On Wednesday, March 4th, Save Beirut Heritage organized a stand in solidarity in front of Hamra’s iconic Red House to protest against the continuing destruction of Beirut’s remaining heritage.
This protest comes after Save Beirut Heritage discovered that two of Beirut’s prominent old buildings are being demolished: The Rabiez/Red House and the Rizk Building of Ashrafieh.
Former Minister of Culture Ghattas Khoury issued on March 2nd, 2017, a decree number 32 to cross the “Red House” from the general inventory of historical buildings, in preparation for its demolition by its owners.
According to Save Beirut Heritage on Facebook, the Rizk Building followed the decision: “The dismantling started following a decision by the Constitutional Council (Majlis el-Choura) allowing the owner to proceed with demolition against the decision of the Ministry of Culture.”
The destruction of Beirut’s beautiful heritage is in most cases illegal, according to a few rusty laws, one of which was developed in 1933 when Lebanon was under the French Mandate.
The 1933 heritage law only protects buildings constructed before 1700. Even though it has firm legal bases that prohibits any demolition whatsoever of ancient buildings, this law still does not protect the majority of Beirut’s old building.
“In 1999, the government issued a directive listing 220 historic buildings protected from demolition — unless the minister of culture says otherwise,” according to an article published in 2009 by the Lebanese Architectural Portal.
Two architectural and engineering consulting companies Khatib and Alami created a list that groups historical buildings into five categories: A, B, C, D, and E.
“”A” refers to buildings in very good condition, and “E” is the classification for those buildings needing significant work. Buildings classified as A, B or C are protected, while D and E can be torn down freely,” the article explained.
After pressuring efforts by the civil society and communities aiming to protect Beirut Heritage, the Ministry of Culture and the General Directorate of Civil Organization issued a new decree to protect some of the heritage.
The issued decree freezes decisions to give licenses authorizing the owner or investor to demolish any heritage building until some of the provisions in the old law or a new one are issued.
According to a former employee of the Ministry of Culture, that “unjustified legal” formula required obtaining the minister’s approval before demolishing any building.
However, the unauthorized/unprocessed decree did not prevent the Constitutional Council from nullifying the freezing decisions after appeals submitted by the owners of the buildings, given that the decisions of the ministry are not based on any official legal text.
On October 12th, 2016, the Council of Ministers approved a draft law to protect heritage sites and buildings in Lebanon, after many destructions of old and traditional buildings and the construction of modern buildings.
This law is based on the transfer of the investment factor from a specific property to other properties.
Consequently, owners of heritage properties will benefit materially without the state having to pay any money.
Even though the 2016 law contains many loopholes, activists believe that a law -any law- is better than nothing. This law, alas, was not enough to protect the Red House and the Rizk Building.
According to Save Beirut Heritage’s Facebook bio: “In the ’90s, an initial census counted 1600 traditional homes and buildings in the greater Beirut. Today, we estimate the number to be close to 300 remaining standing structures.”
“With the Ministry of Culture, we helped review 250 demolition permits and stopped the demolition of 150 buildings that were set for demolition in the past year alone.
So, in the past year, we would have lost almost a quarter of the remaining architectural heritage of Beirut.”
The numbers are shocking, knowing that Beirut as the capital of Lebanon depends mainly on its rich cultural heritage and cuisine.
Without these traditional stone houses, Beirut will turn into a city based on consumerism and expensive living.
Save Beirut Heritage provides phone numbers and emails to contact when witnessing a demolition of Beirut’s old property: “If you see anything urgent, you can also reach us 24/7 on our own hotline on 71411883. Save it on your phone, you will need it.”
“We also encourage everyone to photograph and film any vandalism act they see in addition to reporting it. Also, send your photos of endangered homes to [email protected] or send us a message on the page.”