Questions that need to be asked
Whenever the subject of architecture and heritage in Lebanon comes up we find ourselves slipping into the same melancholic state; not because we’re cry babies or more demanding than most, but because our reality is truly a bitter one, indeed, has plumbed the very depths of awfulness. One war has been extinguished and many have flared up in its place consuming mountains, valleys and forests, changing the face of our cities and doing away with the few traditional neighbourhoods that remain. These wars have turned our cities upside down, sweeping away every vestige of harmony within the urban fabric. Then they declared themselves openly, proclaiming their hostility in campaigns against the “filth” of the old world and trampling on history and memory together.
When wars are waged over a heritage that is reduced to a single architectural cliché called “the Lebanese home”, when these peacetime wars frustrate all attempts to rectify the construction laws and prop up the crumbling foundations of civil organization, pushing back at every initiative which seeks strict laws to protect our historical buildings, and when the wars of steel and blood leave a frenzy of destruction in their wake, then we must at last admit that we are living in a new state of open warfare the consequences of which we cannot predict.
This is a war more lethal than one fought with gunpowder and shells, since the majority of people live in a daze of nervous breakdown and sectarian incitement, whose effects may only be felt in the long term. It’s more dangerous because it comes in many guises: as the law, which privileges private interests over public; as cheap fraud, which starts by promoting high rise projects and singing the praises of the “ideal” lifestyle that they offer and ends with promoting Beirut — or rather one or other of its historical neighbourhoods — in an attempt to win cheap support. It’s a devastating war because it’s a war waged by capital investment: savage, untrammelled and trained to see any and every patch of earth as a smooth blank page, untouched, without history or natural features and utterly unconnected to its surrounding environment, whether built or not. A blank page, an abstract space to be bought or sold. It is devastating because it is the methodological obliteration of the architectural fabric, of the concept of place itself.
What does it mean that the Union Building — one of city’s most prominent, if not the most prominent, modernist landmarks — is currently under threat of demolition? What does it mean that this vulgar investment culture also threatens the nearby Arida building? Anyone who has heard of the architectural pioneers responsible for these two buildings, like Anton Tabet, the man who designed the Union Building in 1952, or George Rais, Théo Canaan, who built the Arida, a year earlier, will understand all too well how disastrous things have become. Those without any deep knowledge of the history of buildings and their designers might still grow angry when the landscape of their local neighbourhood — for decades, part of the memory and image of the city — is taken from them. But who is brave enough to say that this is an issue of quality of life? Who’s bold enough to declare that this campaign goes far beyond the preservation of our heritage or abstract demands to save some part of the nation’s memory and dignity, starting with our awareness of place? Isn’t it time we woke up to the fact that the callous treatment being meted out to history, memory and identity is a product of our own ignorance of our civil rights, and our reckless disregard of the extensive damage done to our social fabric? Can’t we hear the bells tolling, telling us to take a historical and collective stance, to cast off the elitist mantle that smothers our urban architectural heritage and make it instead one of our most pressing priorities? For the death of the city is upon us.
In Lebanon today, architectural heritage is synonymous with demolition; it occupies its own chapter in the history of the Lebanese tragedy which can be summarized as follows: criminal contempt displayed towards the intelligence and rights of citizens, by the very institutions supposedly responsible for safeguarding our culture and civil rights. Since when is the city’s historical and future image dependent on a brainless consensus over architectural forms, whose claim is always that concrete buildings are worthless? Are those who say such things aware that their ultimate objective — to rid us of the burden of historical buildings — is so painfully obvious, especially since the entire architectural heritage of Beirut consists only of concrete buildings? Are those who refuse to support demands for a law to protect the city’s identity aware that the radical change currently underway threatens not only the city’s heritage and history but its future and the future of its inhabitants as well? Finally, won’t we ever understand that our demands for improved living conditions must necessarily include warnings against the calamity of investment and the mindless construction boom which only serve to increase — no, to double — the economic difficulties of the middle classes?
Our discussion has brought us back to the same old state of bitterness. For we know that with every passing day our identity is being bulldozed away; that our past indifference has paved the way to our current disastrous situation. Will the successive disappointments and failures of the past hold us back in the present? Prevent us speaking even a single word? Will we continue to fall back into silence at the end of every academic conference, every media briefing and every article — like this one, for instance? Victor Hugo said that that a building is private property, but its beauty is for everyone. If we do not pay enough attention in this campaign of ours to the aesthetic value and unity of the buildings in Rue Spears where the Union Building stands, nor in other streets besides, then we will have failed to grasp the point: that any building or landmark in Beirut or Lebanon, could be targeted for demolition for the self-same reasons. In which case we are destined for disaster. Are we still unaware that the time has come to work together to demand this neglected right?
Instead of confining ourselves to listing Beirut’s architectural treasures, perhaps we would be better advised soliciting neighbourhood committees, engineers, lawyers, economists and property experts to help us prove, indisputably, the justice of our call to preserve our urban cultural heritage. There’s no place for cold feet now; our silence would be fatal. We must throw off pessimism: the last faint glimmer of hope will be lost if we surrender.
Article first published in Arabic at Annahar newspaper on 13/03/2013
Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger
Mazen Haidar is an architect in conservation who graduated from “La Sapienza” Rome, Italy where he lived for over ten years. A practicing architect, he is currently involved in several conservation projects in Lebanon and teaches at the Lebanese American University and the American University of Beirut. He regularly contributes articles on architecture and culture to a number of national newspapers and journals. His many publications include: Città e memoria, Beirut, Berlino, Sarajevo (Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 2006).