In the aftermath of the explosion in the port of Beirut that left more than 300,000 people homeless on 4th August, the time has come to protect the damaged Lebanese heritage. A mission that Lebanese volunteers are taking on to preserve their history.
Lebanon’s modern history had a major impact on its architectural heritage. The various armed conflicts of the past 50 years, from the civil war from 1975 to 1991 to the July one in 2006, have spared neither the inhabitants nor the buildings. For some, dating from the Ottoman period and the French Mandate.
However, beyond the ravages of the war, a completely different threat has been looming over the conservation of Lebanon’s architectural heritage for some twenty years now. That of real estate speculation installed in the aftermath of the civil war, ready to suppress its past in the name of more lucrative projects, such as Solidere, the reconstruction company owned and founded by former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which has done little to destroy the spirit of the former Saint-George Hotel built in the 1930s.
This is what prompted the association Beirut Save Heritage to be created in 2010. Its mission is to raise awareness about heritage conservation in Beirut, but also to ensure a presence on the ground to avoid uncontrolled destruction, “We have a fairly large network of people on site who watch the buildings and warn us if they see a risk of destruction of historic buildings, on our side we try to assess whether it is legal or not. If it’s not, we then contact the Directorate General of Antiquities and if it’s legal, we try to lobby on a case-by-case basis to convince the DGA not to destroy the building,” explains Antoine Atallah, an urban architect and vice-president of Beirut Save Heritage.
The explosion of Tuesday, August 4th could well strike the final blow to Beirut’s architecture if nothing is done. Some real estate developers are already hoping to take advantage of the explosion demolition of old buildings to raze everything and build new, more modern complexes instead, as Antoine says”There are two risks. The first one concerns architecture, where buildings could be badly renovated by their owners or simply demolished because the latter decide to seize the opportunity to get rid of them for money. The second concerns the danger of disintegration and denaturation of the urban grid. The districts close to the port comprise a great diversity of population, spread between inhabitants installed there for generations and younger creative people who have arrived in recent years. Our goal is that the people come as quickly as possible in their areas, rather than settling permanently elsewhere, otherwise the district would lose a great deal of strength”.
While preserving the dynamic and traditional character of Ashrafieh is at the heart of these Lebanese heritage activists concerns, it is also a way to avoid reproducing the mistakes of the past. Those of the lifeless city center reconstruction of Beirut’s post-civil war, once a bustling commercial centre, now transformed into a ghost district full of luxury shops and apartments inaccessible to the vast majority of Lebanese.
At the legal level, despite the actions of many architectural collectives such as CAL, APLH, or Nahnoo, the jurisdiction is moving slowly and nothing today protects Beirut’s architectural heritage or even its public spaces “Politicians have no interest in passing such laws because it go against their own financial interests. And the financial stakes are so high that even on the landlord’s side, some are not very proactive in protecting their property because millions of dollars are offered to them,” says Antoine Atallah.
Meanwhile, Beirut Save heritage is hanging posters in the streets of Beirut, to warn homeowners to contact them if they receive offers from property developers urging or propaganda forcing them to flee their homes. At the same time, The collective international forces have set up a committee of experts such as the one of l’ICOMOS at UNESCO, which is currently in charge of carrying out an inventory of the damages, in order to plan the preservation and conservation of the Lebanese heritage, which concerns more than 600 buildings and is estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars.