Mon, Sep 27, 2010 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE : Rush is on to save Lebanon’s remaining architectural heritage

OLD VS NEW In 1995, the culture ministry listed 1,200 old mansions. However, only 400 remain today as construction boomed in the 1990s after the civil war


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,” said Cochrane, whose family owns one of Beirut’s most beautiful Ottoman-era mansions.

As building cranes crowd the city skyline, Beirut’s typical Lebanese houses, with their triple-arched windows, elaborate balconies, red-tiled roofs and jasmine-scented gardens have all but disappeared in favor 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 to 1990 civil war, is largely fueled 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 said.

“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 neighborhood of Beirut, which was once lined with elegant mansions and where a flat can now fetch upwards of US$3 million, 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.

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 Lebanese Culture Minister Salim Wardy, who recently set up a hotline for people to report threatened buildings.

“This has significantly reduced demolitions,” Wardy said.

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.

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