Despite a cessation order posted yesterday by Beirut’s governor, demolition works have continued today at a historic Art Deco building in Gemmayze. One activist with Save Beirut Heritage sent me these pictures and told me he was threatened by the site’s foreman today for taking them.
According to the SBH activist, the foreman began by cursing his mother and sister– with the typical vulgar references. Then he recalled that he had seen the activist–who frequently documents heritage demolitions for SBH– at another historic building being torn down in Furn el Hayek, also documented on this site.
He said: “I wish we would have put you in a van when I saw you there. We should have taken you somewhere and beat you up,” the activist recalled.
The SBH activist said the altercation began when he took a picture of this artist conception of what the new building will look like. The image shows a completely different building that appears to have retained nothing of the original structure. The height has also been changed from the current 4 floors to at least 10 floors:
Such an image appears to contrast the brief bit of jubilation among citizens and activists yesterday when the governor posted the cessation order on his Facebook page after coverage of the demolition, both by The Daily Star and this blog.
But how could the old structure be protected if an entirely new– and much larger– structure is to take its place?
The activist I spoke to was not the first to say he was harassed at this site. A licensed architect had reportedly visited the Deco building recently and went to have a look at the demolition orders posted on its outer walls. The architect told this story:
“The foreman asked me to leave when I was looking at the papers. I refused saying anyone has a right to read demolition permits posted on a building, particularly a licensed architect and member of the Lebanese architect’s union. The foreman asked for my ID and tried to grab it. Soon after, I got a call from the union with the foreman claiming I threatened a union action against the building!”
Can you imagine how much power this developer must have to get a bureaucratic Lebanese union to react so quickly?
A close read of the Governor’s cessation order indicates that work on the “eastern” part of the plot must be stopped. However works on the western part were allowed. This means the building is actually composed of two parts. The corner section–which activists say dates back to the earlier part of the century– and the section left of it on Rue Gouraud, which is apparently a later addition from some time around the 1940s.
Here’s a closer view of the Western section:
Yet when I visited the site last weekend, both buildings were cloaked in green demolition nets and barricades have been put around the sidewalks and curbside parking of both buildings. And once again, the artist conception doesn’t appear to preserve either part.
Activists and citizens will have to stay vigilant on this issue to make sure the corner building is not demolished. But who will hold the owners accountable in case they threaten people for taking pictures or reading legal permits posted on the building?
It’s actually not surprising to hear about developers harassing journalists and photographers. I was physically assaulted last year for taking pictures at a major construction site that concealed ancient ruins. How long will Lebanese developers remain above the law?
Update: The architect who was harassed agreed I could use her name. She is Abir Saksouk-Sasso.
I went there today and my story is a little different. Both the man photographed above and the owner were actually quite nice to me and allowed me to take photographs and videos. Their side of the story was that yesterday’s visitors had forced themselves into the building. When I had asked multiple times to be allowed in, they refused, but for good reason: rubble was flying everywhere. It is true that photographers often get unrightfully harassed for taking photographs, but it should also be noted that the people employed are only doing there job and must be treated with respect. It is not their doing that the building is going down – the decision was taken in a comfortable office by people who are rarely present on site.
I was there today and my experience was different. Both the man pictured above and the owner of the building were courteous with me. When I pleaded with them to be allowed inside and unto the roof to document the demolition they refused, but insisted this was for safety reasons – rubble was flying everywhere – but suggested I shoot from the street or the neighboring buildings. I don’t know whether they behaved this way because of yesterday or whether you had one side of the story. From what I was told, the activist and architect had entered the building without permission and were asked to leave for safety reasons. Harassment of photographers is nothing new, but often it can be avoided by approaching people without aggression and with an explanation. The men on the site are just doing their job and they should be treated with respect – the decision makers that caused the demolition of this building are unlikely to be present on site, so projecting the sentiments reserved for them unto others is not a way to go.
Respect is important and the two individuals who were harassed are respectable people that have worked hard for social causes. They were both also Lebanese so keep in mind that as a foreigner, you may have had a different experience. I agree that being cordial is the way to go, but threatening to put people in vans and asking for ID to view a building permit are very belligerent actions that should not be taken lightly.
I should also add that the two individuals are not related in any way and both told me their stories independently on different days. I don’t think they actually even know each other and I met them through entirely different contexts.
I photographed this building a couple of years ago when visiting Beirut. Tragic to see all these old heritage buildings being torn down. The image of the interior with the Deco stairwell is especially sad to see, as it’s clear the beautiful tilework have already been removed.
I see a lot being discussed about how the contractors are threatening and that’s pretty bad abut that wasn’t my experience either.
In any case, not to minimize this issue, but I think we all agree that the destruction of a protected building, and destruction of Beirut heritage is the main issue here.