We Need a Smarter Conversation About Preserving Lebanese Architecture

(Gondol building. A remarkable landmark that Lebanon has lost forever. Photo credit: Beirut the Fantastic)

Sandra Rishani didn’t quite say this, but there’s a certain vulgarity in the way Lebanese preservation activists are choosing which old Lebanese structures deserve to be protected:

How do we define historic preservation? Is it everything that’s over 80 years old regardless of their spatial and or historical qualities?

In her blog post about the issue, typical in breadth and scope to her exposés, the Beirut architect makes a wonderful comparison to the current Lebanese debate about the history book:

If the public does not define ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ it wants to preserve an edifice, the history of our cities will become like our history books- they stop at Independence Day.

Other architects have weighed in on the issue before. That’s because anyone who knows his or her history of Architecture will understand why there’s a frustration with Lebanon’s current generation of preservation activists, activists who focus uniquely on very old architecture and ignore the gems produced by more contemporary movements.

To understand this frustration, imagine an effort to preserve the world’s music heritage because for some reason the world’s music is being threatened. How would you feel if that effort only included classical music of the great masters (Beethoven, Bach, Chopin..etc) and ignored every other genre? Rock, Reggae, Jazz, Pop, funk, World, Alternative, Country.. All these “contemporary” genres would be deemed unimportant and passed over, doomed to eternal oblivion. This is how it feels today in Lebanon with the preservation activism.

In a way, this is indicative of a larger Lebanese problem. The fact that what unites the Lebanese always seems to be related to very old history, a history that is more nostalgia than substance. Roman Architecture, Phoenician alphabets, prehistoric geological formations, these are the things we’re all proud off. It is truly worth pondering why we don’t care as much about more recent achievements…

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  • http://oussama-hayek.blogspot.com OH

    Heh! Because we’re only proud of things that predate the sectarian divide?

  • Mac

    The obsession with age elbows out more than more recently built buildings, it discounts architectural quality/significance (the facades next to the vandome stairs stand in testimate to that… As do numerous building classified as “heritage” by the ministry of culture because they are old and an easy target for a disgruntled businessmen with wasta who want to make trouble for their owners), but the sadest part about the “old obsession” is that preservation has become an end in itself.

    For Beirut’s architecture there needs to be a way for businesses and residents to afford to use these buildings, which generally are very low density and lie on relatively expensive land. Otherwise, unless you have millions of dollars to tie us in unperforming real estate, the only thing that u can do is build a tower. Zoning laws, tax incentives, incentives my municipalities to renovate old buildings; these are the things that might actually give people a chance to preserve their ancestoral family homes rather than be forced by land prices to sell them.

    • Mustapha

      Very well said Mac

  • http://spatiallyjustenvironmentsbeirut.blogspot.com/ Sandra Rishani

    The challenge is not in designing the policies that allow heritage zoned areas and edifices to continue to be viable within the real estate markets
    Cases of such policies litter the world and their shortcomings are dealt with

    The challenge is as a community to understand and generally define what and hwy should we preserve
    How is less of a challenge
    Hence the article The lost city: Beirut Modern on Beirut the Fantastic

  • http://www.beiruthotels.biz/ Beirut

    There is no doubt that new architectural models are very unique and much more sophisticated that older models, but when it comes to renovating old buildings that remind Lebanese people of their history, it is important to maintain the original structure of the buildings.