The Beiruti Building

By Eric Eyges
Fall 2020/Winter 2021

Take a stroll down Rue Gouraud in the afternoon and look up at the sandstone buildings painted blue or green or left their natural reddish-brown color. You might notice some of the features of the “Beiruti building”: the thin, marble balconies and their distinctly patterned ironmongery—a mix of Italian, French, and Ottoman styles—the tall windows and their bi-folding green shutters; the triple archways; the grand, central salon; the tiled roofs; the reliefs of flowers and vegetation. It is a blend of foreign and local elements that characterizes the city’s architectural heritage, a heritage now crumbling in wake of the August 4th explosion. While foreign influence has often been the bane of the country’s politics, for architects, it’s served up a smorgasbord of materials and styles that local builders have picked from to produce something uniquely Beiruti.

The path to the Beiruti building began in the early nineteenth century, when new construction began to slowly creep beyond the city’s medieval walls. They were single-room dwellings of sandstone brought by donkey and cart from quarries in Achrafiyeh and Msaidbe, with roofs made from nearby branches covered in soil, mixed with thorns, and compacted with limestone.

In the early twentieth century, French architects introduced concrete and cement as building materials. “So in the 1920s, we started having mixed structures,” explains Serge Yazigi, one-time lecturer at AUB and head of the architecture firm Yazigi Atelier. The outer walls remained sandstone, he says, while builders made the columns behind those walls out of concrete. Eventually the sandstone was replaced by concrete entirely, and wood beams were swapped for steel to support the tuiles de Marseille, red roof tiles imported from France.

Many of these new structures, meant to house a burgeoning bourgeois class of merchants, like those in Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael, kept their central halls whose architectural origins are obscure. But instead of ferneh, a local material, they began to cover their floors with marble brought from Italy. And as it became more acceptable for women to appear in public, the thin balconies were lengthened along with the windows. “These new middle-income people started sitting on their balconies,” Yazigi says. Stucco paint from Italy replaced kilis, a local material, and the colorful homes dotting downtown Beirut came into their own.

“The central hall house that we celebrate today as our national icon, the source of our architectural identity is a hybrid suburban structure resulting from the integration of wrought iron I-beams and roof tiles from France, mechanically sawn timber from Romania, cast iron balustrades and hardware from England, and marble tiles
from Italy. The triple arch, the most distinguishing feature of the new type, is considered to be a Venetian import.” says AUB Architecture Professor Robert Saliba.

“[The Beiruti building] belongs to a period where industrial materials began being imported, but the formal synthesis is local. The Beirut identity blossomed before modernity outside the medieval walls. There was an effort to build something shared. Houses couldn’t be distinguished by sect,” Yazigi says.

What is unique and unifying about Beiruti architecture has been under assault since the civil war, culminating this past August with the explosion at the port. The film of pulverized concrete has been wiped from building facades, the chunks of balconies removed from car roofs, the glass swept from the street, yet many heritage buildings still lie in ruin.
According to UNESCO, 640 buildings were damaged by the explosion, with 60 of those being on the verge of collapse. “The buildings that were built prior to the mandate period using only sandstone, these were the ones affected the most,” Yazigi says. Many were already in desperate need of repair.

The idea that Lebanon’s cultural heritage should be protected first gained legal standing in 1933; Antiquities Law No. 166 provides for the protection of historic sites built before 1700. Those built afterwards must go through a formal application process, which, according to AUB Urban Planning Professor Mona Fawaz, has been complicated by politics. “Every listing is a negotiation process,” she says.

Building permits came into existence in 1951; prior to that time homes were erected ad hoc and at will. A year later came Beirut’s first and only master plan. “The idea was to have a dense urban core that gets less dense as you spread outwards. Bashoura, Mar Mikheal, Gemmayze, were all zoned for higher density,” says Fawaz. Many of the buildings in those neighborhoods managed to get on the historic building registry, thanks in large part to the efforts of preservation-minded NGOs and activists, many of whom work at or are affiliated with AUB.

“It was the war that broke the architectural identity thread,” says Yazigi. The close of the civil war opened the door to mass destruction and reconstruction. Developers coming from the Gulf, where whole cities sprung from desert in a short time span, were of the mind that new construction, rather than preservation, made the most financial and aesthetic sense. Politics, money, and developer might coalesced, and the old souks in the oldest part of the city were razed and rebuilt in the style of the new Arab Gulf.

Then more laws were changed; in 2004, the exploitation factor for new construction in historic neighborhoods was raised, giving developers more of a profit incentive to fight historic listings or let them fall so far into disrepair that they eventually collapse. And when they do collapse, the new buildings erected in their place often make no effort to continue Beirut’s architectural tradition of mixing the new and foreign with the old. Rather, new buildings are often imported concoctions of glass, steel, and concrete that break entirely from the surrounding aesthetic.

“We don’t speak of individual buildings anymore but of fabrics, groups of buildings that reflect that same period and have a specific historical character. After the civil war and reconstruction, all these buildings were being demolished to be replaced by high towers that tore the urban fabric in these areas,” Saliba says.

“In Cairo, Istanbul, Algiers, Marrakech, Rome—these places have protected their historical districts. In the Sultan Ahmad district in Istanbul, you can’t build more than two stories,” says architect and AUB lecturer Habib Debs.

In the absence of government regulation, Beiruti preservationists have stepped in, forming NGOs and liaising with international donors through organizations like UNESCO to document damage, secure funds, and draw up and execute rebuilding plans. 

AUB’s own Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service (CCECS) is working with NGOs to train local laborers in architectural salvage and restorative work. And the Beirut Urban Lab, also run out of AUB, documents and analyzes the city’s ongoing transformation.

“When the French went elsewhere they called what they built colonial,” says Yazigi, “but not here. Here we call it the mandate period because we took what they brought and integrated it. The essence has remained a Lebanese one.”