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'Ugly Beirut' struggles to survive peace

Beirut from the 1950s and the new city centre
Beirut's colonial architecture and charm earned it the name "Paris of the Middle East", but since the war those days are gone

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Beirut

"Beirut is an ugly city."

This statement would infuriate plenty of proud residents of the Lebanese capital, but veteran architect Assem Salaam stands by his words.

He points to the evidence: a jungle of grey concrete that towers over his garden, hiding what used to be a spectacular sea view.

Of course all cities change, but change does not have to be so aggressive and so inhuman
Assem Salaam
Architect

It is not the loss of the sea view that Mr Salam mourns.

And, he says, it is not the commonplace nostalgia for the old and familiar that drives his bitterness about an extraordinary pace of construction in his city.

"Of course all cities change, but change does not have to be so aggressive and so inhuman," he says.

"Take London, for example. It has changed immensely since I first visited in 1942, but I can still take the same bus route as I did then, or walk the same streets.

"Beirut, on the other hand, has changed beyond recognition," he says.

Captured hearts

Sprawled on the hills that roll down towards the Mediterranean, Beirut was once known as the "Paris of the Middle East".

Beirut during the civil war (photo from 7 May 1976)
The 20-year civil war destroyed much of beautiful Beirut

Over the years, the city's sophisticated charm, its winding streets and the mixture of French colonial and Ottoman architecture had captured the imagination - and hearts - of countless visitors.

But from the mid-1970s onward, as Lebanon descended into a two-decade-long civil war, much of Beirut was reduced to rubble.

The war also changed the demographics of the city, Beirut's once mixed religious and ethnic neighbourhoods became increasingly divided and hundreds of thousands of people left the country.

Today, the legacy of the civil war still mars Lebanon's divisive and turbulent politics but the city itself, it seems, has moved on.

Beirut's skyline is dotted with cranes and the skeletons of half-finished high rises. On every corner, it seems, there is a construction site.

For plenty of people, this building boom which is turning Beirut into a chaotic glitzy metropolis is a sign of better times. For others, it is a disaster.

Surviving the peace?

"They have destroyed my city," says Joe Kodieh, resident of Beirut and theatre director whose latest play deals with the loss of the city's architectural heritage.

What's happening is very sad, but it's not in our power to stop it
Rasheed Jalekh
Beirut municipality

"Beirut survived the war, but it's not going to survive peace. What survived two decades of war, we are destroying now, in the name of modernity," Mr Kodieh says.

Across Beirut, hundreds of high-rise buildings have replaced old buildings. The city's architectural heritage is being wiped out because there is no legislation to protect it.

"What's happening is very sad, but it's not in our power to stop it," says Rasheed Jalekh, representative of the Beirut municipality.

"The municipality can only stop construction if we own buildings, but we don't and we don't have the money to buy them."

Mr Jalekh says that a handful of buildings could still be saved, if only parliament passed legislation that would protect them.

But for decades Lebanon's leaders have been preoccupied with political wrangling and crises, and issues like architectural heritage have struggled to get attention.

Politicians have also failed to come up with a comprehensive urban development plan for Beirut, which has resulted in chaotic and disorganised construction.

Beyond reach

The only neighbourhood of the city that is being rebuilt according to a plan is the downtown area.

Walking along Beirut's Corniche
The Corniche sea front walk is fast becoming Beirut's only public space

Its renovation is entirely in the hands of Solidere, a company which was founded in 1994 by Lebanon's then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005.

His son, the current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, has recently moved into his new palatial residence in the city's newly-rebuilt centre. But Mr Hariri does not have many neighbours - the buildings, used mostly for offices and shops, are far beyond the reach of most Lebanese.

Solidere has often been criticised for destroying historic buildings that could have been saved, and for turning the colourful historic centre, which used to be a meeting point of cultures and religions, into a glitzy but soulless area for the rich.

"The neighbourhood has lost all its character, no-one can afford to live there," says architect Assem Salam.

'Build parks instead'

Beirut is losing not only its architectural heritage, but also open space.

Although the city never had many public parks, thousands of gardens that surrounded old houses had once provided Beirut with plenty of green space.

Today most of them have turned into parking lots for the brand new high rises.

"There isn't really a place where I can take the kids for a bike ride or a walk," says 30-year-old Amir, who, like most Beirut residents, brings his three-year-old son to play on the Corniche, a boardwalk along the Mediterranean.

"They should build parks instead of building apartment blocks that most of us cannot afford," he adds.

But with plenty of demand from the wealthy members of the country's huge diaspora and Arabs from the Gulf, construction companies are reaping profits and they have no incentive to stop building in Beirut.

According to Assem Salam, it's not the lack of building regulation that is destroying Beirut, but what he describes as the government's total disregard for public good.

"The real problem is that the existing regulations are set to benefit real estate companies and the government, but not people," he says.



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