20 Sep 2010

Beirut: The City of Long Shadows

Yet another article bemoaning the loss of Beirut’s architectural heritage as a result of the current construction boom. I’ve counted no less than ten articles in the western press this year, and they’ve all covered almost the exact same angle on the subject. Greedy developers, weak state, poor people kicked out of the city. While part of the picture, this narrow angle hardly provides a comprehensive view.


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.
Gemayzeh

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.
Conservation area

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.

For information and photographs on some of the projects I worked on in Beirut, see here.

5 comments:

  1. you neglect to mention the class aspect, except briefly. its true gemmayzeh is gentrified, but the effects of building a tower in a neighbourhood are devastating. when hariri builds towers in qoreitem or nears goodies, rent goes up to $2000 a month in nearby buildings. who can afford that?

    i have many friends who are getting evicted from their buildings because they will be torn down so millionaires can live in their place. hurray. who are these millionaires anyway? why do they have a right to live in a spot my friends grew up in? and are those towers bringing any infrastructure development?

    and downtown "redevelopment" is the perfect example of class cleansing and outright theft. why does an investor or homeowner from the gulf have the right to a spot once occupied by lebanese middle class owners? is that why they have all those shady "security" guards on every corner downtown? but good news is, yes, solidere did create the only working infrastructure in beirut. so all those gulfies in the cafes smoking argeelehs don't have to experience any electricity cuts. hurray.

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  2. If by the class aspect you mean the middle class whinging because someone with more money than them is making them move out a few kilometres, then you're right I did neglect to mention it. I would have thought that the real problems with housing in Lebanon are to be found in the Palestinian camps and in the neglected areas like those in Tripoli. Those are the more pressing problems.

    Re Solidere, my point was not to defend it, but to indicate as the only example that worked because of the corrupt nature of the political system. It could be replicated if people are interested in preserving heritage, but the result will be similar with gentrification.

    Having said that, no one could have believed after the war that it would be possible to rebuild the downtown. Aside from the total devastation, the ownership rights were so complex that it would have been impossible to do anything. All the main political powers agreed to the Solidere project in the early 90s, that's the only way it could proceed. It’s such a hypocrisy of them to turn against it now.

    I don't quite understand your definition of 'rights'. Nobody has an inherent right to own property in a certain area. If I agree with your logic, it means that I should leave the UK to the Brits. What right do I have to live in a house that once belonged to an English person?

    finally, I don't understand the hatred towards people from the Gulf, is it because they dress differently? I am not willing to support the bullshit Lebanese nationalism that is overtly racist towards 'gulfies', or is it ok to hate them because they have money? Most of the families that come to Lebanon are not even rich, they are middle class families enjoying a holiday abroad, why should we demonise them?

    I do agree that there is a serious class dimension to the housing situation in Lebanon, but I don't see why we should discuss it through the prism of heritage and towers.

    Nice site by the way, why did you never tell me about it?

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  3. i didnt mean to turn it into an issue of nationality, though its intersecting in this case (gulfies are loaded with cash). i just mean, i don't understand the logic of money. why someone with more money than you can turn you out of the house you grew up in. or the business your father owned and toiled in all his life downtown is now occupied by rich gulf owners for whom downtown is just another candy store. its true that the ownership issue was very complicated to sort out after the war. but its also true that ordinary people didn't get a say. and ordinary people got stolen from or completely ripped off at least. solidere is an example of stealing from the poor to give to the rich. it reminds me of one of jesus' parables. i dont believe that the solidere solution was the only one.

    and downtown used to be accessible to all classes. now the only way they can lure the middle class back in (who gives a fuck about the working class) is to use the souks.

    maybe youre right that all these heritage neighbourhoods would become gentrified anyway. it doesn't make what happened downtown right, or appealing.


    as for the housing of palestinians, its a totally legitimate issue. but both are legitimate. why didn't you write an article about it in the first place, now my response is the problem, a distraction from the "real" issue?

    im glad you like the site :)

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  4. really? u show a nabil gholam project as the epitome of lebanese architecture? really? and u studied architecture? really?

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  5. and i didnt understand what you mean about "economic benefits of the latter"...please explain.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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