There are exceptional examples of Ottoman and French era buildings that merit preservation, but this is not true of all historic buildings in Beirut. Preservation makes sense from an urban point of view, such as in the Foch-Allenby area in downtown Beirut, where an entire quarter was preserved and renovated after the war. There are few areas in Beirut that still retain their historic character in a way that would make conservation meaningful.
|Foch - Allenby Conservation Area
The battle to save individual buildings is misguided; it’s more a heritage fetish than a desire to conserve. Why should the Ottoman and French heritage define what Beirut should look like today? In fact, the much-despised modern towers being built in Beirut have more of a local character than the imported historical models. A combination of building codes and local tastes has created a typology that is unique to the city, and it is remarkable how in recent years, the quality has significantly improved. The pastiche that flourished for a while has given way to a more thoughtful and elegant language.
|Residential tower by Nabil Gholam
It is not difficult to detect the snobbish nature of the heritage preservation campaign. Many of its leaders are architects who are dismissive of the towers being built in Beirut, while they go around promoting a vision of the city that belongs to the 19th century. Even their attempt to make a link between preserving heritage and preventing gentrification is hypocritical. The historical area of Gemayzeh is inhabited almost exclusively by architects and BoBos, as became quite clear in a recent television debate held on the main street. Gentrification is happening with and without redevelopment; the city should at least enjoy the economic benefits of the latter.
Another interesting omission in this debate is the total absence of any reference to the only successful model of conservation and redevelopment, which is the work carried out by Solidere in downtown Beirut (The fortified medieval area and the adjoining Ottoman hill.) By shifting development rights onto other sites, Solidere created the economic model that would allow for development and conservation to take place. In addition, the Solidere model allowed for the construction of modern infrastructure, making it a novelty in Beirut.
The result is a well-preserved historic area that no self-respecting heritage campaigner would be caught dead in. Thousands of tourists and visitors enjoy the area however, and it has become a buzzing (if over-priced) leisure destination. Perhaps it’s not to everyone’s taste, but it is a folly to believe that conservation today has anything to do with authenticity. The historic centres of European cities have long ago witnessed a similar transformation; it’s a romantic delusion to think city centres are where the natives live.
Heritage campaigns resonate well with western journalists who indulge in the fantasy that Beirut is an oasis of culture in the Middle East that should be preserved. Without fail, they all warn of Beirut becoming the next Dubai, forgetting that Beirut was the original Dubai. The heritage campaigns are manifestations of the deep unease with the pace of rapid change in Beirut and the inability of the Lebanese intellectuals to come up with an alternative vision for the city. Cities don’t have the patience to wait. I’m looking forward to more towers in Beirut; the long shadows should provide much needed shade on those hot summer days.