Lebanon Pulse

Beirut House, a Lebanese heritage symbol

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Article Summary
The Barakat house, a residential structure first constructed in the 1920s, is being restored as Beit Beirut, a cultural center that will honor the city's heritage.

Yellow and destroyed, the Barakat house still stands at the Sodeco intersection in Lebanon’s Ashrafieh area. At the end of 2015, 40 years after the start of the Lebanese civil war, the building is going to reopen as a cultural and research center. Beit Beirut ("Beirut House") will be a place of memory and heritage dedicated to the city and its evolution.

A four-story residence built during 1924 and 1936, the yellow house is a standing witness of different architectural styles: Ottoman, French and Art Deco. It also saw the violence of civil war, used strategically by snipers controlling the area when sectarian tensions dominated in Lebanon in 1975. At the end of the war, the Barakat family sold the house to a construction company, and in 1997, activists such as the architect Mona Hallak noticed that construction was happening and managed to stop it. Today, the building is finding a third life through the municipalities of Paris and Beirut and Lebanese civil society, all of which joined forces and shared ideas to preserve this area’s heritage.

Beit Beirut is a symbol of the residential bourgeois buildings in the first half of the 20th century. The past is still present in curtains and decorations on the floors and walls and in the family archives found in the eight apartments. The building is pockmarked with bullet holes from defenders and attackers, messages from snipers. From later years, when the war was over and the Monot neighborhood became the center of Beirut nightlife, graffiti marks the walls. Ninety years of Beirut history and its people's evolution are conserved on and in the Yellow House.

The restoration project began in 2008. Reconstruction started in 2010 and took five years to complete.

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The architect in charge of the project is Youssef Haidar, who studied architecture in Paris before returning to Lebanon in the ‘90s. "The building is like a living being, just like any Lebanese person, with many stories, full of hidden or visible injuries," he told Al-Monitor. "Our attention is not to realize a face-lift, but treat it, which is a fairly new approach to memory in Lebanon. We filled the missing parts as you would with dentures, different from the rest, a new flesh to give it back its humanity." It is, therefore, not purely reconstruction, but a project to "complete this work, with all its layers of history, and to write our part of it."

To best preserve this memory, Haidar added a new building to the existing structure while preserving its facade and interior. He said, "We only stabilized it and made it functional, leaving it frozen in time." The two destroyed staircases at the entryway are as the snipers left them. The architect installed two elevators in the new building. It is "very contemporary, with a new updated architectural language, lined with mirrors,” he said.

Beit Beirut's ground floor has been turned into an open and convivial space with a cafeteria and a conference room where people can pass from, say, Monot to Damascus Street. “There was a photographer's shop here,” the architect told Al-Monitor. “We found 65,000 large-format negatives of the people in the neighborhood, and they are going to be exhibited in the building. Actually, the first collection of the museum is the building itself. Bullets' impacts, drawings on the walls, old tiles and decorations as well as parts of windows and doors are kept as they were.” In the intersection of the old house and the new part, a huge ramp takes visitors from one floor to another, as in an initiation journey.

The first floor, where the snipers used to station themselves and shoot, is to be a memorial and cultural center. “We reserved only one floor for the memory of war, because it is only 17 years of the building's history,” Haidar explained. “It is important to show it to the people because it seems that we went from a general amnesty to a general amnesia. I just hope that this place will accomplish its memorial mission, and that the civil society will help make it alive through activities and conferences. The second floor is the museum itself, on the life and evolution of Beirut since the 1920s. This place is about the memory of the city, of its society and their mutation.” There, messages on the walls are still visible, left by the snipers who used to relax there during cease-fires. The space is a puzzle, half painted half conserved.

The third floor, more open and less war-damaged, 800 square meters (2,600 square feet) will be dedicated to permanent and temporary exhibitions and display the documentation of all the archives found in the house, plus some from the Beirut municipality. These archives are going to fill five separate basement levels, all outfitted with climate control to protect their contents, and the sixth has already been turned into an auditorium. On the rooftop, a cafe and a restaurant will provide entertainment for visitors.

But Beit Beirut is not only for people to visit. It is also intended for researchers, who will be provided a 30,000-book library as well as five work spaces, separated by glass windows. All of this, of course, will be free. “What we need now is a real institution to manage this project, which is at least a 15 to 20-year one, I think,” Haidar added. “It's going to be a very long process to turn this place into a real museum.”

Beit Beirut is set to open its doors by the end of 2015.

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Found in: lebanon, lebanese society, lebanese identity, lebanese history, culture, beirut

Florence Massena is a journalist based in Beirut who writes about economic, cultural and social matters. She studied political science and journalism in Toulouse, southern France, and has traveled in the region since 2010. She mainly focuses on heritage and women's issues, as well as positive ideas for Lebanon.

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