Sunday, 26 September 2010

On buildings...

Walking through the streets of Beirut, or in fact any town in Lebanon, presents a never ending clash between modernity and the past.

The older buildings of the city, some dating back over 500 years, stand as monuments to the heritage of the country. For people who haven’t visited Lebanon, the average Lebanese house tended to be high ceilinged, with comparatively large windows covered by wooden shutters. The buildings themselves are normally around four stories at most. The majority of flats had balconies.

Generally made out of the soft, yellow stone found in the Levant, they frankly, would not have looked too out of place in any Mediterranean town. Driving through the mountains reveals expanses of red-tiled roofs, slanting upward and, generally speaking, not the flat roofed types of roof often seen in, say, Greek villages.

However, sadly, this is changing. The old buildings are gradually disappearing from the country.

There are a variety of reasons for this.

  1. The population boom in Lebanon since the 1930’s – as with the rest of the world – has led to a serious demand for housing. 
  2. Alongside the relative population boom, across the world, agricultural industries are on the wane and jobs tend to be found within the cities. In the case of Lebanon, silk used to a major export in the 1800's. With the, relative, opening up of China, the Lebanese market was blown away, depriving many rural communities of regular work.
  3. Traditional Lebanese houses are not space-efficient. Large, open rooms and high ceilings are not what you need if your urban population is booming.
  4. The Lebanese diaspora – With many people overseas the properties they own are presently unoccupied, unrestored and uninhabitable. This means two things, first, the expats are often more interested in selling the property to whoever bids that renovating it, second, these houses are effectively off the market in many cases, furthering the housing crisis.
  5. It's often easier to sell the property, to whoever, than divide it up between the interested parties. As such, entire buildings, or old houses can be sold, which are then knocked down and redeveloped.
  6. Given the housing crisis, developers are throwing up high-rise buildings all over the place. However, Beirut’s a developed city and there’s not a lot of space. The end result is that older buildings are bought, ripped down and replaced with towers.
  7. There are very, very few zoning or building regulations in Lebanon, or concepts such as listed buildings to my knowledge. If they do exist to any extent, they’re easily bypassed.
  8. The Civil War left many buildings unihabitable.
  9. Allegedly, many high ranking public figures have holdings in various development companies.  
All of the above means there's a severe shortage of houses. The upshot of all this is the death of the traditional Lebanese house.

Much of the above is equally applicable to any city in the world and, in many cases, it’s somewhat inevitable. London and Berlin spring to mind as cities ravished by war, for example, and the boom and expansion of London as the hub of British enterprise following the death of the Empire. 

Nevertheless, despite it being commonplace, it’s a sad situation.

Cities the world over have managed to develop without destroying their culture. Rome, Athens, to a certain extent, Damascus. It's not impossible. And before the corruption card is played in defence, none of Italy, Greece or Syria are paragons of transparency.

Where Lebanon has been let down is the lack of real opposition to, or regulation dealing with, the building boom.

Thankfully, there are some areas in which efforts at preservation have been made. Soldiere, whatever you might think of the initiative, was probably the only way to renovate the heart of Beirut. Yes, there should be some form of drive to open up residential areas in Downtown, yes, there should be business incentives, and yes, it’s not all roses, but at least the buildings have been repaired.

There’s also this company. The houses are pricy, but at least they’re renovating the buildings rather than, a., letting them sit empty, or b., ripping them down.

There is some hope for progress. According to Naharnet, the Ministry of Culture is finally showing an interest. Added to the regulations mentioned in the article, the Ministry recently released this video (which I recall seeing when watching a movie):

And this print ad:

Powerful stuff.

Organisations such as this one are raising the issue and there was a march yesterday. Around 150 people went. The organisers of the march published this PDF, their contact details are included.

There’s, clearly, a long way to go, but the beginnings are plain to see. And, no doubt, the wife will chain me to the railings of a threatened old building before long.
As you can see, I’ve updated the photo in the background.

Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for the shot. That honour goes to Abzyy. Check her out, she’s very talented and my homepage isn't the best showcase.

Here's a better look:
Yellowish Red by Abzyy

From time to time I'll be rotating the picture in the background. If you've got great shots of Beirut, preferably street scenes, and are interested in having them on show, please contact me. My email's in the imaginatively-titled "Contact Me" tab.