The lost city: Beirut Modern

Raouche Beirut Modern postcards

This blog has discussed preservation in the city of Beirut in relation to a building, THE GRAND THEATER in Beirut and public space, Martyr square  . Yet on the scale of the city how and what do we preserve?  As a city grows, mutates and becomes more contemporary the question of what to PRESERVE becomes more intrinsic. Do we stand still in time? Do we want to reserve everything ‘old’?  

Gondole a remarkable building Raouche lost . Photo taken by Sandra Rishani 2002

The internal staircase & internal courtyard of  Gondol building. A Landmark that we lost. Photos by Sandra Rishani 2002

Hamra, Raouche and Badaro are the perfect cases for such questions. Recently the booms in these areas' real estate markets have changed a large part of the housing and office stock of the area. Yet the histories of these areas are unique in the context of  the urban growth of Beirut. All three may be categorized as urban fragments that developed drastically in the 1960s and 1970s.
Yet the general public neither seems to be interested nor recognize that these fabrics and buildings may be worth preserving. The facebook page of an active NGO, Save Beirut Heritage,   is a case in point. It created a forum where people identify buildings they believe ought to be preserved rather than destructed to make way for new high-income high-rise buildings. The group documents the cases and attempts to saving them. None of the buildings posted online are from the modern period. Why is that? How do we define historic preservation? Is it everything that’s over 80 years old regardless of their spatial and or historical qualities? 

Beirut's general growth diagram. Yet the cityscape charm remains in its  multilayer-ed development

If the public does not define 'what', 'how' and 'why' it wants to preserve an edifice, the history of our cities will become like our history books- they stop at Independence Day. 

POSTCARD: In the downtown area most modern buildings disappeared.  A famous cinema bldg, Rivoli on Martyr Square

How can a city haphazardly destroying its architecturally modernist phase re-imagine its preservation process? We need to recognize that historic preservation policies and campaigns that remain focused on a superficial search for identity will destroy the charm of Beirut; which is its multilayered histories of conflict and power relations that manifest themselves in the production of the city.

Raouche Modern Beirut survives 

To start setting an agenda or vision for what historic preservation is and should be several points need to be heeded.

Can we preserve the two buildings in the photo?    

1-      What we today call traditional, unique and valuable represents different periods of modernity preserved.  They were preserved by independent individuals who thought what they have, own or built is valuable and kept it until institutions later recognized them as worthy of historical preservation.

2-      Everything we inhabit has the potential to be preserved. Around the world landscapes, camps, prisons, religious buildings, residences, factories and amusement parks have all been preserved. 

3-      How old does a space need to be so that it is preserved is another undefined criteria in the preservation debates. At first edifices that were over 1000 years were required to be kept, studied, and documented. Currently and since the 1960s spaces those are as young as 20 years have been categorized as ‘historic’. Following this logic buildings built in the 1990s may well become heritage buildings.

4-      The importance of buildings and/or spaces does not hinge on their aesthetic quality 

Consequently, preservation is an attempt to preserve, conserve and protect buildings, objects, landscapes or other artifacts of significance to our future narratives. 

Different models of preservation can be imagined if we agree that preservation of the city is important when a holistic approach is taken so that ‘modern’ or contemporary fabrics are not lost with market booms. 

Bands preserved will include various types building and urban fabric production.

 One proposal could be to randomly take either swatches or strips from the city. Every 200 years another strip or more swatches maybe added.  Buildings under construction may suddenly become preserved. Some horrible cheaply constructed inefficient market driven buildings will be preserved and some older more unique buildings and some older low income constructions might similarly be preserved. 

The second band will preserve this part of Ain il Mressiehs facade and a series of  old and new buildings behind

What do you think?


  1. why would you want to do that, isnt it the same as random planning. Somebody has to take decisions, otherwise you will wipe out your memory. Beirut has a beauty in its randomness, but also in the quality of its modern architecture. Some buildings are just too good to be left to an arbitrary rule, could anybody want to demolish the gefinor centre. I am always shocked on arriving in that space from the surrounding chaos. It is about beauty and aeshetics.I think you have an excellent site, I do hope you continue

  2. Great post. I didn't even realize the Gondole was lost. It's amazing how the new developments mask the past to the point where you forgot what was there and barely notice it was gone.

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