BEIRUT: Ambling along the narrow streets of Beirut’s Mar Mikhael and Geitawi neighborhoods on a balmy morning, master’s students from Balamand University’s Academie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts lead groups of design enthusiasts on a heritage-esque tour of the areas’ famous stairs.
One guide tells stories of the family who built the well-known Vendome Stairs – named after a long-gone theater at their base – and another recounts tales told by residents about a large stone in the middle of a flight north of Roum Hospital. The story goes that a drunken man comes every night to try to move it to the top but to no avail.
From secret steps tucked into the entrances of old buildings to short, wide flights shaded by webs of cables and serving as the only outlets for some apartments, the stairs are a defining feature of the capital’s hilly eastern areas.
The guided stroll, led by students Honeine Laeticia, Kallab Cyril, Salamoun Elias and Rouhana Joyce, and their instructor Diala Lteif, was intended to raise awareness of the imminent threat to the steps created by a slew of new developments.
“The main problem is a lack of preservation. None of the buildings along the tour or in that neighborhood are classified as heritage sites by the government,” said Lteif, who taught a semester-long course focusing on the stairs as part of ALBA’s new global design program.
Letif added that the students had conducted onsite research by interviewing residents in preparation for the tours, which were part of last week’s Beirut Design Week and were accompanied by an open workshop to brainstorm ways to protect the neighborhoods’ traditional character.
“In the program at ALBA, we look at design as a process to solve a problem ... and the users [of the design] are the main focus,” she explained. “Since we are contextually embedded in the city around us, it made sense for us to look at the design problems we face in the city.”
Lteif’s students hit the streets to talk with residents of Mar Mikhael and Geitawi, many of whom were older and had lived in the area for decades, about the stairs and the lack of heritage protection.
She said what the students discovered as they began to explore the neighborhoods outraged them. Seemingly on every corner, towers were being built, causing real estate developers to seek new outlets for the additional vehicular traffic such apartments bring.
The draft rent law recently passed by Parliament, under which old rents would be raised incrementally and tenants could be evicted with no compensation after nine years, threatens more upheaval, as does the controversial Fouad Boutros Highway project. The proposed road would pass from Ashrafieh to the port, with at least one flight of historic stairs, several traditional buildings and a large public garden being demolished in the process.
Additionally, as the stairs were mostly built as outlets for buildings located on the areas’ steep hills, all but one flight in the area are divided into sections that are privately owned by the landlords of the buildings immediately fronting them.
This means that as developers buy up old houses and plots for new construction projects, they also acquire ownership of the stairs in front of them, which serve the greater public of the neighborhoods.
Lteif and her students predicted that most of the stairs would be demolished in 10 years’ time.
However, the young designers found that many residents were unwilling to face the reality of the situation, feeling helpless to do anything in the face of the government and the real estate developers with their bottomless “wasta.”
On the tour, one of the students spoke about a woman whose apartment, just off one of the large flights of stairs leading up from Armenia Street and surrounded by creeping vines and greenery, was soon to be dwarfed by a mammoth tower currently under construction. When asked if she had considered doing something or moving, the woman replied she couldn’t even if she had anywhere else to go; having lived in the building for decade, it was the only home she knew.
Still, Lteif said, the students were able to establish trust with some older residents and discuss ways to fight back against the loss of historic structures. This was key, she said, as central to any design project is to “build empathy for the people you are designing for.”
Proposed solutions to the problem of integrating the stairs into the area’s design future include more cultural projects and festivals held around them as well as gardens and public areas incorporated along the steps to increase residents’ stake in the flights as communal spaces.
Lteif added that she and the class hoped Paint Up, the group responsible for the stairs’ colorful paint jobs, would continue bringing life to the steps with their initiatives.
“What we do is participatory design work, we want to reach out to the community. ... I always tell my students, a good designer is an engaged designer.”