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art deco

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.

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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.

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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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In a Facebook post last night, Beirut Governor Ziad Chebib shared an order from his office to halt demolition works on the Art Deco building in Gemmayze. This follows coverage of the demolition by The Daily Star and this blog over the weekend.

Earlier yesterday, leading politician Walid Jumblatt issued a statement condemning the demolition and demanding accountability from the Culture Ministry and Beirut Governor over this issue.

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Jumblatt also mentioned Roman ruins discovered in another part of the same neighborhood and questioned both the need for wealthy developers to keep amassing profits by building towers on such small plots and the lack of interventions from the municipality to save some of these plots, despite its huge amount of financial reserves. I had posed some of the same questions in my post on the Roman ruins this week–indeed a friend of Jumblatt had alerted me to his statement soon after it was published, noting that Jumblatt had read the blog post prior to making it.

So it is in this context that Governor Chebib published the work stoppage order last night. In fact the governor directed his comments toward Jumblatt stating that his cessation order had already been issued over the weekend and a police memo issued on December 12 to enforce it. This is curious because the governor had not mentioned any of this during his interview with the Daily Star on the same day–Dec. 12. In fact, the when asked about the building Governor Chebib reportedly “could not recall the file” and seemed to indicate the demolition was legal.

“Although he could not recall the specific file for Atweh’s property, 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.”

Also when I visited the building this weekend with some activists and the local Mukhtar, we noticed several official permissions posted on the building signed by the Governor. I haven’t had time to go over these in detail, but maybe someone can come up with a quick translation:

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Whatever the case is, I’m glad that major politicians are now debating what had been any other demolition a week ago–that is, before our coverage started. We should also thank the architect Jihad Kiame who drew our attention to this issue earlier this month when he posted about the building’s imminent demolition on Facebook.

Now that the conversation has started, the efforts should focus on closely monitoring what happens next and who will be held accountable for those actions.

 

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Update: 12/16/14

Architect Kiame and The Daily Star’s Venetia Rainey have just posted that some construction work continued today. Rainey is scheduled to talk to the governor about it. Looking forward to her piece.

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The green screens have gone up and demolition work has already begun on the top floor. The wrecking crew is working by hand so it will take a while.

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I just spoke to the local Mukhtar and he said many residents are opposed to the project, which he said was rejected by the municipality of Beirut. However, as is often the case, the building owner sued at a higher court and apparently won.

The residents are planning a sit-in and I will have more details on that when they are available. In the meantime, you can go take some pictures. The building sits on a old-fashioned corner facing the Ginette restaurant on Rue Gouraud, near the Red Cross building.

Preservationists say the battle is not over just the building itself but the space it occupies in the context of the neighborhood.:

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How different will this corner be if is occupied by a luxury glass and steel high rise? Again, it’s not just one corner–the entire neighborhood is being transformed. The Mukhtar told me Gemmayze used to be “a village” only 15 years ago, full of bustling small shops and locals, but now it is largely a rowdy pub and night life district.

“It used to take me an hour to walk down this street– just to say hi to all my friends,” the Mukhtar said. “Now I walk down the street and I don’t know anyone.”

 

***

UPDATE:

I just noticed The Daily Star has an interesting piece on the building by my colleague Venetia Rainey. She discovered that the building is owned by “engineer Mohammad Rashid Atweh.”

According to her interview with the culture minister Rony Arayagi, Atweh won the case because of the “absence of compensation” from the state. But I wonder, why would the state need to compensate Mr. Atweh to not destroy his own building? The building is in good shape with over a dozen shops and apartments to rent or sell. Why would maintaing or repairing his own building be a “loss”? On the contrary, shouldn’t building maintenance and repair be mandated by the law?

If anyone knows what the owner needs to be compensated for, please let me know.

UPDATE 2 (12/16/2014)

The governor of Beirut has just posted a demolition cessation order on his Facebook page. More details to come.

UPDATE 3 (12/17/14)

The demolition has sparked a debate among the governor and politician Walid Jumblatt, with hope that at least part of the building will now be saved. See this update.

UPDATE 4 (12/18/14)

Activists say they were threatened or harassed for documenting the ongoing demolition.

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This may be your last chance to see some of the oldest buildings in Furn El Hayek, including these early century storefronts, which are about to be demolished.

 

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The shops are built into an old stone wall that hugs a corner in the Achrafieh neighborhood, overflowing with greenery–an increasingly rare site in the concrete city Beirut has become.

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I was told by older residents that this was once a garden connected to two nearby buildings (seen at the right corner) built during the Art Deco period in the early 1900s.

Naji, an activist with Save Beirut Heritage, drew our attention to the endangered buildings about 10 days ago, when he posted some pictures on Facebook including this one:

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But when I visited the area yesterday, I found the same building covered in tarp with the balconies and window facades now torn out –valuable items in the antique market, one would suspect:

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The buildings were classified as “protected” by the Culture Ministry. However that designation was voided by the high court or Majlis el Shura, which reportedly ruled in favor of the landlord who had appealed against the designated protection. And apparently he won.

The second building behind it has already been gutted:

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Floors and ceilings broken through:

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Revealing the old sandstone construction pieces, now used as glorified paper weights, holding down the demolition panels on the sidewalk:

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The old sandstone walls are also revealed in the exterior property wall:

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Which neatly wraps around the block, near the shops:

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If you make it today or tomorrow, you might still catch a glimpse of the early 1900s architectural features that will be lost:

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As well as some of the contemporary graffiti, that has colored the abandoned block over recent years, as residents have died or moved out:

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When new towers are developed in the area, will there be any place for posters or street art?

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There are still a few old buildings in the neighborhood, from Art Deco and earlier eras:

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But they are rapidly being replaced, by the looming towers:

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Uniform facades, free of any ornamentation:

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No distinct balconies or metal work:

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Which city would you rather live in?

More importantly, why is this happening and what can be done? Similar demolitions are taking place across Achrafieh. So why are courts ruling in favor of the property owners despite the Culture Ministry’s designations, produced by expert architects? Does the Culture Ministry lack the lobbying power or capacity to appeal such high court decisions or to provide a legal framework for heritage protection that will have more influence in the courts?

I will try to tackle some of these questions in an upcoming column. Any feedback, particularly from people who know the laws, would be appreciated.

***

If you would like to visit the area, it can be accessed from Charles Malik street, near the BLC bank (Tabaris area). Take the diagonal road (Chehade) that goes up the hill. It is just passed the restaurant Beirut Cellar, the green patch on the bottom right corner.

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Last week I posted on what seemed to be the destruction of yet another historic Beirut building, the Sanayeh checkered building, which is currently cloaked in the dreaded green construction tarp. But fortunately, it looks like at least the facade may be preserved.

Fellow blogger Renato at The Daily Dora, saw my initial post and immediately sent me the great picture above which is featured in the book “Beirut 1920-1940: Domestic Architecture Between Tradition and Modernity.”

Sadly there is not much about the building in this book, despite its use on the cover:

But as luck would have it, Renato’s father actually spent some time living in the building from 1961 to 1967. And he loved it so much, he actually had a painting commissioned by local artist Najwa Harb:

Harb’s piece is a reinterpretation of another piece by an artist named Kourani, but Renato didn’t have the first name.

Renato’s father, who lived on the second floor, said the it was owned by the Abboud family from Batroun–though it’s not clear if they were the original owners. On the ground floor lived an AUB sports instructor called Ibrahim Obeid–related to the owners–and on the first floor lived one Madame Majdoub.

Renato’s father says there was a rumor that the checkered building once housed either the General Security offices during the French mandate or the home of the French chief who headed it at the time. When Renato and his family returned to Lebanon in the 1990s, it had been occupied by Syrian soldiers and totally gutted down to the tile floors, he said.

Interestingly, the building next door, also an art deco structure barely visible in the first photo, was apparently owned by the Tabet family. It was leveled in the early 2000s as far as my memory serves, and there is now a mosque in its place.

Renato said a number of AUB students had protested a possible demolition of the building a few years ago. Now the developer is planning to keep it, workers on site told him, which was also confirmed to me by Naji from Save Beirut Heritage.

Here is how it appears on the developer’s site, integrated into a new building:

Instead of tearing it down, the checkered building is now seen as a “feature” in the building specs:

I guess this is encouraging news and hopefully more developers will view heritage architecture as an asset rather than an obstacle. But I’m still not convinced Beirut needs the 10,000 million-dollar apartments going up in every corner of the city that almost no one can afford.

Thanks again to Renato for the wealth of info and be sure to check out his site, a quirky photojournalistic journey through the country, which is both funny and intriguing.