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Fri, 2018-06-08 19:00
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Lebanese old houses: our memories in peril

While the entire world is rediscovering and highlighting its architectural heritage, the Lebanese are once again distinguishing themselves, this time by shamelessly destroying their superb traditional neighborhoods. Constantly higher and more lavish towers are replacing the ancient Lebanese houses, a symbol of our collective memory. And as property developers go greedier and politicians more careless, the beautiful old houses of the early twentieth century slowly and irreversibly disappear. “In Lebanon, peace has been more devastating than war”, comments Fadlallah Dagher, a member of APSAD (the Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings in Lebanon) executive committee. Is it still possible to reverse the trend? And what are the possible solutions? Some answers are given below.

Lebanese Old Houses in Figures

To date, there is no official survey indicating the exact number and location of ancient buildings in Beirut, and more generally in Lebanon. It is however estimated that they represent around 2.5% of real estate. Furthermore, a study prepared by the APSAD in 1996, upon the request of then Minister of Culture, Michel Eddé, mentions the existence of 1,019 houses built between 1850 and 1940 in the areas surrounding the capital’s heart (Zokak el-Blatt- Basta- Sanayeh- Sodeco- Gemmayze…). The Ministry then intended to rehabilitate “the most interesting buildings” and to create coherent architectural blocks representing Beirut as in the ninetieth century. Unfortunately, as soon as it was published, the APSAD list aroused a wave of discontent, not only among politicians and property developers, but most of all, among the owners who lacked interest in preserving their own residences.

Why are Lebanese so indifferent?

For an outsider, the Lebanese’ attitude towards their own architectural heritage may seem absurd. Serge Yazigi, a town-planner and the director of Majal (Academic Observatory for Construction and Reconstruction in Lebanon), tries to explain the phenomenon: “Unlike what happens abroad, we notice that in our country, the politicians and the property developers are equally interested in real estate speculations. On top of that, the houses’ owners have no meaningful economic resources and are therefore tempted by the enticing offers that are made to them. All these factors suppress the lobbying of the civil society, which finds itself unable to halt the real estate pressure”.

What makes things even more difficult, not to say impossible, is the absence of any relevant legal framework. As a matter of fact, no public institution in Lebanon is in charge of managing the architectural heritage and defining the rules for its preservation and restoration. As for the law, it is, according to Serge Yazigi, “missing, incomplete and inadequately implemented”. Fadlallah Dagher explains: “In Lebanon, old historical buildings are covered by the 1933 Law of Antiquities, which was issued during the French mandate”. This law defines “antiquity” as “all products of human activity regardless of the civilization they belong to, dating before 1700”. Refusing to give up, the APSAD collaborated with Patrimoine Sans Frontières NGO (Heritage without borders) on a draft law covering, inter alia, the preservation and management of “an architectural fabric presenting a historical interest” (Article 1) as well as the owners’ indemnification. As expected, the draft law that was submitted to the Government in 2001 by the Minister of Culture, Ghassan Salame, was never put into practice.

Then what are the solutions?

In front of such indifference, it is still possible to protect our cultural heritage? APSAD Fadlallah Dagher seems disillusioned: “As far as the APSAD is concerned, our financial resources are rather limited since we mainly count on the contributions of our 120 members, all volunteers, and on a small subsidy from the Government. This being said, any activity aiming to protect the ancient houses should be based on protecting a coherent group of houses, and not on punctual actions here and there”. Serge Yazigi agrees with him and suggests the “urban regeneration” as a solution to the current situation. This means a global approach combining several complementary activities such as: frame conservation; the creation of green spaces in old neighborhoods; and the advertising of houses located in such neighborhoods through promotional activities targeting both Lebanese and tourists. “We have to put an end to the “tower complex”, concludes the director of MAJAL. Our aim is to increase the old houses’ economic value so that their owners consider them as a source of income and do not feel compelled to sell them”.

“Old memories make great peoples” is the APSAD motto. If the Lebanese long to be “a great people”, starting to preserve the “short memories” of the previous century should not be considered as a superfluous step. Better late than never!

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2012-11-17

While the entire world is rediscovering and highlighting its architectural heritage, the Lebanese are once again distinguishing themselves, this time by shamelessly destroying their superb traditional neighborhoods. Constantly higher and more lavish towers are replacing the ancient Lebanese houses, a symbol of our collective memory. And as property developers go greedier and politicians more careless, the beautiful old houses of the early twentieth century slowly and irreversibly disappear. “In Lebanon, peace has been more devastating than war”, comments Fadlallah Dagher, a member of APSAD (the Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings in Lebanon) executive committee. Is it still possible to reverse the trend? And what are the possible solutions? Some answers are given below.

Lebanese Old Houses in Figures

To date, there is no official survey indicating the exact number and location of ancient buildings in Beirut, and more generally in Lebanon. It is however estimated that they represent around 2.5% of real estate. Furthermore, a study prepared by the APSAD in 1996, upon the request of then Minister of Culture, Michel Eddé, mentions the existence of 1,019 houses built between 1850 and 1940 in the areas surrounding the capital’s heart (Zokak el-Blatt- Basta- Sanayeh- Sodeco- Gemmayze…). The Ministry then intended to rehabilitate “the most interesting buildings” and to create coherent architectural blocks representing Beirut as in the ninetieth century. Unfortunately, as soon as it was published, the APSAD list aroused a wave of discontent, not only among politicians and property developers, but most of all, among the owners who lacked interest in preserving their own residences.

Why are Lebanese so indifferent?

For an outsider, the Lebanese’ attitude towards their own architectural heritage may seem absurd. Serge Yazigi, a town-planner and the director of Majal (Academic Observatory for Construction and Reconstruction in Lebanon), tries to explain the phenomenon: “Unlike what happens abroad, we notice that in our country, the politicians and the property developers are equally interested in real estate speculations. On top of that, the houses’ owners have no meaningful economic resources and are therefore tempted by the enticing offers that are made to them. All these factors suppress the lobbying of the civil society, which finds itself unable to halt the real estate pressure”.

What makes things even more difficult, not to say impossible, is the absence of any relevant legal framework. As a matter of fact, no public institution in Lebanon is in charge of managing the architectural heritage and defining the rules for its preservation and restoration. As for the law, it is, according to Serge Yazigi, “missing, incomplete and inadequately implemented”. Fadlallah Dagher explains: “In Lebanon, old historical buildings are covered by the 1933 Law of Antiquities, which was issued during the French mandate”. This law defines “antiquity” as “all products of human activity regardless of the civilization they belong to, dating before 1700”. Refusing to give up, the APSAD collaborated with Patrimoine Sans Frontières NGO (Heritage without borders) on a draft law covering, inter alia, the preservation and management of “an architectural fabric presenting a historical interest” (Article 1) as well as the owners’ indemnification. As expected, the draft law that was submitted to the Government in 2001 by the Minister of Culture, Ghassan Salame, was never put into practice.

Then what are the solutions?

In front of such indifference, it is still possible to protect our cultural heritage? APSAD Fadlallah Dagher seems disillusioned: “As far as the APSAD is concerned, our financial resources are rather limited since we mainly count on the contributions of our 120 members, all volunteers, and on a small subsidy from the Government. This being said, any activity aiming to protect the ancient houses should be based on protecting a coherent group of houses, and not on punctual actions here and there”. Serge Yazigi agrees with him and suggests the “urban regeneration” as a solution to the current situation. This means a global approach combining several complementary activities such as: frame conservation; the creation of green spaces in old neighborhoods; and the advertising of houses located in such neighborhoods through promotional activities targeting both Lebanese and tourists. “We have to put an end to the “tower complex”, concludes the director of MAJAL. Our aim is to increase the old houses’ economic value so that their owners consider them as a source of income and do not feel compelled to sell them”.

“Old memories make great peoples” is the APSAD motto. If the Lebanese long to be “a great people”, starting to preserve the “short memories” of the previous century should not be considered as a superfluous step. Better late than never!

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