Rush to save Lebanon’s remaining architectural heritage

Conservationists are rushing to save what is left of Beirut’s architectural heritage which has fallen victim to greedy promoters and politicians accused of turning the Lebanese capital into a concrete jungle.

“Beirut used to be a city of gorgeous mansions and gardens and now it has become a boring heap of high-rises and construction projects,” said Yvonne Sursock Cochrane, 88, founder of the Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings in Lebanon (APSAD). 

“We are destroying old houses which in other countries no one would dare touch,” Cochrane, whose family owns one of Beirut’s most beautiful Ottoman-era mansions, told AFP. 

As building cranes crowd the city skyline, Beirut’s typical Lebanese houses, with their triple-arched windows, elaborate balconies, red-tiled roofs and jasmin-scented gardens have all but disappeared in favour of high-rises sprouting like mushrooms. 

Of 1,200 old mansions and buildings inventoried in 1995 by the culture ministry, a mere 400 are left, officials say. The construction boom, which began at the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, is largely fuelled by rich expatriates and Gulf Arab investors who have driven prices up, encouraging Beirut property owners to sell to the highest bidder. 

“Beirut is becoming uglier by the day and the Lebanese are getting used to this ugliness,” said Pascale Ingea, a member of Save Beirut Heritage, an initiative launched this year on the social networking Internet site Facebook. “I felt I had to do something when I watched from my balcony a 200-year-old 
mansion that used to make me dream when I was a child being torn down, stone by stone,” the 33-year-old artist told AFP. “Our social and urban fabric are disappearing,” she added. “Beirut is no longer the city we knew.” 

One property developer whose company is building a luxury high-rise in the Sursock neighbourhood of Beirut, which was once lined with elegant mansions and where a flat can now fetch upwards of three million dollars, declined to comment. “I am embarrassed because we tore down a traditional house to build a tower,” he said, requesting anonymity. “What else can I say?” Although many feel it may be too late to halt the rot, conservationists are pushing ahead with efforts to save the few buildings still standing and a march is planned this weekend in central Beirut to encourage the Lebanese to 
react. One recent television spot by conservation groups featured tombstones representing demolished buildings against a backdrop of skyscrapers and a message that urged parliament to pass legislation to preserve heritage houses. 

Any demolition order in Beirut must now carry the signature of Culture Minister Salim Wardy, who recently set up a hotline for people to report threatened buildings. “This has significantly reduced demolitions,” Wardy told AFP. But what is needed most, conservationists say, is the political will to 
preserve what is left. “Lebanon considers itself a pioneer in everything, but when it comes to this we are way behind other Arab countries,” Wardy said. 

Architect Fadlallah Dagher, a member of APSAD, said given that many of Lebanon’s politicians also dabble in property, it should come as no surprise that draft legislation to protect the country’s architectural heritage has been sitting in parliament for eight years. 

“It’s no secret in Lebanon that a lot of politicians are in real estate and have no interest to safeguard old homes,” Dagher said, sitting in his family villa in Beirut’s traditional neighborhood of Gemayzeh. “Where there is land, there is money to be made,” he added. “I was once told by real estate developers not to meddle in their affairs and to go elsewhere if I was looking for culture.” 

Wardy acknowledged that he had come under intense pressure by politicians and developers to take bribes and turn a blind eye to the destruction. “We’re simply trying to preserve the identity of our city,” he said. “We’re trying to save what is left.”

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