Lebanon News

Gemmayzeh Art Deco house demolition rouses ire

A photo of the historic Art Deco building which is being demolished in the Gemmayzeh neighborhood of Beirut. (The Daily Star/Venetia Rainey)

BEIRUT: Gemmayzeh residents woke up Friday to the sound of a historic Art Deco building being pulled down, prompting complaints from local businesses and a snap campaign to try and stay the demolition process.

The pinkish corner building, which has been empty for several years, was built during the French Mandate period, and like many constructions along picturesque Gouraud Street, it boasts a number of distinctive features, including stylized wrought iron balcony railings and bay windows.

“It’s not very easy to say precisely when the building is from, but either the late 1920s or early ’30s,” said Antoine Atallah, a Lebanese architect and urban designer. “The sort of ironwork you see on the balconies are purely Art Deco. It’s possible they were imported from Europe, or made in Lebanon to copy it.”

The site is on the list of old buildings in Beirut, according to Atallah, who possesses maps of the city’s protected sites, but falls under category E: worthless. To him, however, its value is indisputable.

“Not only is this building representative of its period, but also its particular style is today very rare in Beirut. We don’t have many of such buildings anymore,” he said. “I’ve never been inside, but judging from the outside it’s in very good condition, very refined. It’s definitely valuable.”

Eyeing the dust filling the street as workmen start to break down the building’s interior, Ginette cafe manager Rocky Kiblawi said he would try to file a complaint with the municipality and get a neighborhood petition going.

“They are supposed to give a letter to the neighbors, to inform us at least to be ready, especially where we are serving food and stuff,” he said, gesturing to his large outdoor dining area that is meters away from the new demolition site.

“Also, it’s very old, so they are supposed to renovate, not destroy. I can hear everybody walking by saying, ‘That’s not fair, look, stupid Lebanese, look what they’re doing.’”

“I will try actually to talk to the municipality to see if they can do something,” he said, before adding with a shrug, “I don’t think they will do anything. But I’ll try to do a letter, and I’ll see if some neighborhood people will do the same.”

But to all intents and purposes, the building is likely a goner, according to municipality and ministry officials, especially if it is not listed as having historical or architectural value.

Culture Minister Raymond Areiji said that he tried to save it by freezing the demolition request, but was overruled by the Shura Council, a body that checks the legality of administrative decisions and whose decision is final.

The only option available to the ministry was to compensate the owner, engineer Mohammad Rashid Atweh, which it was not able to do.

“The State Shura Council didn’t accept the decision to freeze the demolition, and so it is applying the law,” Areiji told The Daily Star. “They had to, because with the absence of compensation, the objection is not justified and the decision to tear down the building is valid.”

Although he could not recall the specific file for Atweh’s property, Beirut Governor Ziad Chebib, who gives final approval to all such requests, said the law was clear: “If the owners or builders have a license, their work’s status is legal.”

For activists campaigning to preserve architectural heritage in a city with a predilection for lucrative real estate deals, however, the ruling points to a flawed heritage preservation system that protects individual buildings, but not the character of areas.

“There are many reasons not to tear this historic building down,” explained Joana Hammour from Save Beirut Heritage. “But it goes beyond just the building. If this building is gone then the whole street starts to lose its character and its value. ... There is a reason Gemmayzeh is special, and it’s to do with its character, its identity.”

Atallah pointed to a category B-listed a house right behind the demolition site, calling Beirut’s current laws “absurd.” “The sense of historic environment comes from an area, not from one building,” he said. “You protect an entire area if you want to preserve this. With this kind of classification you will end up with one tower in front of it [the category B building], one behind it, one next to it, and the historic building in the middle.

“From an urban planning view this is absurd, no country in the world thinks of architectural protection in terms of single buildings instead of areas.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 13, 2014, on page 3.

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