23/09/2020 by Yara Ritz, Associate Researcher (Lebanon)
First, a thick and insidious grey smoke. General dizziness, guilty curiosity. Then, the rush to the windows. And the flood. A shallow breathing, an apocalypse and a deafening noise that took away innocent lives within a few seconds.
The capital is devastated. The Lebanese mourns not only its victims but also its heritage, heavily impacted by the two explosions that took place in Beirut’s harbour on August 4th, 2020.
Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael: an ode to colours and life
After the long years of civil war that troubled the country of Cedars from 1975 to 1990, party has become an essential element of Lebanese culture. The streets of Beirut perfectly testify to it.
Elected general quarters of partying, the neighbourhoods of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael are revealing examples: it is in these very dynamic districts that people, whether young or less young, Lebanese or foreigners, used to meet and hang out. As a symbol of Beirut’s cosmopolite life, they have nonetheless been the most impacted by the double explosion.
Contrasts and memories
Intertwining the East and the West, the Gouraud and Armenia streets in Gemmayzeh used to represent a real architectural walk as well as a delicious journey in time. Walking in those animated streets was a delightful invitation to travel. One could easily find in this Bohemian and artistic neighbourhood bakeries with cute interior designs and generous shop windows, trendy bars and newspaper sellers, art galleries and small grocery stores. The district was thus a true laboratory of experimental ideas.
A vividly colourful architectural language: here is what emanated from the historical buildings of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael. Under an olive tree or the sloping roofs formed by the vine leaves, people would gather around to have lunch in the great and welcoming central years of the district.
These picturesque houses were provided with small secret gardens behind the buildings, free from chaos and noise. Here is the “three-arcade house”, typical of traditional Lebanese architecture, and more particularly the Beiruti. Yet many of these buildings, which are part of the national historical heritage, have been either destroyed, smashed down, or heavily damaged.
Reconstructing at stake
How can we think about reconstruction without speculation ?
Restoring and reconstructing should respect the city’s architectural heritage. Such process will be important since the emergency encapsulates many other districts. According to the Lebanese Ministry of Culture, 640 out of more than 8000 damaged buildings are historical ones; furthermore, 60 others are likely to collapse.
Among them are Beirut’s National Museum, the Sursock Museum, and the Archaeological Museum of the American University of Beirut, along with numerous religious sites and cultural places. UNESCO, in conjunction with the International alliance for the protection of heritage in conflict areas (ALIPH), promised to contribute to the rebuilding programs. Yet it requires that the necessary funds are raised as a first step. Real estate developers will probably try to take advantage of the situation to acquire buildings at a very low price to replace them with modern and functional buildings. This threat is all the more important as it is very present.
With winter coming, it is mandatory to fix the buildings and provide them with doors, windows, and isolation materials. Indeed, after the explosion, more than 300 000 people found themselves homeless.