We will keep the attractions for future generations.”