Monday, September 27, 2010

The architecture of delusions* or The Sursock Rave

I am intrigued by the flurry of news stories and blogs on the issue of preserving Beirut’s architectural heritage.  Some of them are thoughtful, some of them are romantic.  While, it is sad to see some areas of Beirut change from quaint homes to high-rise eyesores, we also need to recognize this phenomenon for what it is: this is the price of progress.  Progress is good.

Architecture changes by necessity
There aren't many cities that have managed to maintain their quaint traditional character over time, while simultaneously growing their economy.  The examples are really few.  One can think of the medieval small cities of Central Europe, such as Zurich. But the population of Zurich is the same as that of the Dahiyeh, and for much of its history it was difficult for outsiders to own property.  There is also the almost feudal London, where a few families own large swaths of the city, and new property “owners” are actually buying a lease for 99 years.

The truth is that many Beirut old homes are simply uneconomical.  This reality should be lost on no-one, especially the founder of the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage, Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane herself.  She rents out her own house  as a venue for parties and weddings.

Most of Beirut’s old houses, though, are not as lavish as the Sursock house, and cannot be used for such purposes (even if there is a need for more wedding party venues!).  They are too expensive to turn into restaurants, and awkward to transform into viable residential or commercial space.  A friend recently tried very hard to find an old property that could be transformed into a hostel, but the mathematics made it an unattractive proposition.

Property rights are paramount
This is not to suggest that Beirut's old architecture is doomed. It is not. Solidere has done a laudable job at preserving what is possible from the rubble of our civil war.  Other creative architects have also helped incorporate façades or elements of old buildings into new structures. But it is quixotic to demonstrate and light candles in Gemmayze over a few old buildings. Some of them are beautiful, some are dumps. But who is to decide, let alone tell an owner that he/she cannot use their property to its maximum value?  Maybe Gemmayze can join Solidere, or follow its example?

Luddites of aristocracy?
I respect the intentions of the demonstrators, and I think that some economically sensible solutions can be found. However, I am perplexed by the asinine proclamations of one of the leaders of this movement, Lady Sursock Cochrane. She raves:

"Beirut used to be a city of gorgeous mansions and gardens and now it has become a boring heap of high-rises and construction projects"

Huh? Are we talking about the same city? Rue Sursock used to have a some gorgeous mansions, and a few crass homes. There were also a lot of crappy stone houses in Beirut, as well as quite a few chicken and goats.  Beirut has happily changed beyond recognition, and a lot of the change has been for the better.

Most of her statements are in fact at best delusional, but this sort of stuff strangely seems to work for some reporters such as  Tyler Brûlé. In a revealing interview about Beirut architecture she did for Monocle, she also claimed that Lebanon has gone from bad to worse since the Ottomans (Anyone remember reading about the famine that killed a fourth of the population?).  She also blamed the French for ruining industry in the mountains, thereby causing villagers to move to Beirut (actually, the main industry in the mountains, silk, went belly-up after the development of cheaper technologies in Japan).  She concludes by asserting that the only hope for Lebanon's future is the formation of a confederation with Syria (I would l-o-v-e to see the results of a referendum on this one).  In Britain, she would be known as a Luddite, or Prince Charles.

If Lady Sursock-Cochrane is uncomfortable with all this change, I would recommend that she take solace in the early 19 century words of Lord Byron: "A man of eighty has outlived probably two [new schools] of architecture...."

Activists for Beirut architecture need a more serious spokesperson.

Treat the problem, not the symptom
The solution cannot be found in isolation. Halting the demolition of an old building is a short term palliative, but in the medium term economic realities will always win.

The real solution to the real estate market problem can only be found in addressing its root causes: the perverse incentives created by onerous regulations in some areas, and the lack of regulation in others.  The lack of serious efforts in urban planning has increased pressures on a handful of areas.  Our Byzantine inheritance laws have created some insurmountable problems, leaving some prime properties in a derelict state. Then there are the rental laws, zoning laws....etc...etc.  It's good to hear that the Ministry of Culture has taken notice over some of these issues, but a good place to start is reforming existing laws, rather than introducing new ones. Fewer laws will also mean fewer opportunities for corruption.

*With apologies to Alain de Botton.

1 comment:

  1. Oussama very good post. I completely agree with you. Beirut does need a more serious spokesperson. There is George Arbid at AUB who if promoted by such activists as yourself I am sure could be encouraged to speak out more. I have written a lot on this issue and would love to have your sharp mind to be informed of my contribution to the debate. Have a look at