During Lebanon’s civil war, bombs and rockets wiped out a substantial portion of the country’s architectural heritage. The war ended and the shooting has stopped, but the destruction of historic buildings has not. Every day, demolition teams tear down old houses and bulldoze hundred-year-old gardens. Tall concrete towers replace the houses, overshadowing the few historical neighborhoods Beirut has left.
Heritage activists are trying their best to preserve the few old ‘Lebanese houses’ still standing in Beirut. But their efforts are largely in vain, as there is no law to protect old homes and preservation is low on the list of priorities for the country’s politicians.
“We have failed,” says Fadlallah Dagher, an architect and a member of the Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings in Lebanon (APSAD).
Too few on the list
Activists have lobbied the government to enact a heritage law, but so far they have not succeeded. The only law issued dates back to 1933, when Lebanon was under the French Mandate, and protects buildings constructed before 1700. Activists say this law is better than nothing, but does not protect the majority of Beirut’s old buildings.
“This law is very old and outdated, buildings [built before 1700] are very few,” Dagher says. “We do not have any legal support, the only thing we have is the famous list of buildings that should not be demolished.”
In 1999, the government issued a directive listing 220 historic buildings protected from demolition — unless the minister of culture says otherwise. Kahtib & Alami, an architectural and engineering consulting company, created the list, which groups historical building into five categories: A,B,C, D and E. “A” refers to buildings in very good condition, and “E” is the classification for those buildings needing significant work. Buildings classified as A, B or C are protected, while D and E can be torn down freely.
In 2007, parliamentarians drafted a law to reinforce the 1999 directive. It passed through the council of ministers and then disappeared, and is now assumed to be gathering dust on parliamentary shelves.
Mona Hallak, an architect and a member of APSAD, says the 1999 listing is the “worst thing that ever happened” to protecting old buildings, because the study classifies many buildings as D and E, although they are still in good condition. She also says the study concentrates on individual buildings, rather than whole clusters and neighborhoods, which are more important to preserve.
Demolishing an A, B or C building requires the approval of the minister of culture, and it would appear some ministers have been happy to grant permission. Hallak says that when Mohammed Youssef Baydoun was the minister, developers tore down around 22 of the B and C buildings. Since then, Hallak says no one has removed any buildings from the list. The Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA), a division of the ministry of culture, holds the protected buildings list. The DGA declined to comment for this story, saying the issue is “hard and complicated for us.”
Political pressure plays a major role in determining whether a developer can demolish a heritage building. Whenever a historical site is torn down, whether it is on the list or not, activists begin to send letters to different government officials at the Beirut municipality and the prime minister’s office, in order for the work to stop. But they seldom reply, and the demolition normally continues regardless.
“Without the law, it is just a bit of pressure here and there,” says Hallak.
While A, B and C buildings are somehow protected, heritage activists are trying to fight for the remaining — those listed as D and E and those which are not listed at all. Activists are also trying to safeguard the historical image of some neighborhoods like Gemmayze, which is slowly being torn down, and soon will only host contemporary towers and buildings.
“In 50 years there will be nothing but tall buildings,” says Hallak.
Gemmayze losing identity
The Gemmayze area is one of the few neighborhoods in Beirut where the architectural history of the city is still preserved en masse, and its residents, with the help of some architects, are trying to keep it that way. However, the neighborhood faces a dilemma found in much of Beirut: developers tear down heritage buildings only to replace them with high-rise towers, which activists say destroys the area’s historical image.
Among the most recently demolished historical structures is the Medawar Khan, an Ottoman era roadside inn built from stone blocks and snuggled into the hillside at the bottom of Gemmayze near Beirut’s port. The khan, the last one in Lebanon, at one time hosted merchants and traders after long days of traveling to Beirut. In July, the DGA found out about the destruction of the khan. It sent two formal requests to the Beirut municipality and to the administrative governor of Beirut — one on July 2 and the other on July 7 — asking for the demolition to be stopped immediately.
But it was too late. The structure was not on the government’s list, the DGA could not act by itself since it does not have its own heritage police staff, and the municipality did not reply in time. By mid-July the khan was gone. Lot 146 (where the khan was) is owned by a Lebanese company called Consilium for Investment and Real Estate Development, which is foreign-owned.
Other historical buildings are also being torn down. For example, Makram Zeeny, president of the Gemmayze Development Committee, says the building were he lives on Nahr Ibrahim street in Gemmayze is being evacuated. The developer who bought it will tear it down. Zeeny says the building was constructed in 1927 and might be listed as a D-building so that it can be demolished later, even if it is still in good condition. Two other buildings on the small Gemmayze street are already empty and will also be torn down. A local said that the works started on July 21.
Since these buildings are not listed, or listed as D and E, there is nothing activists can do in order to stop their demolition. Even the DGA has no power to stop their destruction. Thus with no law, heritage activists can only sit and watch large parts of Beirut’s history being turned into dust.
“There are so many beautiful D and E buildings that are being torn down,” says Hallak.
“Slowly, we are losing everything we have.”
Neighborhood growing tall
Architects say it is more important to preserve a cluster than it is to safeguard one building.
“Tearing down a building is terrible… but what is worse is what is going to be built instead of it or beside it,” says Hallak.
For that reason, the APSAD is lobbying for a law that sets construction standards for historical neighborhoods.
“We were demanding a new construction law… but no one wants to review it because it is hard and complicated, especially in Beirut,” says Dagher from APSAD.
In 2006, the Director General of Urbanization (DGU) — the government body in the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation responsible for urban planning — issued a directive to set the construction standards for Gemmayze, so new construction would blend with the neighborhood’s traditional image. To the surprise of all the activists and Gemmayze’s residents, tower permits given before the directive was issued were exempted — although that was the reason why the area was put under study in the first place. Residents submitted a petition to outgoing Prime Minister Fouad Saniora and the former Minister of Public Works and Transportation, Mohammed Safadi, requesting a reversal of the decision. But construction permits were given, and the towers were built.
In a 2006 statement, Joseph Raidy, the president of the Gemmayze Development Association (ADG) said that issuing a directive that applies only to certain segments while exempting the others only happens in a “Banana Republic.”
The government also commissioned a study of the St. Nicolas Stairs in Gemmayze in 2001. But according to Georges Abi Khalil, head of management and coordination at the ADG, no one is abiding by the directive. Many developers are building more stories than is allowed, then going to the municipality to compensate for the ‘mistake’ by paying money.
“The building beside us [on the St Nicolas Stairs] is listed, but they built two more floors, which is illegal,” he says.
Khalil also says archeological remains were found below a new building that hosts a restaurant on the stairs, but the developer ignored them.
“We filed many lawsuits… we stopped their work for six months… but nothing happened,” he says. “There was also a small road between the two buildings, which was there for 70 years, and they closed it.”
Paving over history
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the Lebanese authorities planned two new roads in Ashrafiyeh; one in the Sodeco area, and the other in the Hekmeh area — both areas rich with historical buildings and beautiful gardens. The decree for the road in Hekmeh was signed again in 2008 by the caretaker Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud, outgoing Prime Minister Fouad Saniora, Lebanese President Michel Sleiman and other concerned parties.
However, according to Shafik Milan, the head of the general planning committee at the Beirut municipality, there is nothing new happening with this project. He thinks that it is very hard for this road to be built because of its very high cost, and the many buildings and gardens that would need to be destroyed.
“The road should be done before buildings come up, and not after,” he says. That is good news to the APSAD, who launched a campaign on March 20 against the road in the Sodeco area, which passes through Tabet street and would demolish seven heritage buildings.
Jack Tabet, the owner of the Tabet Palace, says unfortunately there is nothing he can do if the government decides to build the road. A third of his garden would be destroyed, and the foundation of his 13th century property will be damaged.
APSAD is trying to propose an alternative to this plan by shifting the road so that it includes the large parking area on the other side of the street, thus sparing historical buildings.
Dagher says that since the buildings included in this plan were frozen because the Lebanese government acquired them, Lebanese citizens should take the opportunity to safeguard the cluster and replace the road plan with an alternative. It is yet to be known whether the plans will go through.
Historic buildings not only hold sentimental value, they are also economically viable. Nada Sardouk, director general of the ministry of tourism, says the loss of Beirut’s history is having a negative effect on tourism. She also says that whole clusters should be preserved, and not only individual buildings.
“If I was the head of the Beirut municipality, I would have asked the government, the municipality and the ministry of finance to give municipalities incentives and say: ‘go ahead and buy these houses or go and be sponsored by a bank.’”
As a next step for heritage activists, they say they will wait for the new cabinet to be assigned, and will then push the parliament to pass the law to protect buildings of historic value. Even though the law took 10 years to be drafted, hopefully it will not take as long to be approved.
“If they will approve it, it will be great,” Hallak says. “If not, we will keep up the pressure.”