Rebuilding Beirut to preserve its heritage

Architects and NGOs are deploying efforts to restore the traditional buildings of Beirut that were heavily damaged in the devastating explosion that rocked the capital Aug. 4.

al-monitor A picture taken on Aug. 25, 2020, shows scaffolding supporting the fractured ceiling of a traditional Lebanese house in Beirut in the aftermath of the monster explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital, which ravaged the city in early August.  Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images.

Sep 29, 2020

The explosion at Beirut’s port on Aug. 4 killed nearly 200 people and injured some 6,500. It also left around 300,000 people displaced as their houses were heavily damaged or completely destroyed.

Among the neighborhoods hit by the blast, Mar Mikhael, Gemmayzeh, Karantina and Downtown Beirut are the most heavily damaged.

The World Bank calculated that the housing and cultural damage would be between $3.8 billion to $4.6 billion in its report published in August.

Thousands of damaged buildings are part of Beirut’s heritage, which includes traditional houses, villas, churches, museums and other historical buildings dating back to the 19th-century Ottoman period, and buildings from the modern period of the 1930s. All those buildings represent the legacy of the history and culture of Beirut.

The president of Beirut Heritage Society, Suheil Mneimneh, explained to Al-Monitor that the many historical buildings and traditional houses dating back between 1870 and 1920 were destroyed or heavily damaged in the explosion.

“Around 400 buildings have been affected by the explosion, and it would cost $300 million to renovate them,” architect Fadlallah Dagher told Al-Monitor.

“There are around 120 buildings that have been badly affected. Some are collapsed; others reported very heavy damages on the ceilings, roofs and facades. It requires many years of work, even up to four years, depending on the funds and how much a building is affected. There are cracks in the walls, but also the interior design of these buildings has been damaged dramatically,” Dagher said.

He said most of these traditional buildings were made with lime plaster inside and with gypsum ceilings and wooden doors. Many buildings have very elaborate decorations made on marble. Those can be restored, but it requires trained people and expertise, he said.

“Furthermore, there isn’t much lime plaster now because it was used to be made locally and the market was very small. But also other materials are not available unless paid in cash because of the economic crisis, and this is another problem for the reconstruction,” said Dagher.

“Those buildings need specific expertise and study of the material to use to be renovated. They were built using only sandstone or a mix of concrete and sandstone,” said Mneimneh.

Also the president of the cultural nongovernmental organization Save Beirut Heritage, Joana Hammour, explained to Al-Monitor that renovating a traditional house requires qualified workers and expertise.

“Materials and techniques used to renovate traditional houses and other historical buildings are different. Restoring a traditional house is craftwork, which implies bringing back the original elements,” she said.

As most of Beirut’s heritage buildings are at risk of partial or total collapse, especially the traditional houses located close to the epicenter of the explosion, cultural NGOs are taking action to save them.

Like the Beirut Heritage Society, most of the NGOs involved in the project to rebuild Beirut are conducting assessments and surveys to estimate the aftermath of the explosion.

Save Beirut Heritage is an NGO that started its activity from a group on Facebook in 2010 when its founder, Naji Raji, left his parents’ traditional house because it was one of the many buildings destined to be demolished. But his Facebook group lobbied the institutions to halt the demolition of several buildings.

Since then, the group is raising awareness of the patrimony of Lebanon’s capital and working to preserve it from destruction and exploitation.

“Even before the explosion, Beirut lost a lot of its traditional buildings because of wars, although there are no accurate figures about it. But the explosion highlighted the necessity to make surveys of Beirut’s heritage on the ground,” said Hammour.

An initial assessment obtained by Al-Monitor and provided by the Beirut Heritage Initiative, an independent collective that aims to restore the historical and traditional buildings of Beirut, shows that 100 buildings are at risk of collapsing and 200 are heavily damaged in the areas hit by the blast. But these figures are not definitive.

Instead, UNESCO has estimated that around 640 historic buildings were impacted by the blast, and approximately 60 of them are at risk of collapse.

“The government is struggling to see what buildings to count and include in the surveys because there is no definition of what is a heritage in the law. Furthermore, there is a lack of transparency of the public institutions, which leads to a lack of clear information,” said Hammour.

As Save Beirut Heritage is concerned about the risk of exploitation due to the explosion and the economic crisis, it is assisting owners of traditional houses and supporting them with technical and bureaucratic help.

“Some owners wanted to sell their properties before the explosion because of the economic crisis. Others want to sell their houses because they can’t afford their refurbishment. Still, others want to keep their buildings but can’t afford to renovate them,” said Hammour.

But in order to prevent real estate speculation, the Ministry of Finance has forbidden any trading of the buildings and premises in all of the impacted areas without the authorization of the Ministry of Culture, said the communications coordinator of Beirut Heritage Initiative, Lynn Tehini Kassatly.

On the contrary, Hammour told Al-Monitor that the risk of speculation might increase after the blast. Real estate may exploit the economic situation and the helplessness of the owners hit by the economic crisis.

This could take over entire neighborhoods similar to what occurred with the reconstruction of Beirut’s Downtown after the civil war when cultural NGOs accused the private-public real estate holdings company Solidere of gentrifying the center of Beirut and changing the urban landscape of the city.

“We are concerned by the damages of museums, churches and traditional houses regarding their historical, cultural and architectural values. Downtown Beirut was rebuilt without following the shape of Beirut, but the result was something completely new and not related to our city’s heritage,” said Mneimneh.

Beyond the technical issues of rebuilding Beirut’s heritage, the attention of the initiatives is focusing on preserving the social fabric and not dismantling the community built on the areas devastated by the explosion.

“These buildings are part of people and the community, and we want to preserve these areas to avoid another gentrification of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael,” said Mneimneh.

“If the landscape of the city will change, it won’t be healthy for the people. They want to feel like a part of a community, especially after the trauma of the explosion,” Hammour said.

Cultural NGOs, architects, professionals, specialists and representatives of the Ministry of Culture joined the Beirut Heritage Initiative. They have launched a collective fundraising campaign to rebuild the traditional landscape of Beirut while ensuring transparency in using funds and resources and preserving the communities from the reconstruction.

In parallel to such local and on-the-ground efforts, the international community has mobilized to rescue and rebuild the city’s heritage with several initiatives.

UNESCO is raising funds to help Lebanon preserve its heritage, estimating $500 million to support the cause over the coming year.

Also, the international alliance ALIPH announced an initial envelope of $5 million to finance emergency measures to stabilize, protect or rehabilitate the city’s cultural heritage.

Meanwhile, some owners are trying to repair their traditional houses and shops by launching crowdfunding campaigns on several platforms to support their reconstruction.

“I am also the owner of one of the traditional houses in Gemmayzeh. My house was built around 200 years ago, but it has been heavily damaged by the explosion. I went to my house the day following the explosion, and it was a total mess. I cleaned it up a bit with my daughter, but it was depressing,” Dagher said.

He said his house has some structural problems and many cracks on the walls, and the roof was damaged. Furthermore, part of the ceiling and the internal decorations made in 1875 were also damaged.

Since the explosion, Dagher has been staying at a friend’s house. He has started to repair his house with the support of his own family. “I haven’t been helped by any institutions. The government is totally absent. Some came to conduct the assessment of my house, but they are not trained to these specific assessments because schools don’t teach them how to deal with these kinds of traditional buildings,” said Dagher.

“My family and I were born in Beirut, and there is no reason to sell and go away. I don’t want to sell. I want to live here. This challenge is not just about restoring cultural buildings, but it aims to fix the social fabric and save the community built around Beirut’s heritage,” he said.

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