Inside Beit Beirut

Inside Beit Beirut

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Beit Beirut, Lebanon’s first memory museum, is finally getting ready to open its doors. After at least a decade in delays, restoration work on the war-ravaged early 1900s apartment building (which became a notorious sniper’s nest during the civil war), is now completed.

You may recognize it from the outside as the swiss-cheese looking building in Sodeco formerly known as the Barakat Building:

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Late last month, a few officials and architects were invited to see the completed work, which contains four levels of exhibition space, two auditoriums and a gorgeous panoramic rooftop terrace.

The old building seen above is now complimented by a new glass structure on the backside and the two are joined by a central open-air atrium, which now takes the place of the old inner courtyard:

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At the bottom of the atrium, a glass skylight lets light into the ground floor lobby, via a circular ceiling window:

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Here is a shot of the lobby from the opposite perspective, revealing the spiral staircase that runs throughout the museum:

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At the center of the lobby floor, another circular window allows the atrium light to run continuously down through to the basement:

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… which is home to the large auditorium:

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The chairs are arranged in near concentric circles around the podium, where officials from the Beirut municipality gave self-congratulatory speeches:

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But the real star of the show was architect and activist Mona El Hallak, who has been lobbying to save the building since the 1990s when it was days away from demolition.

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For nearly two decades, El Hallak has researched and archived the Barakat building’s storied history and fought against real estate interests to preserve it as a cultural space–a tireless effort that earned her a medal of honor from the French government, which helped fund the project.

The architect, Youssef Haidar, thanked Mona prominently at the outset of his remarks. Oddly enough, outgoing municipal council members failed to make any reference to her work, although alluding vaguely to the contributions of “civil society.”

Following the remarks, we were allowed to roam the space freely. Although it retains thousands of bullet holes, graffiti and blown out walls–a testament to the militias and snipers that once operated here– Beit Beirut has been upgraded with refurbished floors, windows, concealed AC ducts, state of the art security and lighting.

Here are some photos of the interior, and at the bottom of this post, you’ll find a video walking tour of the building I did on Periscope.

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Original floors from the Barakat apartment building are retained in some places

 

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Graffiti: “The Sniper”

 

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Militias that left their marks on the walls now serve as major parties in Lebanese parliament, often using the same insignias.

 

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Located on the separation line between East and West Beirut, nearly every window in the Barakat building had a commanding view of the neighborhoods around it, making it popular with snipers.

 

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Several snipers’ nests like the one in this photo are set back from the arched windows.

 

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The atrium opens up at the center of the rooftop, revealing the joint between the old and new buildings

 

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Stunning views from the rooftop underscore the buildings strategic importance to militias

 

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Lebanese and French officials took plenty of selfies

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Beit Beirut contains a smaller screening room on the ground floor

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The screening room was also a sniper’s nest, seen here from the back wall, which looks onto the chairs below.

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Is the audience being sniped or doing the sniping?

 

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The Beit Beirut entrance retains both the war scars and original deco-esque sculpting. The museum is lit up by a giant projector across the street.

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Despite the clear accomplishments, some complained of discrepancies in the design, such as the treatment applied to the outer walls, which seems to have altered the shape of the bullet and shrapnel holes into neater, bubble shapes.

 

Even though the work is completed, Beit Beirut may not open for some time until the management can be appointed and a cultural program is designed. Hopefully this process will not take several years as has been the case with Beirut’s National Library, a sprawling multi-million dollar cultural space largely completed over a year ago, which remains empty and off limits to the public.

For now, here’s a walking tour of Beit Beirut that I shot on Periscope. Stay tuned for updates.

 

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