Beirut Battles With Its History

Subject: Architecture
Author: L Architecture d Aujoudhui

For Bernard Khoury, Beirut’s relationship with its heritage is a false one, marked by Orientalist romanticism and a fascination with war. The Lebanese architect talks about the gaps in the city’s memory, gaps which the weakness of the State and the omnipotence of private interests do nothing to fill.

This article was featured in L’ Architecture d’Aujourd’hui in November 2011, written by Marie-Douce Albert.

The Place de l’Etoile area. “A painstaking rehabilitation, an impressive work.”
Apparently, Bernard Khoury is not the kind of man to hide his opinions behind a veil of politeness. When asked about the relationship between his country and its heritage, his response is far from optimistic. Of course, major world famous sites like Baalbek and Byblos are, he admits, “well conserved”. But, he continues, “it’s best not to look too closely at what lies beyond them. This country’s landscape has been disfigured. Not by the war. No, the damage caused by anarchic real estate development is a good deal worse. The problem is the State, which has been entirely absent. Did you know that there is no part of the country that can’t be built on?” In a few well-chosen phrases the architect paints the portrait of a totally bankrupt government. “Nothing of what’s still in the hands of the State actually works. For example, we don’t always have electricity around the clock. Everything that’s been done so far has been done by private companies.” After years of war, the reconstruction effort in Beirut and Lebanon as a whole has been characterized by a distinct lack of regulation. And consequently, particularly insofar as architectural heritage is concerned, there is an absence of any vision that goes beyond economic interests.

Saifi Village. “A clumsy rendition of a simplistic view of history.”
In reality, at least, “because on paper, conservation mechanisms do exist. For example, the Apsad (the Association for the Protection of Sites and Ancient Dwellings) established a list of a thousand or so buildings of historical interest in Beirut and then attempted to classify them. The list was shortened to around 250 untouchable sites. But even some of those were demolished” Khoury says, with a tinge of regret.
In the last few years there has been a good deal of criticism of the behaviour of the real estate investment firm, Solidere [Lebanese Company for Development and Reconstruction], of which the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri was a major shareholder. Hariri was accused of “bulldozing 85% of the Arabic- Ottoman heritage [1].” On this point, Bernard Khoury takes a less categorical view, recognizing not only the work done on archaeological excavations but also on the rehabilitation of a number of important buildings. Indeed, could anything more be demanded of a private company when the country as a whole “is incapable of writing its own history”? And the architect continues: “It’s very sad now that in school books history stops in 1975, the official date of the beginning of the civil war. But in terms of conserving heritage, it actually stops before then, with the end of the French mandate. The only slightly syrupy consensus that we have recognizes heritage from ancient times up until 1943.”

Archeological excavation near the Place des Martyrs.
As an immediate consequence, Beirut has a false relationship with its past, characterized by a “superficially Arabocentric” kind of nostalgia, Khoury adds, adding that the city has not escaped “the architectural failures that, since 1970, have disfigured so many places around the world with their somewhat unhealthy preoccupation with the past. We’ve produced a kind of architecture that claimed to be ‘Lebanese’ but that was reinterpreted in a totally romantic way. We focused on reproduction by building badly designed copies full of errors of syntax and vocabulary.” According to the architect, the dominant “mashrabiya” style is a travesty. “It’s all the more perverse,” he says, “in that in reality we are perpetuating the Orientalist fantasies developed in the West...” Just as worryingly, Beirut obscures an important swathe of its history. “The Republican period, from 1943 to the 1970s, witnessed the emergence of a kind of modern architecture,” Khoury says, adding that, “great things were done here. People, including my father [2], erected numerous institutional buildings like universities for the State. Today, these buildings are falling apart. Cultural degradation can be read on their façades. With a number of friends we have set up an association, the aim of which is, on the one hand, to recuperate the archives of these Modernist architects, and, on the other, to promote their work and attempt to preserve what they achieved.”

Interdesign building. “The exhibition building of Khalil Khouri. A different kind of modernity.”
Beirut thus has a selective memory. It likes to pick and choose from what its history offers. One part of that history, the civil war, has a certain fantasmatic quality to it. Although the capital is no longer strewn with ruins, those that do remain “exercise a certain fascination”, says Khoury, who criticizes the touristic vision that sometimes reduces the city to a kind of theme park of violence. So he asks the question again: who is to decide which traces should be conserved and what should be effaced? And what is this balancing act that architects are obliged to indulge in? “In this context, they can either hide away in their academic ivory towers or face up to the problems and fight back,” he says, before concluding: “I don’t work for the private sector and if my answers aren’t consensual or ‘moral’ at least, I hope, they are relevant.”




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