This research is part of a bigger monitoring project that was initiated by MAJAL Academic Urban Observatory (IUA, ALBA, University Of Balamand) in 2010, in the context of its research activities on Beirut’s reconstruction and urban development, with the objective of following developments in the areas bordering Downtown Beirut and the impact of the reconstructed city center.
Architectural heritage in Zokak el-Blat -the quarter of Southwest of Downtown Beirut- is disappearing at an alarmingly fast rate due to several factors.
The central location of Zokak el-Blat, the coexistence of several confessional communities and the fact that its cadastral boundaries extend partially into Solidere’s project made it a pilot study area, while our aim is to eventually monitor all pericentral quarters. The quarter let to visualize differences of urban management between an area developed by a private company and another adjacent under the responsibility of public authorities.
Architectural heritage destruction has been taking place at a large scale in Zokak el-Blat, before and after the war, and in- and outside the Solidere-area.
In the 1960s, large infrastructural works were undertaken that cut roads through the existing urban fabric, destroying many buildings and dividing the area into different parts (see map). During reconstruction efforts in Downtown Beirut, many buildings in the Zokak el-Blat sector of Solidere were destroyed.
Since 1990, aiming at preserving Beirut pericentral area’s built heritage were undertaken. A study was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture in 1995 to APSAD (Association pour la Protection des Sites et Anciennes Demeures). From the 1019 buildings shown in the inventory, 94 were located in Zokak El-Blat, 46 of high architectural importance.
The Ministry asked the Beirut Municipality to freeze any permits related to these buildings, but the owners contested this immediately and several illegal demolitions occurred.
In 1997, Rafic Hariri asked the DGU (The Directorate General of Urban Planning) to proceed with a reevaluation of the APSAD study. The total number of buildings to be preserved was lowered to 520 while in Zokak El-Blat it was reduced to 65.
In July 1998, a study by Khatib & Alami consultants reduced again the number of buildings to be preserved. Only 26 buildings were to be kept.
The buildings best preserved are owned by religious foundations or a large number of heirs.
Beyond the objective of keeping traces for the city’s collective memory, the issue of heritage preservation is crucial if we want to reshape a common identity for a post conflict city such as Beirut.
New projects concentrate mainly on the fringes of Zokak el-Blat, overlooking Solidere and take the form of high-rise luxury residential buildings. Developers hail from Lebanon and the Gulf region mostly and the majority of capital invested is of global origin, an indicator of gentrification. The continuing real estate development and construction activities taking place in Zokak el-Blat lead to increasing urban fragmentation and gentrification processes. In Beirut, gentrification processes are nearly new-build and mostly as private developments. Older buildings are simply not profitable when a 20-storey tower can replace them. Gentrification processes in Beirut are influenced by the politic. In stable times, real estate prices soar, while in conflict periode housing becomes more affordable, although real estate development continues as many developers count on future stable times to make their projects profitable. Gentrification processes and continuing real estate development have contributed to an increasing sociospatial fragmentation of the city. As contact between different groups of people diminishes and an increasing number of people feel left out, recurrence of civil strife is a real risk. New potential confrontation lines could be emerging from this process.
In general, the increasing subdivisions (physical, economical and social) that are appearing in the city are unexpected for a place that emerged from war more than twenty years ago and that should have already entered into the healing process of reconstruction. Majal is currently focusing on the reasons behind this and ways to get out of this cycle.
Serge Yazigi is head of Majal. Rita Chedid and Marieke Krijnen are project officer