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Old July 14th, 2008, 06:10 AM   #1
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Beirut's Architectural Heritage Vs. Skyscrapers

Beirut's architectural heritage erased by modern towers
29 June 2008
Agence France Presse

The Ottoman-style mansions, with Venetian windows, arches and lavish gardens that once epitomised Beirut are being levelled one after the other as high-rises mushroom across the capital.

"Now everyone is looking for towers, because they realise that above the tenth floor you can see the sea," says Mona Hallak, an architect and an activist with the Association for the Protection of Sites and Old Buildings.

"In 20 years' time, this won't be the case because you will have lots of towers everywhere."

As a result, landlords are rushing to take advantage of the high prices now being offered for the land on which their ancestral homes are sitting.

The pattern is set: the home is demolished, its traditional garden destroyed and the land sold and developed.

"Every time an old house goes, a green pocket goes and with it go trees that are often hundreds of years old," says Hallak.

"It's not only the house. It's the tree. It's the bird that follows the tree. It's the quality of life."

The only law on the books that protects old homes in Lebanon dates back to 1933 when the country was under French mandate. It mainly protects buildings constructed before 1700 although younger buildings can be placed on the list of protected sites either by government directive or private initiative.

"The law basically focuses on the protection of archaeology and antiquities," Culture Minister Tarek Mitri told AFP.

A survey commissioned by the government in 1997 identified about 250 buildings in Beirut that cannot be demolished.

"The list is outdated now," Mitri said. "Plus it was done hastily. Some buildings that should be on it aren't."

The list is of little consolation to activists like Hallak, who say the issue is more about preserving the country's heritage than merely saving a building or a mansion.

"It's important to save an entire street, what we call a cluster... there is a social structure that is completely tied to these buildings," Hallak says.

"We need a modern law that will allow us the flexibility to preserve these buildings."

The relatively new and trendy Saifi village in downtown Beirut is made up of urban-style apartment buildings painted in pastel colours constructed with the flare of old Beirut.

"It simulates an old lifestyle. But when you go there... it is empty. The shops are trendy. You won't find the interaction of a real old city," says Hallak.

Traditional Beirut neighbourhoods tended to have a local market, butcher, bakery and shops that made hand-made goods. Most of those neighbourhoods are gone.

-- 'In Lebanon, it's about connections, who you know' --

One neighbourhood that has managed to preserve its architectural heritage, though not its traditional character is Gemmayzeh, located near the downtown area. While the three- and four-storey buildings have not been demolished, they have been transformed and their lower floors now house restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

Some old stores, however, still sprinkle the area.

"We wanted to turn it into another Montmartre where it would be a nice quiet neighbourhood with cafes," said Joseph Raidy, who heads the Association for the Development of Gemmayzeh. He was referring to the Parisian district known to be a gathering place for artists.

"But it has become something else," he added, referring to the nightlife now emblematic of the area.

Gemmayzeh also boasts some of Beirut's most magnificent mansions owned by the Sursock family. The Sursock Museum was once a private home built in 1912 and now is host to an impressive permanent art collection.

The house had a splendid garden that kept it apart from its closest neighbour, also another Sursock mansion.

But recently the garden was razed to allow for the construction of a 25-storey apartment block that will stand between the two mansions.

"It was a massacre... a huge crime," Raidy says. "The garden had trees that were 40 metres (130 feet) high."

A resident of the area, who gave his name only as Maroun, bemoaned the demise of the garden.

"It makes you want to cry... it was the biggest, most beautiful garden in the area.

"There was a tree that was like 2000 years old. You would need four or five people to be able to wrap their arms around it."

Raidy says despite promises from the municipality that they would not allow the Sursock garden to be destroyed, it happened.

"In Lebanon, it's about connections and who you know," he says, referring to the wheeling and dealing that pervades in the country.

Jihad Khiyyami, an engineer on the project ironically named the "Park", says he understands the owner's decision to develop the land.

"It was an empty plot of land and the area's zoning allowed for it to be developed. There was high demand, so they went forth with the project," says Khiyyami, who adds that all the apartments have already been sold.

"If you want to solve this problem, people have to get money with a capital M," says Hallak.

The culture minister agrees.

"You have to give landlords incentives. They should not be punished for owning an old house," says Mitri.

Mitri has proposed a law that would give owners of old buildings exemptions on taxes and registration fees. Though the law has passed in the Council of Ministers, it requires a parliamentary vote to be ratified.

Lebanon's parliament has not met in regular session for over 18 months due to a political crisis that paralysed the institution.

Susan Hamza who lived in a mansion originally built in the 1930s says they had tried their best to preserve the house when the family decided to sell.

"We wrote letters to Arab princes explaining its history and even suggesting turning it in to a textile museum," Hamza says.

They never got any response.
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Old July 25th, 2010, 05:45 PM   #2
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FEATURE-Greed destroys Beirut's architectural legacy

BEIRUT, July 22 (Reuters) - Like an endangered species, Beirut's elegant old buildings are staring at extinction.

In a construction frenzy fuelled by a frothy economy and dollops of cash from Gulf Arab and Lebanese investors, new tower blocks are rising helter-skelter across the capital, many of them over the demolished ruins of its architectural heritage.

A few conservationists are trying to save something from the wreckage, but in a city where money is king, it may be too late.

"Beirut has become very ugly," lamented Rima Shehadeh, of the private Heritage Foundation. "It will go on, I know, but it will never have the charm it had before, never."

She is compiling files to secure official protection for a few decaying Ottoman-era mansions in the Zokak al-Blatt quarter, hindered by red tape, corruption and lack of a conservation law.

Some typical Lebanese houses with triple-arched windows, elaborate balconies and red-tiled roofs have survived, now dwarfed by the concrete apartment blocks hemming them in. Any sign of dereliction suggests that they are on death row.

Soaring land prices have etched dollar signs into the eyes of Beirut's property owners. They have every incentive to sell old houses to developers, who flatten them to build high-rises, unconstrained by zoning regulations or respect for human scale.

"It boils down to money," said Mona Hallak, an architect who works with Lebanon's oldest conservation association.

The building boom has accelerated in the last couple of years as Lebanon emerged unscathed from the global recession which punished Gulf real estate sectors in Dubai and elsewhere.

Lebanon, still reconstructing after its 1975-90 civil war, might seem a precarious haven for investment.

Only four years ago, the Israeli air force was bombing southern Beirut into rubble during a war with Shi'ite Hezbollah guerrillas. The country flirted with renewed civil war in 2008.

Now enjoying a respite from instability, the economy grew a startling 9 percent in 2009 and may manage 8 percent this year.


Giant new buildings are piercing Beirut's skyline, none brasher -- or to its critics more hateful -- than the 50-storey Sama Beirut tower, set to be Lebanon's tallest at 200 metres.

Amid the dust and din of construction, it is looming over the narrow streets, small houses and gardens that once made up an intimate corner of the Christian district of Ashrafiyeh.

Many of Beirut's luxury tower blocks stand almost empty, the apartments owned by Gulf Arabs or Lebanese expatriates who only use them a few weeks a year. Ordinary Beirutis are priced out.

"It's very sad," said Emily Nasrallah, an elderly novelist who has lived in the city for most of her adult life.

"We are losing the neighbourhood, the fabric of the normal, natural life that people have always lived in Beirut."

Some younger Lebanese are waking up to the abrupt changes in the texture of a city that is home to around 1.5 million people.

Take Pascale Ingea, a shy, soft-spoken 33-year-old artist and teacher, who began a Facebook group called Stop Destroying Your Heritage in March in outrage over relentless demolitions in the traditional Ashrafiyeh quarter where she had grown up.

"One day I had enough of being a passive citizen," she explained in her workshop loft in an old building.

Ingea told how she had watched helplessly from her balcony as workers wrecked a splendid 19th-century building she had known since her childhood. "I had dreamed of buying this palace and restoring it and turning it into a fine arts academy."

She collaborates with Naji Raji, 22, who races around Beirut like a self-appointed conservation vigilante, checking venerable buildings for hints of imminent demolition, photographing the evidence and contacting the culture ministry to intervene.

"We are working really hard," he said, describing a struggle to outwit developers who choose odd times like Sunday nights to knock out interiors, swiftly turning old houses into skeletons.


This month conservation groups launched an awareness campaign that features a picture of tombstones for recently demolished old buildings against a backdrop of dark skyscrapers.

They have won support from Lebanon's youthful culture minister, Salim Warde, who is determined to halt the havoc.

Any demolition order must now bear his signature. He is also pushing parliament to enact a law that would give tax breaks and other incentives to owners of heritage houses.

"These buildings are part of our national treasures, of our identity, of who we are," Warde told Reuters. "So we're not destroying wood and stone, but a part of Beirut and a part of the architectural heritage that's been left to us to preserve."

"We are the only Arab country that has not passed a law to preserve heritage houses," he said. "This is outrageous."

Even if the law passes -- an earlier version has languished since 1997 -- it may take several years to implement, a time-lag that powerful, well-connected buyers of old houses may exploit.

"I dream of seeing one intact street in Beirut in 20 years. It's really wishful thinking," said Hallak, the architect.

She has spent 13 years fighting to save a single historic building, used by snipers during the civil war, and now, with French financial support, set to become an interactive museum.

"What else can you do?" she shrugged. "Everything is for sale in this city -- history, identity, the soul of the city."

Hallak argues for preserving vibrant old neighbourhoods, not just single buildings of particular architectural merit.

"We need an urban cluster that maintains the soul of the city, with the gardens and houses and the people living in them, the whole ensemble," she said. "Individual houses are museums."

Thirteen years ago her group listed four such neighbourhoods with 520 buildings worth preserving. "We know 70 of these have been destroyed. The rest are on the way," Hallak said.

For architect and urban planner Simone Kosremelli, it is too late to salvage Beirut's heritage: a few jewels will survive, thanks to their appreciative owners, but the state has long ago missed the chance to buy up old buildings for public use.

"Today this is impossible," she said, citing astronomical land prices beyond the reach of a cash-strapped government.

Kosremelli said Lebanon should "minimise the catastrophe" by at least saving myriad old houses in mountain villages, where land is much cheaper and vernacular architecture could live on.
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Old October 1st, 2010, 11:25 AM   #3
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Rediscovering Beirut's charms
After years of unrest, the city's urban culture bustles with boutiques, restaurants, night clubs galore

1 October 2010
The Wall Street Journal Asia

A CITY THAT has been marked by civil unrest and captured by competing empires for centuries, the Beirut of today is enjoying a rebirth, and, in the process, capturing the hearts of visitors from around the world.

The Lebanese capital, which has made a remarkable comeback after a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 and several subsequent conflicts, now poses a different challenge -- luring people to its restaurants, shops, art galleries and archeological sites.

"For many years I have been intrigued by a city that could have a history of being the Paris of the Middle East, was destroyed by war and then rebuilt. So Beirut has been on my wish list for quite some time," says Ann Giuli, a 56-year-old medical documentation specialist from Stamford, Conn., who visited in May. "It has exceeded all expectations in every way. It's more beautiful, larger and easier to travel around."

Downtown Beirut has seen the biggest transformation: high-end clothing and jewelry stores can be found on almost every corner, night clubs such as Skybar and White are situated on the roofs of buildings overlooking the sea, and two five-star hotels have come onto the scene since 2009: Le Gray and the Four Seasons.

The Beirut Souks, the main shopping center in the heart of the city, reopened in 2009 after being destroyed during the war. It is now home to more than 200 shops, including Burberry, Yves Saint Laurent and Vera Wang. Just footsteps away are the boutiques of Beirut's hometown high-end designers: Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad, who have made names for themselves making evening gowns for Hollywood celebrities.

At Place de L'Etoile, surrounding an art deco clock tower, are outdoor cafes and restaurants, serving everything from Lebanese mezze to sushi. A 10-minute walk away is Monot Street, a small cobblestone road lined with pubs, restaurants and nightclubs, easy to find because in the evenings it is always alive with music.

On Saturdays, the downtown Saifi Village parking lot is home to a farmers' market called Souk El Tayeb. With farmerscoming from different parts of Lebanon, it's a great way to sample the country's regional specialties.

"I came here 15 years ago, and the city was in a bad state. I then came back six years ago, and wanted to do something similar to my hotel in London. I could feel the city's energy coming back," says Gordon Campbell Gray, founder of the eponymous chain of boutique hotels. "I think it's good at the moment. People are feeling confident in Lebanon's future."

But more than being a postwar investment, Mr. Gray thinks Westerners are rediscovering Beirut for its quality of life: great weather, food and friendly people. "Monday night is like Friday night here. People really know how to live for today," he remarks. "There's a certain Middle East hospitality, and we could learn a lot from that."

Last year, Lebanon hosted 1.85 million tourists, beating its prewar 1974 record of 1.4 million. For the first seven months of 2010, foreign arrivals in Lebanon totaled approximately 1.32 million, up 22% from the same period last year, meaning this year is on target to break another record for the country's tourism sector. Simultaneously, Beirut is experiencing one of the biggest construction booms in its history, ushering in a new era of modern skyscrapers accompanied by a bustling urban culture.

Ms. Guili adds, "I was told we were visiting Beirut at a great time. I inquired why, and someone said because so much of the construction had been completed. This did not seem possible because I don't remember seeing any place that had so many cranes and so much construction taking place."

Times have changed, says Nada Sardouk Ghandour, director general of Lebanon's ministry of tourism. "We don't want to be labeled the Paris or the Switzerland of the Middle East -- because we're not Switzerland or Paris." Today, she says, "Beirut has its own identity. It's a very noisy city, where each district has its own charm. We have our faults, but we also have our qualities. We've witnessed war and destruction. But there's this spirit here. We don't give up, we're fighters, and we love life."

Even with all of its newfound glitz, there's still an Old World charm that can be found in the neighborhoods outside of downtown. In the university district of Hamra, bohemian cafes and bars recall the golden age of Beirut as a center of culture, activism and academia. The American University of Beirut, with a scenic campus overlooking the sea, regularly hosts evening lectures by prominent activists, academics and musicians. Barometre, a small bar near the gate of the American University of Beirut, is known for its delicious mezze, and was also a favorite of Yasser Arafat.

These days, there appears to be an increasing interest from foreigners in seeing the "real Beirut" and not just the attractions. In the summer of 2005, a group of recent AUB graduates founded "Walk Beirut," in which they give five-hour walking tours of the city. Founder Ronnie Chatah says the idea started "when I ran into several foreign backpackers lost in Beirut, not sure where certain icons like the old Holiday Inn and Martyr's Square were located. Turns out they had walked right by them without actually knowing where they were. The touristy spots like Raouche rocks and the National Museum can be found without hassle, but this is a very simple and limited portion of Beirut's past. I came up with an itinerary I thought was critical in grasping Beirut's story."

His tour, which was discontinued during the summer 2006 war and then restarted last summer, takes visitors to the old buildings of Kantari; the never-completed Trade Tower and former Holiday Inn Hotel, the old Jewish quarter, Beirut's old printing press, Martyr's Square and the green line that once split the city in two. Some of these war-scarred abandoned buildings that were once reminders of the city's darker days are now used for summer concerts.

In the predominantly Christian area of Achrafieh, the Parisian-style apartment buildings are relics of the French mandate period. Customers of most of the local boutiques can expect to do business in French -- especially with the older generation of merchants.

Lebanon's strong French connection dates back to the 1600s, when Jesuit missionaries began arriving in the Near East after a long history of trade between the Franks and other Mediterranean peoples. In the 1800s, the French established some of Lebanon's most important schools and universities. By the time Lebanon had achieved independence from France in 1943, the country had become home to some of the best French architecture and schools in the region.

Today, Lebanon's French connection continues through its education system and close cultural and political ties to its one-time occupier. "Of course, the link is quite immediate with the bourgeoisie, and most often you do not even need to ask the question. It is a kind of tacit acknowledgment, and we directly start speaking in French," says Vincent Rondot, 51, an archaeologist from Paris who visited Beirut in February. "I know that nowadays, politically correctly speaking, the rule is to criticize that historical period in the region, but I cannot prevent myself to feel myself part of that history that cannot be rubbed away. I came to see a city that I heard a lot about for years, a city of remote and recent history, a kind of a key for the understanding of Middle East."


Touring Beirut

The Four Seasons, Beirut's newest five-star hotel, is located right on the sea and within walking distance of the city's newly-revitalized downtown. (Toll-free reservation numbers are provided on the website.) www.fourseasons.com/beirut

Le Gray, which opened last year, is in the heart of downtown. The hotel's minimalist design is so subtle it almost disappears into the scenery of the neighborhood's beige marble buildings. The boutique hotel features a rooftop restaurant and four bars and lounges.



The Crowne Plaza, on Hamra Street, is the perfect place from which to explore the university neighborhood. The top floors have excellent views of the Mediterranean Sea. The neighborhood is filled with outdoor cafes and trendy clothing stores. +961-1-754-755


The Albergo, an art deco boutique hotel in Ashrafieh, is by far the most elegant hotel in Beirut. The reception is a cozy area filled with plush sofas and interesting antiques. +961-1-339-797


Abdel Wahab restaurant on Abdel Wahab El Inglizi Street in Ashrafieh serves traditional Lebanese food in an ornate Beirut mansion. +961-1-200-550


Tawlet, just off Naher Street, Jisr el hadid offers a taste of rural Lebanon in an urban setting. It also holds cooking classes once a week.

+961-1 448-129


Laziz on Hamra Street is a good place for casual bistro dining, with fresh and fast mezze and homemade bread.


The Jeita Grotto, in the lush green valley nearly 20 kilometers north of Beirut, is an expansive cave filled with stalagmites and stalactites.


The Pigeon Rocks, in Raouche, are a great backdrop for an afternoon coffee at the Bay Rock Cafe or Petit Cafe, particularly as the sun sets on the sea behind the rocks. Short motorboat rides through the rocks are also available.

The National Museum is an attractive spacious building that houses artifacts from the Neolithic period (9,000 B.C.) through the Arab conquest (the 600s).


Al-Omari Mosque, downtown near Place de L'Etoile, is the former crusader castle of St. John (1113-1150 A.D.) that was converted to a mosque by the Mamlukes in 1291.


Walk Beirut gives five-hour tours of Beirut's living history.


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Old November 5th, 2010, 08:38 AM   #4
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Rebuilding Beirut
In the aftermath of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, developers are turning the capital into a version of Dubai. But there’s a lot of history at stake.
October 29, 2010

Joseph Eid / AFP-Getty Images

On a recent Saturday night in the Gemmayze district of Beirut, hundreds filled the streets, holding candles and waving signs to protest the destruction of the historic French colonial and Ottoman-era buildings that give this city its character. OUR HISTORY IS NOT FOR SALE read one. Another said BEIRUT IS NOT DUBAI.

It certainly looks like it’s trying to be. Once known as the “Paris of the Middle East,” the city is now becoming an eyesore as it attempts to mimic the development of other regional business hubs. Cranes and jackhammers have become as integral to Beirut’s urban landscape as the Ottoman and French architecture that once dotted the streets. A recent United Nations Development Program report said that Beirut will add 300,000 new buildings in the next decade, leaving the already-crowded city with virtually no public spaces. The country’s 15-year civil war, from 1975 to 1990, turned the capital into rubble, and now developers are rebuilding it with an eye toward dollars instead of toward repairing the religious rifts that caused the war in the first place.

The building boom is destroying not only the historic beauty of this Middle Eastern capital but also its social traditions. The old downtown area, now known as Solidere after the development company founded in 1994 by then–prime minister Rafik Hariri to rebuild the center, used to be the heart of Beirut, where all religious groups and social classes lived side by side—a rare haven of tolerance in a country divided by religious differences. During the war, many Christians who lived in the area fled downtown out of fear, leaving their homes and belongings behind to be seized by Shiite Muslims from the harder-hit south, who squatted there.

With the downtown area turned to rubble, Solidere, a public-private partnership, moved in to begin the hard work of reconstruction. Critics, and there are many, say Solidere demolished the city center to erase all memory of the conflict and to build the Beirut of Hariri’s dreams, a modern cultural and economic hub that mimics the style of buildings found in the old city, but lacks the soul. Solidere’s projects include Beirut Souks, a luxury retail center that opened in 2009 where well-to-do shoppers can browse for Cartier and Dolce & Gabbana, and Saifi Village, a residential and arts district in the city center. Supporters of Solidere’s efforts insist the capital was so devastated that the public sector could not have rebuilt it alone. Solidere says it worked hard to reposition Beirut on the world stage and restore the downtown area as a place of peace and mutual respect. It succeeded on one front, says Angus Gavin, the company’s head of urban development: businesses have once again been arriving to set up shop, from American Express Bank to bustling restaurants.

Yet the Solidere project priced out most of the Lebanese who used to live and work there. As mixed-income housing gave way to luxury buildings targeting rich Gulf Arab investors and expatriates, the 150,000 people who once lived downtown were forced to move farther out. “Beirut is no longer for the Lebanese,” became a common refrain. “Solidere has become a victim of its own success,” admits Gavin. “But you have to remember that in the beginning it was by no means clear that anyone would want to come back.”

Someone did—just not the poor craftsmen, butchers, and workers who used to inhabit the old city. “We have lost the melting pot,” says Assem Salam, a prominent local architect, who helped found the Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings in Lebanon in 1960. “Now the city is divided.”

He should know. Salam’s 1840s Ottoman house sits in Beirut’s Zuqaq al-Blatt district, a short walk from Solidere. During the war, shells hit his roof three times, leaving a hole through which he can see the sky. All around him historic buildings are demolished regularly to make way for towers, while he sits in his garden and watches the world go by. “Oh, yes, I have preserved my house,” he says sadly. “But what is the use of preserving my house if the community around it is not preserved?”

Salam believes Hariri’s job as prime minister was to reunite the various religious groups by encouraging those who left during the war to return. Instead, he says, Hariri cemented the divisions by putting money above reunification. “The only way to bring Christians and Muslims together is to repair the physical environment,” he says. “The physical memory has disappeared, and the population that once lived here has left.”

Now some of them are seeking to reclaim what’s theirs. Naji Raji, 22, founded the Facebook group Save Beirut Heritage five years ago after his family was kicked out of its apartment when the building was sold to developers. Raji and fellow Save Beirut Heritage member Giorgio Guy Tarraf, also 22, call the postwar building boom in Beirut a “culture war.” Tarraf’s family was also pushed out of their Gemmayze home. “I always wanted to grow old in that house,” Tarraf says. But like many others he received a letter saying the building was slated for demolition. “My family was there for 140 years. The buildings that survived the war will not survive this crisis. Beirut’s soul is dying. When you uproot people, they die.”

The problem is that Lebanon’s preservation laws are routinely neglected in the name of money. The Ministry of Culture, the one government entity that could actually protect historic buildings, is poorly financed. Officials estimate that only 400 out of the 1,200 old mansions, which the ministry inventoried in the mid-1990s, remain. Because buildings are worth so much, even those on the preserved building list are being torn down by their owners. Some say only 10 percent of the historic buildings are left in Beirut. Destruction is just as rampant in mountain villages and in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, where a battle is being waged over an old opera theater.

Slowly, however, things are beginning to look up. Lebanon’s culture minister, Salim Warde, must now sign any order to demolish historic buildings. When a building in Mar Mikhael was recently ruined by its owner, in what some say was a deliberate attempt to have the structure taken off the “protected buildings” list, a group of activists, including Warde, arrived on the scene to stop the destruction. And Warde recently set up a hotline for citizens to report buildings that are being destroyed illegally.

Social media have also helped. Members of the Save Beirut Heritage movement can find each other and share information, as well as mobilize demonstrations. Netizens have sent photos of buildings being torn down to the group’s Facebook page, turning the site into a virtual city center for young preservationists’ dreams. “Maybe Facebook will save this city in the end,” Tarraf says. He’s only half joking.

Ackerman is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. She reported from Lebanon on a grant from the International Reporting Project.
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Old December 20th, 2010, 06:04 AM   #5
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Acclaimed architect Djurovic calls for more public spaces in overly urbanized capital
30 October 2010
Daily Star

BEIRUT: Shaded by two ancient trees lies a simple plot of land, barely visible from the bustle of Downtown shops and traffic, but gaining recognition from the architecture community as one of the capital’s most prized contemporary works.

Despite its unpretentious air, Solidere’s “Square Four,” better known as the Samir Kassir Memorial Garden, has picked up a string of international awards for its clever use of space and its symbolism as the last remaining natural oasis, preserved amid a sea of construction and cranes.

It’s identification is a reminder that even in a city renown for its obsession with glamor, where public spaces have long been passed over for the pomp of boutique shops, towering offices and sky-rise hotels, the basic human need for gardens and places of rest remains undimmed.

“If such a small project can get such worldwide recognition, just imagine what we could do on a larger scale,” said architect Vladimir Djurovic. “The city needs this – its people need this. When you look at every other great city in the world they have all factored in how to make the lives of its citizens more manageable, but we have, and continue to, totally ignore this.”

It is this outlook which helped Djurovic secure the Cityscape Architecture Review Awards as well as this year’s American Society of Landscape Architects Design Award, but, it is also crucially what first brought the Lebanese-born environmentalist to the attention of the Aga Khan Award for Agriculture (AKAA) judges in 2007.

While the highly influential AKKA award – established in 1977 to recognize architectural excellence in Islamic societies – has gone to rehabilitating some world famous sites like the great Alexandria Library, it prioritizes projects that further cultural and environmental sustainability.

And in Lebanon, nothing is more key than reversing unbridled construction and promoting natural spaces, said Djurovic. (Perhaps that is why this year another of Beirut’s green spaces – the landscape of the AUB campus – made it on to the shortlist.)

The young architect stands out for his dedication to conserving a space’s integrity as much as possible, refusing projects that bear a heavy toll on the environment and working with sustainable materials that are true to a site’s guiding natural element, be it trees, water, or even desert.

Working for the likes of fashion designer Elie Saab, Djurovic is increasingly in demand, picking up a string of public commissions, including the Hariri memorial garden, and ensuring that at least the tiny corners of the city, handed over to his care, remain green.

Although initially slow on the uptake, the backlash against endless urbanization is gathering clout. Resident protests are attracting increasing media attention while politicians have begun denouncing new demolitions and developers are increasingly incorporating more outdoor spaces into plans.

These small steps, however, are certainly not enough, especially in a city where green spaces are estimated to compose an average per capita ratio of just 0.8 square meters, in contrast to the WHO ideal of “greenery per capita” standard of 40 meters – a discrepancy of 5,000 percent.

The unbridled construction boom has ripped apart the city’s cultural heritage and driven up pollution to levels deemed “toxic to human health” by university findings.

“Any remaining space that we have must simply have to be reclaimed into green areas,” said Djurovic. “We don’t need any more buildings or memorials, what we need is more public spaces.”

This could be a key first step, and if proposals by the country’s Green Party are to be believed, could add an additional 800,000 to 2,000,000 square meters of grounds to the capital.

“This is a terrible situation and requires a radical solution. The municipality must restructure its urban planning and step in to preserve land for its inhabitants,” said Philip Skaff, head of the Lebanese Green Party. “Even if contractors are creating more features in their own designs, if you plant a few trees only the tenants will have access. This is not the point.”

“Public spaces promote social cohesion and help cities be less violent,” he said. “The first thing you do to a crazy person when they reach an asylum is ensure they have access to big open fields, this calms them, much like a park helps someone exposed to cars, traffic and noise all day.”

Despite the need, the authorities continue to be slow to act. The Pine Forest, Beirut’s biggest park, remains largely closed, while much of the Corniche is still in a state of disrepair.

“You have to entice and attract people to a space, but Beirut’s few public spaces are dangerous and dirty. But all one needs to do is clean them up,” said Djurovic. “Unfortunately, there is no will to do this and all people seem to care about is making money or impressing other people when the most impressive thing one can do is have a beautiful outdoor space left as nature intended.”

“No one wants to live in a polluted, smog-filled city with no greenery,” said Djurovic. “People claim that contractors are bringing in money but they are actually making property prices fall. A property that is located next to a good view and is close to nature can retail as four or five times as much.”

The new Beirut municipality administration has at least recognized the problem and claims to be formulating a more sustainable developmental strategy. When, and if, such a strategy will be unveiled, remains to be seen, and could well come too late to preserve Beirut’s remaining public areas.

“All green spaces are residual leftover spaces in the city, which developers couldn’t use. It would be wonderful to have a place, just one, where the garden was put first and the buildings followed,” Djurovic said.
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Old February 25th, 2013, 02:16 PM   #6
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i wonder if those big companies working for sama beirut knows that they r constructors and not devastators!
i live in a small 50ies building of 6 floors just on the toes of sama beirut , and believe me it smells....

you cannot imagine the amount of trash that flies over our heads, making this respectable neighborhood in a bin state of living...you name it....polystyrene that clogs everywhere and make the roof an endless pool flooding all the building....the cans and left over of all the workers that enjoys the elevation while eating their tunas mostly....and the best is those iron big 10cm nails, the cement pieces, and lastly my poor car that has now chicken pox from cement tatoos that is not going even with extreme polishing....
we r living the armageddon luxury era!

yeah we called them many times....they r very skilled and polite answering, but when it comes to action ....nothing is done but disdain....

i personally told them that i dont want compensations, or nice words, i just want them to take into consideration the life that is going down there in hell thanks to them now!
i reminded them of their duties....but it seems money have no ears...

i feel myself obliged to write this here coz i want to share this other side of the sack of beirut....everybody talks of the destruction of old building....but the real killing is when you insult the people living in those buildings ignoring them.

in the end, i salute all the professional engineers , architects and business men.....but in my opinion if they dont start taking into consideration the human factor while building, a holy rule to become in their syndicates, their luxurious ideas will stay fake, unfair and doomed to become freaks of the city....they will be building only rocks, not environement as they pretend....

enough botoxing this society ... lets CARE about everything, about everyone.... for a change...

Last edited by beirutee; February 25th, 2013 at 02:16 PM. Reason: the ogre is sama beirut
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