First Published: 2010-09-26

 

Rush to save Lebanon's architectural heritage

 

Lebanese conservationists in efforts to encourage protest against demolition of key buildings.

 

Middle East Online

By Rana Moussaoui - BEIRUT

'Trying to save what is left'

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."

 

Baghdad refuses talks with Kurdistan about referendum results

Three Israelis killed at West Bank settlement

Seven arrested in Egypt for raising rainbow flag at concert

European ambassadors to US strongly back Iran nuclear pact

Dubai set to become first city with flying taxis

Libya's Haftar bolsters stature as key player

Kurdish independence: How far will Turkey go?

Germany’s de facto ‘IS leader’ on trial

IMF satisfied with Egypt's 'bold' reforms

Qatar Airways places $2bn order for six Boeing planes

Erdogan expects ‘ethnic war’ after Iraqi Kurdish independence vote

Israelis shocked by German nationalist gains

Hamas-Fatah reconciliation process shows growing Egyptian influence in region

74-year-old Iranian gets death sentence for explicit parties

Iraqi soldiers take part in Turkish military drill

Iran joins Turkey in warning of regional chaos from Kurd vote

Turkish hunger-striking academics in intensive care

Returning Syrians find Raqa city unrecognisable

How far can Baghdad become independent of Iranian influence?

Qatar World Cup worker sacked after speaking to UN team

China conducts first military drills in Djibouti

Saudi official axed over king's image with Yoda

Syrian government ready to discuss Kurdish autonomy

63-year-old American abducted in Yemen's Sanaa

US kills ISIS chiefs hiding in new nerve centre

Saudi establishment spreading Shiite hate speech

Madrid hails Rabat’s collaboration in fighting terrorism

Regional tensions rise in Kurds’ independence vote

Iraq Kurds start voting in historic independence referendum

UAE announces plans for region’s first nuclear reactor

Erdogan threatens Iraqi Kurds with border closure, oil block

Putin to visit Erdogan this week for Syria, Iraq talks

Sudan vows to step up efforts to improve US ties

Turkey to launch intervention into Syria — and maybe into Iraq

Egyptian ‘world’s heaviest woman’ dies in Abu Dhabi

Palestinian unity government remains unlikely

Emirati man fights his employer to serve in country’s army

Palestinian PM to visit Gaza next week

Saudi advisory body to tackle female driving ban

Turkey denies closing Iraqi border in response to Kurdish vote

US air strikes kill 17 Islamic State militants in Libya

US-led strikes killed 84 civilians near Syria's Raqa

Yemen's Hadi says military solution 'most likely'

The high cost of Syria’s destruction

Palestinian negotiator awaits lung transplant in US