Middle East Features
Construction fever erases Lebanon's historic heritage (Feature)
By Weedah Hamzah Nov 3, 2010, 3:06 GMT
Beirut - Beirut is in the grip of a construction frenzy that threatens to erase the historic heritage of a city which once had Ottoman-style mansions and lavish gardens.
Many of these old buildings are now being demolished to make way for high-rise apartment complexes that are mushrooming across the Lebanese capital.
'When I look now at Beirut all I see is cement blocks ... This is heartbreaking,' says Mona Hallak, an architect and an activist with the Association for the Protection of Sites and Old Buildings.
Beirut, according to Hallak, is losing its typical traditional old houses, with their red-tiled roofs, arched windows, beautiful balconies and inviting gardens.
'In few years there will hardly be a green space in the city ... and Beirut will have no historic heritage whatsoever. ..' she added.
Many of the old houses are being torn down and their gardens dug up so the land can be sold and developed into modern apartment complexes.
According to Hallak, the only law that protects old homes in Beirut dates back to 1933 when the country was under French mandate.
'This law only focuses on the protection of archaeology and not specifically on the old houses,' Hallak said.
A survey compiled in 1997 by the government lists 250 old buildings which are protected from destruction, but officials believe the list was drawn up without proper research.
Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane, whose family owns many mansions in the city, has been fighting to preserve Lebanon's heritage since 1960. She is founder of the Association for the Protection of Natural Sites and Ancient Buildings (APSAD).
'Some politicians in Lebanon just don't understand that we have very few listed buildings and that in most countries, you remove the inheritance tax on listed buildings so people have a possibility of restoring,' Cochrane said.
Cochrane stressed that Lebanon is the only country in the region without a law to preserve heritage.
'Some good politicians have tried in the past to pass a law ... But there is no hope so far,' Cochrane said.
'I think people are realizing Beirut is becoming a monster. It is overbuilt and destroyed,' she added.
The boom in construction has increased since the global financial crises badly hit some Gulf Arab states like Dubai.
Most of the apartments now under construction are being being sold to Lebanese who live and work in the Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states.
'Lebanon's real estate market has been growing noticeably due to increasing demand for properties by Lebanese and Gulf investors,' says Wadih Kenaan, a real estate company owner.
'We can say that real estate investment has become an essential part of the Lebanese economy, accounting for 11 per cent of its 20 billion dollars gross domestic product (GDP), compared to 4.5 per cent in the 1970s,' he adds.
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