On the corner of Beirut’s Sodeco crossing stands one of the city’s most emblematic buildings, one that epitomizes both the city’s history and the ravages of the Lebanese Civil War.
The Barakat building is one of the last standing war-torn structures around the center of Beirut, a symbol of the city’s progress and architectural heritage. The building’s construction began in 1924 under the watchful eye of Youssef Aftimos, one of Lebanon’s most famous architects, who also designed Beirut’s municipal building. The first two stories of the four-story building were built out of stone because concrete had yet to be widely used in construction. By 1932, concrete was all the rage, and two more floors were built, making the building one of the first, and last, remaining structures in the city built in this fashion.
Barakat is actually two buildings conjoined together, with much of the space between them consisting of a wide void that gives almost every room a view onto the street — including the rear rooms. This architectural peculiarity gained the building much acclaim as a piece of avante-garde architecture, blending Art Deco and Ottoman styles. But because the building commanded a strategic position on one of the major fault lines of the Lebanese Civil War, the Green Line, it became a premier fighting position in 1975. Christian militiamen built reinforced sniper positions in the rear of the house, away from the windows, and the building’s architecture gave them a near 180 degree view of Sodeco square and beyond. Sitting in their concrete and sandbagged sniper nests, militiamen had a line of fire to Basta, Ras al-Nabaa, the French Embassy on Damascus road, and nearly to the Hippodrome and the Beirut Museum of Antiquities.
Saving the past
After the civil war ended, the building’s owners, the Barakat family, decided to tear it down in order to sell the land that by then had become prime real estate. In 1997, as the building was being demolished to make room for a new real estate project, one activist decided to try to save the building.
“By a stroke of luck I saw it,” says Mona Hallak, an architect and preservation activist who spearheaded the campaign to save the Barakat building. “After five days of a heavy press campaign, it made such a fuss that the minister of culture became embarrassed and suspended [the destruction] verbally.”
The verbal suspension took a total of nine years to materialize into an official government decree to renovate the Barakat building to house the “Museum of Memory.” The building was purchased by the Beirut municipality for some $3 million from the Barakat family.
Since then the building has stood idle and may well have remained as such if it were not for Lebanon’s former colonial rulers.
“The French are agreeing with us preservation activists and pushing this project along,” says Hallak, who is also on the scientific committee that is coordinating between the various stakeholders of the project. The municipality of Paris has assigned a delegation comprised of a restorer, an architect and a museum curator to provide “technical assistance” to the Beirut municipality.
The delegation was scheduled to make its first trip to Lebanon in 2006 but had to cancel that, and several subsequent visits, because of armed conflict and political turmoil in the country. They finally made it in November 2008, helping Beirut municipality to choose an architect to devise a program for the project.
“We pushed for an architectural competition [but] we didn’t get it,” says Hallak. “[The Beirut municipality] listed an architect and it’s now in the process of being approved.”
The French embassy in Beirut was not available to comment on the issue.
So far, it’s not clear what “memories” the Museum of Memory will house. Some want the bullet-riddled building to be cleaned up and restored, like in Beirut’s central district, and the museum to focus on the capital’s ancient history. Other say the building should be left as it is, with bullet holes and blown out walls incorporated into a museum that would document the history of the civil war.
Without a solid program and vision in place, the museum’s content cannot be finalized because restoration efforts will need to take the contextual elements on display into consideration. Nonetheless, the municipality insists that things are on the right track.
Ralph Eid, head of the committee at the municipality that is overseeing the project, says an architect has not been announced due to an “administrative procedure” and the announcement should be made “in about a month.” According to Eid, the project, which he estimated to cost around $6 million, was open to public submission to which “only six people submitted proposals.”
Today the building is wrapped in a massive plastic banner that serves as advertising space to promote everything from instant coffee to the ruling March 14 coalition’s recent election victory. Eid says the decision to post ads was made in order to “save money” through a deal with an advertising firm — he declined to name the company — whereby they would erect the scaffolding in exchange for “25 to 35 percent of the space to be used for advertising.” He says the advertising will be removed soon.
When reconstruction comes
As for the actual construction of the project, Eid believes that the first cornerstone could be laid in six months and it would be “fair to say” that the project will be completed by 2012. But this may be “too optimistic,” says Hallak. Supposing the architect that has been chosen is commissioned and comes up with a program that satisfies all the stakeholders, the contracts must then be put out to tender and only when a contractor has been chosen can work begin. Moreover, the clock is ticking: any government decree that is not implemented within eight years of it being issued can be overturned, meaning the original owners can lobby to get it back, still a real possibility given the project is expected to be completed one year after the eight year grace period.
It seems that the constant delays are once again threatening the project’s implementation. Hallak says without a place to recall the horrors of the civil war, the Lebanese risk returning to the bloodletting of darker days.
“This city has not attempted on a public level to deal with the issue or do any kind of reconciliation,” says Hallak. “This building will initiate a process that, if not initiated, means my sons or your sons will fall back into war. If you don’t deal with it, it is going to come back.”