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architecture

“We will find where you live,”  a watchman yelled at me after taking a picture of ruins on his construction site. He had followed me across the street to issue the threat, claiming to have memorized the license plate number on my car. “Wait and see what they will do to you when they come to your house.”

Source: Teloduh

This vast site, believed to be a 1st century artisan workshop (for at least part of its occupation), was uncovered late last year and could help tell the little-known story of Berytus, one of the most influential cities in the Roman empire.

Source: L’Orient Le Jour

 

Instead it is scheduled to become a glass skyscraper, serving as the headquarters of a private bank, SGBL (Société Générale de Banque au Liban).

 

The skyscraper is being designed by the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano, one of many celebrity architects transforming Beirut’s skyline with high end real estate towers worth billions of dollars and far out of reach of most Lebanese people. Piano is also designing the massive 160,000 square meter Pinwheel Project, which consists of a series of hotel and condo towers in the heart of downtown, as well as a city museum project, which is also to be built atop of a ruins discovery.  

Source: RPBW project conception

Sadly the type of violent threats and harassment I experienced is not unusual when attempting to document the wonders of the ancient world being unearthed for the first time in contemporary Beirut.  One would assume that a 2,000 year old site is one the entire country should be able to see, to learn from, to explore, to be inspired by, to build a sense of place, pride in preservation or national belonging. But in Lebanon, history can be private property. Several journalists and activists have been threatened or physically attacked for documenting the impact of real estate projects across the country.

To appease critics, some investors have recently pledged to preserve very limited sections of ruins, displayed decoratively as part of their real estate projects or concealed in parking garages. Yet these are often placed out of context or difficult for visitors to access and comprehend.  In the case of the Piano project, can the design of such a large building possibly preserve the vast vista of ruins beneath? Can the design be changed in any way meaningful enough to communicate its significance and that of ancient Berytus?

Upon closer view, we can see the interesting rock patterns in the walls. What do they tell us?

At the top corner of the site, the stones are entirely different, much larger and better carved, resembling grand Roman structures. Was there an important building near this site?

Most importantly, will the public ever get a chance to experience this piece of the puzzle of a city and great civilization we are just beginning to understand? With large walls surrounding the permiter, as seen in the photos above, passersby are not allowed even a glimpse of it.  (Photos in the post were taken from other buildings or openings in the wall.)

At any rate, the site might not be around for much longer.  Clearance may be closer than we think. In photos taken a few months ago, we can see nearly 20 tents set up in the dig:

Photo: Timo Azhari

But today there are only a few tents left, meaning the archeological teams may have largely packed up and left:

Is this why the developer is so aggressively keeping it off limits to the public? The site workers must have been threatened themselves if anyone is allowed to get a photo out.

It’s unclear if the diggers have already started to clear the area or penetrate to deeper levels as their position has changed since I first began documenting the site earlier this year.

Compare this image taken in January 2018:

To this photo taken from the same vantage point in recent days:

In addition to the removal of tents, we can also see the position of the two bulldozers is further into the site than they were early this year.

Here’s another shot from January 2018:

And the same vantage point today:

From a closer perspective, we can some of the amazing wall detail on the left section:

So what to make of the threats issued to me for taking these photos? They were taken from the public street, from the sidewalk, at a brief moment when the door to the site was open. There is no legal basis for banning photography in public space. There is no basis in banning the Lebanese public from seeing their own history.  But who was the man who threatened me and why?

The owner of SGBL bank is known to surround himself with those capable of serious violence. His bodyguards have regularly engaged in alleged criminal acts, including armed assaults and even a shootout in nightclub, according to news reports. In 2015, a bodyguard formerly employed by the owner stabbed a man to death in broad daylight, and was subsequently sent to prison. Is this the type of violence and threats that a Pritzker-winning architect like Renzo Piano would like to be associated with?

Interestingly, SGBL itself claims to be “a strong advocate of culture and arts in Lebanon,” according to its website. While Piano, who has been involved in several projects across Beirut has said: “Cities are beautiful because they are created slowly; they are made by time. A city is born from a tangle of monuments and infrastructures, culture and market, national history and everyday stories. It takes 500 years to create a city, 50 to create a neighborhood.”

In fact, the city of Beirut has not been developing just for 50 or 500 years, but for thousands of years and several millennia. Would it be too much to dream that Piano and SGBL live up to their stated ideals? Since both Piano and SGBL have profited so generously from Beirut, could they possibly give something back by preserving a bit of its illustrious past for the coming generations to enjoy?

 

 

What had been one of the most beautiful and historic buildings on Jeanne d’Arc street will soon be gone. Here’s a picture of it from January:

Jan 2017 (Before)

And yesterday:

Sept. 2017( After)

The demolition was well under way last week and it probably won’t survive much longer.

The Jeanne d’Arc building is/was just a couple of blocks up from the American University Of Beirut, a few streets from busy Hamra street.

Jan 2017

You could still see one of the arched window on the lower floor yesterday. Some say it will become a parking lot:

Sept. 2017

Elder neighborhood residents told me the building was easily over 100 years old. This would have made it one of the oldest in Hamra, where most development accelerated in the 1950s and 1960s. Before that Hamra was largely an agricultural area, a far cry from the urban density today where barely a tree can be found. Can you imagine how it might have looked, surrounded by orchards and greenery?

Jan. 2017
Sept. 2017

The door is still in tact too, but probably not for long:

Behind the building along Sidani street, there were three other old buildings, seen here in a photo I took for a post three years ago:

Dec. 2013

Almost all of these have also been demolished:

Sept. 2017

The block had already been in a poor state when I saw it, perhaps abandoned for decades:

Dec. 2013

But still quaint and worth restoring, one would think:

Dec. 2013

Now there is little left but the tree:

Sept. 2017

And the tree growing out of one building– compare to top photo. The tin door overhang is still there:

Also notice the turret-like stones on the building behind it. I’ve seen this on some old Ras Beirut buildings and not sure if it was decorative or part of the structure.

All the buildings are made of sandstone, which is supposedly protected by heritage laws:

Some said one of the buildings had been used as a school in more recent years, which seemed evident from some of the debris:

And the wall paintings:

I also noticed a number of roof tiles salvaged from the rubble:

They had a cool bee imprint:

Upon closer look, you can make out the name of the manufacturer: “Guichard Carvin & Cie” made in “Marseille St. Andre”

A quick internet search revealed these to be produced as early as the late 1800s.

Source: Mario

Can you imagine these tiles survived over 100 winters? I wonder how long today’s roof tiles last?

Another thing they don’t make like they used to is landscaping. Even though this decrepit block is falling apart, it is still the greenest place on the street, which is now full of concrete high rises:

Most people probably know the block by the old photo shop. A lot of things in the area seem to use ‘palladium’ including an old cinema not far away.

Questions remain. Why was one of the oldest buildings in the neighborhood not protected? What type of heritage laws allow the most historic building on one of the city’s most historic streets to be razed without a trace? Where was the Ministry of Culture and the Municipality of Beirut?

This could have been a rare opportunity not only to preserve a single building out of context, but an entire block, frozen in the early part of the century.  Whether as a community garden, small museum or even refurbished shops or apartments, it could have been a chance to protect a sliver of old Hamra at a time when much of the neighborhood’s architectural identity is gradually being erased, replaced by methodic glass and concrete structures that can be found anywhere and devoid of detailed craftsmanship.

While it stood, this block was a faint reminder of where we came from: the urban heritage and the social fabric that laid the foundation for what would become one of the city’s busiest neighborhoods.

But that window on the past is rapidly fading. And it’s being filled with rubble and concrete.

Always take pictures of old Beirut buildings. You never know when you will become an accidental archivist.

 

Screenshot of video via Jad Ghorayeb

 

A number of images are appearing on social media today documenting the demolition of one of Lebanon’s first major factories and reportedly the oldest brewery in the Middle East.

Photographer Jad Ghorayeb posted this video this afternoon on Facebook:

Demolition has begun.. @ "Laziza Grande Brasserie du Levant"

Posted by Jad Ghorayeb on Monday, March 27, 2017

 

Activists tell me the demolition of the old Laziza brewery in the very dense working class Beirut neighborhood of Mar Mikhael could cause public health problems, as well as long term gentrification effects driving up the cost of living, and thus indirectly evicting residents and small family-owned businesses that have existed for generations.

Photo: L’Orient Le Jour, posted Oct. 2016

The old sign has recently been removed, seen in this picture taken his morning:

And scaffolding went up last week:

So why is this happening, and if local residents are not a priority, who is?

Capstone Investment

The Laziza brewery, established in the early 1930s, will be demolished to create luxury flats by famous Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury, known for his exclusive nightclubs and appartments, affordable by a tiny fraction of the population.

According to the developer, Capstone Investment Group, the site will become “Mar Mikhael Village”

“Mar Mikhael Village entails the conversion of an old brewery into chic and trendy Lofts that exemplify contemporary city living in the hip area of Mar Mikhael.”

On his website, Khoury makes the argument that the height of the floors make it impossible for residential housing, lamenting its loss. He says a “ghost” of the building will be preserved, bringing back the sign and creating a small homage to part of the facade, dwarfed by a new massive superstructure.

Bernard Khoury website
Bernard Khoury website
Bernard Khoury website

Khoury says the demolition is “unfortunate” but inevitable: “The project’s relationship with the memory of its predecessor no longer lies in the mummification of the edifice that was to be recuperated, but instead rests on the acknowledgment of its unfortunate demolition, the tracing of its now-absent morphology and the poetry of its vital disappearance.”

But was a luxury residence really the only possibility here?

A piece that recently appeared in L’Orient Le Jour takes issue with Khoury’s comments, and questions their self-serving appearance. The piece argued that architects and investors bear a responsibility to the city beyond lip service and lamentation. Here is an excerpt translated from French via Google:

“But if the building is not suitable for housing, then the will to build should not be used as an excuse to demolish it. The problem does not lie in the inability of the Brewery to adapt, but in the choice of program which is unsuitable. Other programs, cultural, commercial, leisure, could indeed have been imagined there.”

The building should be preserved in its entirety and in all its parts whose composition is exceptional, witness of its rich history. But if it were nevertheless to concede to the financial reality, it would have been possible for example to preserve the central building and to allow itself to build on the rest of the ground. Real estate in Beirut is one of the most profitable in the world and even if this share of the 13,500m2 building is not exploited, the project will remain largely profitable.”

Yet this story is not just about the brewery but also the broader Mar Mikhael neighborhood, one of Beirut’s best preserved, and the dozens of developments and mega construction sites that are taking a toll on residents:

“The heritage situation in Beirut is indeed catastrophic: delusional real estate, absence of Masterplan, an obsolete heritage law that is struggling to be replaced by a modern law, blocked by politicians … As a result, demolished historic buildings and traditional neighborhoods Disfigured.However, the area where the Grande Brasserie du Levant is located is largely preserved and is a rare chance to preserve a historic quarter for the future. Such a massive project, replacing such an iconic building, is a violent act that will only initiate the disintegration of this precious urban fabric.”

Important questions raised by this project

What do local residents think of what is happening to their neighborhood? Why are their views rarely heard and why is the conversation on these mega projects frequently narrated by super wealthy real estate companies and starchitects? Why are people who own so much dominating a conversation over people who have barely a place to live?

How will projects like this one effect the residents health and livelihoods? What sort of pollution do these projects entail? How do they affect air quality, traffic, road closures and ability to do business? Do they also encourage other projects that will have similar effects, bringing more cars and pollution to the neighborhood?

Who are the developers, who owns Capstone Investment Group and what are there intentions, not just with the brewery but elsewhere in the city? Do big companies like this give back to the city, in terms of taxes and local development, or are the profits largely tax free?

What is the role of law and regulations? Are there laws to protect residents, average citizens living in the neighborhood? Do they have any rights to having their homes and livelihoods protected? Or were the laws and zoning regulations written to protect developers, who are often politically-connected elites?

What is the role of the ministry of culture? Some have said the previous minister opposed this project, has something changed? What about the urban planning departments, the municipality of Beirut, architecture and engineering syndicates? Are these government and professional bodies speaking on behalf of the country and the public or do they work in the interest of the powerful and well-funded?

Activists are planning to organize around this project so I will have more updates and background as it  becomes available. Any insights from readers, residents, old photos, etc would also be appreciated.

 

UPDATE:

A few hours after this post went up, a reader pointed out that there are actually two sets of plans for the “Mar Mikhael Village.” Although Bernard Khoury’s website and the Capstone Investment website both feature designs that incorporate part of the old brewery facade, Mar Mikhael Village also has their own website and Facebook page, where there is no sign of the old facade. In it’s place at the bottom center of the illustration, is a darkened, tilted modernist structure that has no resemblance to the original brewery:

And instead of the brewery sign, we have a similar shaped sign that reads “Mar Mikhael Village”:

Did Mar Mikhael Village just pull a fast one on us? Or are these old pictures? What happened to Bernard Khoury’s poetic “ghost” metaphor?

Also how did a single apartment complex already garner almost 14,000 likes on Facebook since it launched a few months ago?

UPDATE 3:

Photographer Jad Ghorayeb has just posted a beautiful set of photos of the brewery’s interiors. It’s hard not to imagine the potential for a community space, library or cultural venue:

How often do we find a 1930s factory with spiral staircases?

Or a space that recalls an industrial and national heritage that is long forgotten. Thanks to the developers, any potential for reviving it will now be fully erased, replaced by an exclusive gated community. See more photos from Jad’s full album posted on Facebook and also be sure to follow him on instagram for more of his stunning heritage photography.

Photo: Jihad Kiame

Two years ago the Governor of Beirut issued an order to stop demolition of this historically listed Art Deco building in Gemmayze, and shared the news to much fanfare on Facebook, as we reported at the time.

But the image above was taken today and we can clearly see the destruction has resumed after a two year period of quiet. So what happened?

This is not the first time Governor Ziad Chbib has made promises that turn out differently with the passage of time. In a press conference last year, governor Chbib voiced opposition to construction within the city’s only park, Horsh Beirut. He also seemed critical of construction on Beirut’s only public beach Ramlet El Baida. But construction has resumed in both of those projects.

#بلدية_بيروت تبدأ اعمال البناء على قسم من #حرش_بيروت وهو جزء من العقار 1925 وبذلك تستكمل مهمتها بقضم آخر بقعة خضراء في بيروت #اوقفوا_سياسة_قضم_حرش_بيروت

Posted by NAHNOO on Sunday, March 5, 2017

 

And despite a court ruling against construction on the coast, which is prohibited in the Lebanese constitution, the governor failed to enforce the ruling.

Picture taken today shows that construction has resumed on Ramlet El Bayda beach. #الشط_لكل_الناس #StopEdenRock Pic via Firas BouZeineddine

Posted by Paul Samrani on Monday, March 13, 2017

 

These developments only seem to prove that activist victories must be maintained and government officials can never be left alone or relied upon without continuous monitoring. What is going on with the governor’s promises? Are they mainly PR moves to placate a public outcry? Or is the governor less powerful than private business interests? Or is there more to this story?

Let’s not forget that the developer in this case has allegedly harassed activists and threatened violence, as we reported previously.

***

UPDATE: Shortly after posting this, I was informed by a member of the Save Beirut Heritage preservation collective that the building will not be completely demolished: it will be entirely gutted but the facade will remain. Four additional floors will also be added. Here is an artist conception:

 

The Save Beirut Heritage activist informed me that this was a “compromise’ agreement. In fact, the preservation of facades seems to be a popular move being implemented across Beirut, with major construction concealed behind a thin layer of the past. But is facade preservation considered a form of architectural preservation, especially when a building is extended with double the number of floors and turns out looking and feeling radically different than the original?

The nice thing about Gemmayze is that it is one of the few neighborhoods that survived the civil war as well as the even more destructive demolitions of the post war period. It had been one of the few places where one could imagine what Beirut once looked like in the last century, the so-called ‘golden days’ old timers rave about. But that is rapidly changing as more Art Deco and low rise buildings are being torn down, in favor of mega structures, multi-million dollar apartments few can afford and luxury car garages. The result is a radical change not just in the building itself but also the shops, the street life and the overall fabric of the neighborhood, its affordability, its inhabitants.

Go to Gemmayze while you can and enjoy and document as much as possible. In a few years, the neighborhood may be as unrecognizable as the “makeover”  this building is currently undergoing.

IMG_6628

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:

IMG_7210

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.

 

One of the great things about the internet is that there is just so much floating around out there–like all the plans for Beirut that seemed to have magically disappeared.

There was/is(?) a plan to re-create part of the old promenade of Beirut, the original corniche, which was known as Avenue des Francais:

12743977_10207424608266377_3340416595832803466_n

Today’s seaside esplanade or corniche is an extension of this historic Avenue. But the bay was filled in with garbage during the Lebanese war and according to Solidere (the private firm created to rebuild central Beirut) the original coastline was “lost” and the plan was to use the garbage dump as a landfill and further extend the shoreline, thus creating hundreds of thousands more square meters of real estate property in the process.

For now, we won’t get into the controversy of how Solidere was formed and who profits from it (I’ve written about that extensively here and here). Instead, let’s look at one of the many promises it made to the public to build green and publicly accessible space as part of its rebuilding narrative. One of these projects is called Shoreline Walk, a series of interlinking gardens retracing the original coastal outline of the city as seen in the top photo of the Avenue.  It’s marked below by red lines.  We can also see how the large landfill created a new coastline enclosed by a new breakwater sea wall and yacht marina (which has also become a cash cow for Soldiere):

shoreline-walk-11

 

Designed by the London-based firm Gustafson Porter, The Shoreline Walk was meant to “restore the energy and vigour of the old Corniche promenade” with “green infrastructure” that aims to “re-establish east-west links and connect together a series of new public squares and gardens for the enjoyment of the community,” according to the firm’s website, which contains the images below:

walkgarden.jpg

The project was designed 14 years ago in 2002 and expected to be completed by 2010 at a cost of 5 million GBP (around $7.2 million) according to a company presentation. So where is it now? I’ve been living in Lebanon for most of my life and I’ve never seen or heard of it.

Here is an image of the design from Gustafson:

plan-shoreline-walk-940x430

It wasn’t easy to place the gardens on today’s Google map because so much has been constructed. So I resorted to an old aerial shot from the late 1990s to align the plots:

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 2.36.29 AM

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And here it is with a rough overlay of where the “Shoreline Walk” should be:

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 2.42.23 AMadd

As compared to:

plan-shoreline-walk-940x430

So where is it?

Conceived 14 years ago, it’s due date is nearly six years past, and beyond a few shrubs and a short row of sidewalk trees, the area remains largely baren and off limits to the public.

The only garden that is completed is Zaytouneh Square, on the lower left.

But in reality, this is a hardscape space with few trees or shade:

Image-67
Source: Landscape Architects Network

A far cry from what seems a virtual rainforest in artist conceptions:

Gustafson-Porter_Shoreline-Walk_005

th_zaituneh-square

Indeed, Solidere’s overall “green spaces” map looks a lot more green on paper:

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…than it does in reality:

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On the other hand, the company seems to have had no trouble fulfilling its promise to construct blocks of high end towers for sale, with very few undeveloped plots remaining.

Still, Solidere’s green map is often touted in presentations and interviews with the press. Soldiere’s urban planner recently told design students at a university conference that the city center contains “60 parks and public spaces.” Many students were probably left wondering where these spaces are, as the presentation did not specify if the references and images described existing or planned projects.

In fact, Solidere has plenty of parks and public projects on paper. These include a range of archeological gardens, museums, fountain pools, even a large “central park” on the reclaimed new waterfront as seen above in the company map. But 22 years after Solidere began excavations in 1994, few of these spaces have materialized. And as seen by the example of the tiled Zaytouneh Square, the spaces that have been built often take the shape of sterile expanses with little seating that feel more like modern art to compliment private properties around them rather than inviting spaces for the general public to enjoy. But is that even the goal? Would the general public, most of whom are poor, be invited to mingle amongst the high security multi-million dollar apartments and luxury shops of the city center?

The Shoreline Walk was celebrated in a piece published last year by a landscape magazine which described the completed phase– Zaytouneh Square– as “daring, unique and dramatic.”

It added: “The sleek, bold, ultra-modern look of the square matches the character of the surrounding buildings and gives us the impression of a more modern, edgy Beirut.”

Here’s another image of that space:

Image-43
Source: Landscape Architects Network

Personally, I have never seen more than a handful of people loitering around the area and many of them tend to be private security. But will this change when the other “gardens” are completed? Will they be more green than this?

Although the magazine article was published last year,  curiously it makes no reference to the 14 years that have passed since Shoreline Walk was announced, neither does it ask any questions about when it will be ready. Soldiere’s web page on the Shoreline Walk also provides no explanation for the delay or any revised completion dates.

Perhaps the firm will say that political turmoil has hurt progress. Yet why has the same political turmoil not affected the completion of residential towers, sprawling condominiums with hanging gardens, a yacht marina and high end seafront shopping center (Zaitunay Bay) that have all been completed over the last decade? Are glass and steel towers easier to build than minimalist landscaped gardens?

Or does the $8 billion firm prioritize real estate gains for its investors over public space for the community? Perhaps someone out there has the answer.

***

 

UPDATE:

What is the state of “Shoreline Gardens” today? Dirt, broken tiles and a patch of grass. Here’s a view from the ground:

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The real estate, the multi-million dollar new buildings are there but where are the public spaces?

Compare this to Solidere’s official website description of the Shoreline Gardens (which was recently updated) and note the use of the present tense,  which seems to convey this place actually exists:

“The Shoreline Walk is a sequence of five connected spaces, placed between the old city, and the new land-filled area. The concept design suggested a new line which guides and reveals elements of history and forms a connective spine…

Shoreline Gardens (4,508 sq m) site of the historic Avenue des Français, provide a contemporary promenade. A long linear water feature and pergola unite the space, creating water movement over an undulating surface and dappled shade to sit below, re-establishing this area as a meeting point.”

Here again is the artist conception from 2002:

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Source: Campaign to save Red House

It seems everywhere you turn in Hamra, there is a new tower coming up. None of them affordable so most are empty. The old storefronts and casual street life marked by locals chatting on the sidewalks and old men pulling up plastic chairs becomes replaced by large metal gates and car garages: no loitering, no spontaneity, no sense of community is sanctioned by unregulated private capital keen on exclusive luxury property development.

What will remain of Hamra and Ras Beirut when every old building is torn down? Will it become just any other prefabricated valley of towers, with no sense of history, community or architectural identity? What will happen to the rest of Beirut if there are no authorities capable of protecting any semblance of heritage? Where is the Ministry of Culture?

Such questions are now being raised by the campaign to save yet another condemned building known by its residents as “Red House,” part of which reportedly dates back to the 18th century, which would make it one of the oldest homes in Hamra.

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Source: Campaign to save Red House

The campaigners say the Directorate General of Antiquities has drafted a report to save the home, but according to this article the report has sat for several months without a signature from the Culture Minister Rony Araygi.

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Source: Campaign to save Red House

Instead the current renter, architect Samir Rubeiz– who says his family has occupied the second floor of building for three generations– says they have been served an eviction notice to vacate within 10 days, ending on January 22. The eviction notice, they say, specifically mentions demolition.  (See bottom of the post for updates and reaction from the owner)

Rubeiz’s family has started a Facebook page and encourages visitors to take pictures and publish them to share the story. I am told some activists are now trying to reach the minister and there has been some scattered press coverage. But public participation may be needed as well if this house is to be saved unlike the infamous demolition of the Maalouf house despite promises by a previous minister and an outcry by some activists.

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Source: Campaign to save Red House

In addition to posting pictures and sharing this story, you can also contact the minister on Twitter.

Here is an interesting video about the house, underscoring the broader issue of the neighborhood’s disappearance in favor of well-heeled real estate interests.

For a sense of the context in which this potential demolition is taking place see these photos from Al Modon news site:

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Clearly the Red House stands alone, the green spaces and other homes that may have once surrounded it are now paved with parking lots and condos. Can this lonely memory of the neighborhood be saved?

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UPDATE:

A decendent of the owner of the home has posted a rather terse response to those sharing this story, noting that the tenant, Samir Rubeiz, is a “leech” and simply using heritage as an excuse to keep renting the home at a cheap rate. This is presumably because of old rent laws that have recently been controversially amended allowing potential evictions across the city. However the status does not make any mention of what the owner plans on doing with home and whether or not she thinks it should be kept or demolished. I have reached out to her to get a clarification and will publish one if she responds. Here is her comment in full:

I am responding to the numerous posts about the Red House in Hamra. I would like to inform those who have shared comments and articles about the house that it belongs to MY family. My grandmother Marie Abdo Rubeiz raised my father Georges Rubeiz and my uncle Michel Rubeiz in this house. My uncle Michel who is now 90 years old still lives in it. My siblings (Nelly and Abdallah Rebeiz) and I spent innumerable hours in this house when we were children.

Samir Rebeiz, who is behind the historic designation campaign that you are spreading around in your posts, has been renting at no cost in MY FAMILY’S HOUSE for decades and has repeatedly refused to vacate OUR PROPERTY unless he receives a very significant sum of money. This real estate conflict is the only reason that Samir Rebeiz wants to “save” the house: so that he can continue to live in it indefinitely for free. My family has been going through hell in the Lebanese courts to resolve the never-ending saga with this leech. There are many details that the public is not aware of, but it is unequivocal that Samir Rebeiz is doing this out of self-interest only and not to preserve a historic house. In fact, just a few hours after my father Georges Rubeiz (who served the Lebanese and specifically the Ras-Beirut community for decades as a cardiologist at AUB) passed away one month ago, the honorable Samir Rebeiz couldn’t get to the appropriate government agencies fast enough to report that my father had died in order to reverse potential court rulings against him. This was right after he offered his condolences to my family.

I hope that this clarifies the situation of the “Red House in Hamra” for all of you.

UPDATE 2:

I’ve spoken to the tenant’s family for a reaction and they say they have already begun to vacate the home and have no interest in staying. “We just want to save the home,” a relative told me, showing stacks of boxes in the living room ready to be moved. The relative hoped the home could become a cultural or museum space. The relative also noted that while the rent has indeed been low, Mr. Rubeiz has invested in maintenance work, which contributed to the DGA report valuing the building’s preserved architectural features. The family would also like to emphasize that they don’t intend to be in conflict with the building owners and instead focus on the need to preserving the structure and they encourage supporters to do the same.

UPDATE 3:

Blogger Elie Fares has compiled a history of the Red House, underscoring it’s political significance, and particularly that of its female occupants who helped build the careers of certain politicians during Lebanon’s early modern history. There is even a visit by Louis Armstrong! See Elie’s post here.

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Government officials like to complain that activists love making noise but never propose actual solutions. This is especially true in Lebanon where the mayor of Beirut has repeatedly mocked those that oppose the municipality projects as being long-haired rebel rousers (i.e. hippies) or simply “liars” bent on sabotaging his plans. The mayor–and other officials– also complain often in press conferences that activists are ‘not professional’ or have no degrees and thus have no idea what they are talking about.

The truth is many of the activists are professional architects, lawyers and urban planners who have proposed solid ideas and possible blueprints for the city, often relying on better research than the municipality itself, which is notorious for going ahead with plans without providing studies or allowing any meaningful community involvement.

And the public is beginning to react. Big crowds came out this weekend for the exhibit of alternative proposals for the coastal area known as Dalieh, which is threatened by real estate development. Activists interested in preserving this rare natural coastal site launched an international design competition to reimagine it for public instead of private use and the entries are now on display all week at Altcity in Hamra. You can view the exhibit until this Friday June 12, every day from 9AM-11PM. AltCity is located at the beginning of Hamra street in the Montreal building at the Mezzanine level. See Facebook event for details.

I will leave you with some pictures of the opening night where architects got to explain their ideas to the public and get feedback from the audience.

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You can read more about the Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh and the ongoing struggle to keep the site free to the public by visiting their website, which lists some of the campaigns actions, legal background and how you can get involved. You can also follow their Facebook page for upcoming events.

 

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If you hurry, you might be able to get a glance of this historic facade before it is gone.

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The demolition is taking place on a small alley next to the Phoenicia hotel called Hyram street, behind the hotel’s security barricades, where few may have noticed it.

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Luckily, I was there a few weeks ago, and fearing the worst, I took some pictures. Here is what it used to look like:

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Finally here’s a view from the top street:

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The building seemed to be in pretty good shape, considering the circumstances. So why was it not preserved?

If anyone knows more about it–the building’s age, owner, legal status, architecture, etc.– please comment below and I will update the post.

And remember, always take pictures of old buildings. You never know when your images could be the last ones.

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UPDATE 28/11/14

One day later and the building is almost completely erased:

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Interestingly, one commentator below noted that the previous structure would be “completely rebuilt” by a firm called “Nabil Azar Builders Design Consultants.”

Yet a quick look at the renderings of the new building on their website reveals in fact only one facade will be ‘rebuilt,’ but even this will differ significantly in terms of arches, balconies and the entrance. See photos above for comparison:

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Courtesy Tom Young

Next week, Beirut’s storied “Rose House”, which sits on a rare green hill overlooking the Mediterranean, will be open to the public for the first time. The artist Tom Young will be showcasing his work and hosting a series of events beginning next week. He sent me these pictures:

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Young hopes to shed light on the 19th century building, which he feared would be destroyed after learning that its long term tenant of 50 years, Fayza El Khazen, had been asked to leave. So he got in touch with the new owners and convinced them to allow an exhibit, featuring musical, theatrical, film events and activities for children, in addition to some 40 of his painted pieces.

Dubbed, “At the Rose House” the exhibit will run from November 19 until the end of December 2014. Young will also be sharing what he has learned about the history of the home during his two month artist residency there, particularly its importance as a cultural meeting place during the 1960s.

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“I’ve been exploring the house’s context in the city, drawing inspiration from the forest of towers which surround it, and nearby landmarks such as the old lighthouse and Luna Park,” Young said an email. “These places are anchors in the city’s soul.”

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“Rise and Fall” by Tom Young from “At the Rose House” Beirut

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Here’s a video Young has made about the project:

And here are some of the paintings that will be on display:

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“Survival” by Tom Young from “At the Rose House” Beirut
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“Zones” by Tom Young from “At the Rose House” Beirut
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“Age of Innocence” by Tom Young from “At the Rose House” Beirut
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“Arches Mirage Wall” by Tom Young “At the Rose House” Beirut
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“Interior Erasure” by Tom Young from “At the Rose House” Beirut

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Young developed a similar exhibition last year at another abandoned mansion in the Gemmayze neighborhood known as Villa Paradiso. The hope is that art can help us celebrate, remember and perhaps even save some of these buildings, which are being rapidly destroyed across the city to make way for multimillion dollar towers only the wealthiest can afford. But such efforts can only succeed if concerned citizens attend in large numbers to make their voices heard. So spread the word and see you there!

 

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For more info about the exhibit, get in touch with Tom via tom@tomyoung.com and his Facebook page.

All photos courtesy Tom Young

Exhibit opening hours: Tuesday to Saturday 11am-7pm, open until 10pm on Fridays