Emerging Trends in Urbanism: The Beirut Post-War Experience

An Essay on a presentation made by Robert Saliba to Diwan al-Mimar on April 20, 2000

Prepared by Mohammad al-Asad and Majd Musa in association with Robert Saliba, 2001




 Emergency Strategies
Another reaction to the ongoing destruction of Beirut's colonial heritage has been the application of "emergency strategies." In this context, Saliba cites the work of APSAD (Association du Patrimoine et de la Sauvegarde des Anciennes Demeures), a Lebanese non-governmental organization concerned with the protection of the country's architectural heritage. In 1995, APSAD carried out a preliminary survey of Beirut's buildings that had been built before 1930. The survey aimed at listing buildings of special architectural or historical interest, and therefore of conservation potentiality. The list that resulted from the survey included 1,015 buildings, and the list was presented to the Lebanese Minister of Culture so as to implement the necessary procedures for the protection of these buildings. The minister did take the decision of freezing construction activities relating to the listed buildings for two successive periods of six months each. During this period, the Lebanese General Directorate of Urbanism was supposed to make the necessary planning decisions relating to the protection of these buildings.

Although the work of APSAD had the positive impact of increasing public awareness concerning Beirut's colonial heritage, it also had a number of negative consequences. Some of the owners of the listed buildings applied considerable political pressures that resulted in removing their properties from the protection list. Following that, they more often than not tore those historical buildings down to replace them with new profitable real estate developments. Interestingly enough, the number of listed buildings has been contracting continuously to reach 500 buildings. (5)

 New Approaches to Preservation
A third reaction to the ongoing destruction of Beirut's colonial architectural heritage has been to propose an approach to preservation that incorporates financial mechanisms as an integral part of the preservation process. Here, Saliba presented the example of Bizri, Salama, and Tabet, who proposed the legislation of a "preservation tax" on buildings located in historical areas. In turn, this tax would be allocated for preservation purposes. (6)

Another contemporary planning trend in Beirut has been to approach preservation through corporate planning, a process that was put in place by the launching of the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of the Beirut Central District, Solidere. (7) Solidere provided a market-oriented conservation strategy through which it was able to preserve the Place de l'Etoile and the Foch - Allenby areas, the two most important areas in Beirut's Central District that date back to the French Mandate period. Solidere was able to implement conservation strategies in the two areas within a period of four years; an achievement that most probably would not have been possible had another planning approach been adopted. Through this process of corporate planning, Solidere was able to transfer air rights from one section of the Central Business District to another in order to preserve the buildings located within the designated conservation area. However, this project is still surrounded with controversy, primarily resulting from the mandatory incorporation of the owners in the company as shareholders.

Outside the city's Central District, another approach to preservation has been adopted. This is the "incremental development approach" undertaken by the private sector. Such an approach was necessary there because of the difficulty of applying the concept of air rights transfers that was used successfully in the Solidere area. This is the result of the high population density in Beirut's peri-center districts, in addition to the fact that each district has its surviving architectural and urban identity as well as its rigid and "blanket" zoning codes. However, the restrictions that one faces when attempting to preserve Beirut's peri-center districts have led to some creative ideas. Those are expressed in the trendy restaurants and nightclubs that have emerged in those districts. The Furn el-Hayek area is a good example of this approach, where small developers have taken advantage of the authentic character of the traditional buildings of the area and turned them into commercial assets. (8) Another representation of incremental development is that being carried out by the entrepreneur Bshara Nammour, and which Saliba refers to as the "Nammour trend." Nammour added vertical extensions to a number of colonial buildings. Such additions allowed him to maximize the commercial potential of those buildings, but they also were carried out in a manner that attempted to achieve a level of harmony with the original structures. Although this "incremental approach" is highly controversial, Saliba argues that it is efficient and effective. He adds that buildings in the city were produced through an "incremental process" in the first place, i.e., they were not built at one particular period, and consequently argues that such an incremental process provides a valid option for addressing particular problems of preservation.

Yet another contemporary planning trend that has emerged in Beirut is the "incremental participatory planning" process. Here, joint ventures are established between the inhabitants of a certain neighborhood containing historical structures and those who own businesses in that neighborhood. The latter would finance preservation works. In this case, particular properties of the assigned neighborhood are initially selected for enhancement, and the process would gradually spread to include the other parts of the neighborhood.


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