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Gabriel Daher, who is known for posting beautiful images of old Beirut, posted something a bit different today. The photo above appears to be a demolition in progress on Aabrine street, in historic Ashrafieh. Heritage activists say it’s not just the demolition of one building, but that a developer plans to tear down an entire cluster of buildings , pretty much erasing what remains of the neighborhood. (Update from developer below. See notes at bottom of post)

I took a picture of the same building about a year ago, when we first heard it could be endangered:

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Activists say at up to 5 buildings on Aabrine street may also be razed. Here are some of the ones I visited a year ago:

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If they go, we will also be losing their beautiful courtyard area and green spaces:

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We will also be losing their quiet alleyways:

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We will also be losing their windows:

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And their doors:

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I went in through one of them:

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Inside there were the old vaulted ceilings:

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But also rare wood ceilings, with what appeared to be actual tree branches holding them up:

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I wonder if anyone knows how old these could be?

And what happened to the people who used to live here? All that remains are these physical structures, reminding us of a bygone time of urban village life, gardens, small shops and pedestrian traffic.  Will it now be replaced by tinted Range Rovers and big concrete walls?

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We saw a similar cluster get razed a few months ago in Furn El Hayek. Will anyone stand up to the developer this time?

UPDATE 1:

An activist from Save Beirut Heritage just told me the buildings range from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. They raised a complaint with the culture ministry about a year ago, when it was reported that Bank Audi had purchased the land. If anyone has further details, please comment below.

UPDATE 2: (April 24/2015)

In a reply to a Facebook thread on this blog post, Bank Audi has denied buying the plot of land. This is odd because multiple heritage activists have informed me that they are certain the bank was involved at some point fairly recently. It’s not clear if there was a sale or what the banks involvement may have been. A number of activists are now saying a group called Mena Capital is the current owner but I have yet to confirm this. 

UPDATE 3: (April 25/2015)

A source close to one of the developers has just contacted me saying that there is no demolition planned for the photo of the first building in this cluster–the one with the green net over it. Green nets are usually employed for heavy construction works and thus a very common sign of demolition across Beirut when placed on decaying buildings. But the source says the net was only installed to protect pedestrians from falling material and that in fact a renovation is planned for said building. The source–who did not want to be named–says the corner building is actually protected by government heritage listing (which has been confirmed by activists) and thus any demolition would be unlawful. 

The source claims there is a plan to renovate and “hopefully” save the building and turn it into a cultural center.  But the source could not provide further details and also said the timetable for these plans is dependent on financial issues and “factors we have no influence on.” The source also could not comment on the other five buildings in the cluster, saying they were part of a separate development. 

But does this mean any of the buildings are safe? Activists and architects have told me there have been multiple indications that attempts have been made by developers to bypass heritage listings and apply for demolition permits. There has also been talk in the neighborhood of imminent demolitions since the residents vacated a few years ago. Fellow blogger Elie Fares has a great post from 2 years ago looking at the emptying of one building in particular which is part of this cluster. I will follow up on these new developments next week to find out who actually owns these properties and how solid the claimed renovation plans for the corner building are.  

16 COMMENTS

  1. This is what happens to architecture, it dies. This is what happens to cities, they die. Indeed it would be extremely sad to lose this neighbourhood because it constitutes a coherent urban fabric very well described in the above photographs. We are not here in the presence of a bourgeois mansion (like the neighbouring Sehnaoui or further the Sursock, Feghali, Mokbel, Cochrane and the like) with intricate detailing and fancy materials, but rather in a generic situation carrying traces of the previous garden-city that Beirut outskirts once were. This makes it even harder to preserve because in the eyes of many, these houses are not “rich” enough to be labelled as heritage. What makes it even more fragile is its “strategic location” in a neighbourhood where the real estate value has reached astronomical figures and where developers are eating up each and every remaining parcel. Will we see one day a project to preserve the human scale of this quarters around Beirut? because if we cannot preserve these bldgs. we should at least do something to save their spirit.

    • Interesting points Naji, thank you. We have come to assume such ornate craftsmanship and lush gardens–belong to the upper classes. It’s nice to know that average people could once afford such places in the city.

  2. Is anything going to happen to prevent this demolition? Or is it too late? It is really sad for Beirut! These buildings could have been renovated, turned into cozy hotels or smth like they do in actual cities… It could have been lucrative that way too! I am so upset with the urbanism policies in Beirut, if any… It is heartbreaking…

  3. Dear Habib, is there any email address I can reach you at? It’s about one of the buildings pictured above. Thanks.

  4. it is heartbreaking if these buildings are torn down, They can be renovated keeping the beautiful facades and the court yard that have seen so much history, these stones have stories to tell. Turn them into restaurants, stores, hotels. We cannot keep loosing part of heritage for money. There comes a point when we all need to stand up and put an end to these developers and their plans, Newer does not mean better.

  5. Perhaps a sit-in would be the only solution. And declarations in the media, like Joumblatt did previously in his newspaper concerning the 20s building in Gemmayze.

  6. A friend and I explore abandoned buildings throughout Beirut. We had found these buildings a year ago. There are some children’s drawing and art projects in the basement of one of the buildings. There are also the remains of a garden and an overgrown grapefruit tree. We heard something making a lot of noise in the dried leaves by a barbecue in the middle of the garden. It was a medium-sized tortoise. Maybe it belonged to one of the children that lived there near the start of the war, and when they evacuated/moved, the child was forced to leave the tortoise behind? My friend and I suspected that this block would soon be destroyed by developers but didn’t know what we could do with a tortoise. He seemed happy to be alone there in the garden so we left him there. My friend forwarded me your article two days ago so yesterday I went back there to see if I could find the tortoise again. He was in his usual spot in the garden, making a lot of racket in the dried leaves. I put him into a bag and took him to my apartment. He has been happily walking about the balcony, snoozing in the sun, eating cabbage, lettuce, and peas, and exploring the apartment. Not sure what to do with him at this point though. Should I find him a home near the Eco Village? Or give him to a good home?

    • Ha, that is great Arthur, I hope you found him a nice home. It be interesting to know how old he/she is!

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