Greed is destroying the beauty that was old Beirut

Click to follow
The Independent Online

They used to give Ariel Sharon the big table to the right of the entrance. During Israel's 1982 occupation of Beirut, he sat opposite the Lebanese militia leader and soon-to-be-murdered president-elect Bashir Gemayel. The delicate, yellow-painted 1930s Vieux Quartier restaurant in the Beirut suburb of Ashrafieh had high ceilings, a little garden and magnificent stained-glass windows, below which foreign businessmen, spies and the sleaziest banker in Beirut would dine. Not any more. Last month, the owner brought the bulldozers in and smashed the place to rubble. Stand by for a gleaming new Beirut apartment block.

Indeed, almost every week here I notice that another gaunt Ottoman or Levantine building – its graceful, curved window frames and front door pillars emphasising a more cultured age – has been "disappeared" by Lebanon's "developers". Land is more important than property in Beirut, profit more important than beauty. Before the First World War, Lawrence of Arabia swooned over the beauty of the red-roofed coastal town of Jounieh; now there are maybe two dozen red roofs left. A 19th-century photograph of Beirut shows a city of stone walls, arches and a mighty Crusader castle. Every building in the picture has gone. Today, Lebanon's millionaires are finishing the work of the civil war gunmen who destroyed so much of the city's heritage.

Maha Yahya, an architect and urban planning consultant. sighs with near-hopelessness when I ask her why. "Bureaucracy is one reason," she says. "The only listed buildings are those constructed before 1750 – because the law is based on French mandate legislation of 1933. In the United States, for example, there are laws which compensate landowners who are encouraged to restore beautiful buildings; there are tax-breaks and transferrable heir-rights. Here, it's not in an owner's interest to save a building when he can make a million dollars by tearing it down."

Among the still-endangered houses is the magnificent, porticoed "pink house" on Beirut's sea-front, below the old French-built lighthouse, a wonderful mansion of high windows standing in gardens and orchards whose beauty can be admired in hundreds of old sepia prints of Beirut. Its owners, the Aradatis family, almost sold it a few years ago to a wealthy businessman who wanted to demolish the building and use the gardens to build a high-rise apartment block. Only the intransigence of a tenant who refused to move out and the opposition of a small Lebanese heritage society persuaded the developer to withdraw his offer.

Maha Yahya admires the restoration work of the Solidere company which is rebuilding the ruined centre of Beirut, but she asks why so many buildings capable of being saved were torn down. Among them was the wonderful rococo-façaded 19th-century police station in Martyrs' Square. "This was a mistake," Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon's Prime Minister and a 10 per cent shareholder in Solidere, told me 10 years ago. "It will be rebuilt." But it was not. Like the dead, old buildings do not come back. Today, the religious buildings in the city centre are being magnificently restored. But with the surrounding properties demolish- ed, they stand isolated amid a wasteland of car parks and building lots, lonely monuments to a society whose stone fabric has now been destroyed.

Fighting this kind of architectural death is a hard business. Mona Hallak is also an architect who, with the help of a few colleagues, may have been able to save the Barakat building, a great, balconied 1924 home designed by the distinguished Lebanese architect Youssef Aftimous, which was used as a sniper's nest during the war and now stands on prime real estate land by a major highway. Wooden enfilades and sandbags still stand across the broken marble floors.

The Beirut municipality has now agreed to buy the Barakat building from its owners if Ms Hallak and her friends can fund the renovation, money which might come from the World Monument Fund within three weeks. But she is not optimistic about many other buildings. "Our problem here is that we don't have any mechanism to save anything," she says. "We need updated laws. It was our success with the Barakat building – and our interest in preserving the "pink house" – that forced the businessman to withdraw his offer to the Aradatis family. One of the problems is that our rent laws allow tenants to pay pre-inflation rents to landlords. One old lady is giving her landlord just 100,000 Lebanese pounds [£48] a year for a seafront apartment. The landlord is receiving no real income to look after the house. To get her out, the landlord has to have a demolition order from the government."

And that, it seems, has now become a racket. One of the most recent acts of cultural vandalism was in Christian east Beirut where a landlord promised to preserve his 1930s building if granted a demolition order. He said he only wanted to evict tenants who were paying uneconomic rents. He got the demolition order from the ministry, threw out the tenants, then tore down the building.

"We have to update the law of tenants to save more buildings," Ms Hallak says. Beside the car park that is all that is left of the Vieux Quartier restaurant, a lone protester made his point more emotionally last week. "Why are we asking all these tourists to come and admire our city if there is nothing left to look at?"