The long climb from war to freedom
The Daily Star July 17, 2013
By India Stoughton
The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Inside the Yellow House, time has been frozen. Standing at the chaotic intersection of the Damascus Road and Independence Street, the Barakat Building – its proper name – is halfway through the renovation process that will transform the once-gracious structure into Beit Beirut – part museum, part memorial. The ground and first floors of the Barakat Building were built by Youssef Aftimos in 1924. A young architect named Fouad Kozah added the top two stories in 1932. The first residential building to be designed and built by architects, it is a unique piece of the city’s heritage, explains Youssef Haidar, the architect in charge of the renovation project.
Erected in a transitional period, the house is a unique blend of styles. The lower floors combine Ottoman and Modernist features, while the upper stories incorporate elements of art deco and make use of the versatility of reinforced concrete, introduced when Kozah took over.
Beit Barakat was scheduled for demolition in 1997 and for the past 16 years architect and conservationist Mona el-Hallak has campaigned to save it from destruction. With the help of ex-governor Yacoub Sarraf she convinced Beirut Municipality to expropriate the house in 2003, and she continues to play a role in its future.
The empty first floor of Beit Beirut has been virtually untouched since the end of the Civil War. The building bears the scars of its central role in the conflict, dictated by its strategic position on the former Green Line and its profusion of windows and open balconies, which gave snipers line of sight in most every direction.
The walls are pitted with bullet holes, the ceilings blackened with smoke. Faint traces of a beautifully painted border of grapevines remind visitors that this was once a residential building for bourgeois Beirut. The peeling paint is now overlaid with scrawled graffiti, the confessions of the snipers who worked from here for close to 17 years.
“I want to speak the truth – my soul has become disgusting,” reads one legend in messy spray paint. A play on words, it can also be read as “my soul has disappeared in a moment.”
In the bathrooms – its tiles cracked, sinks long since vanished – traces of the sniper’s den remain. Using household doors to shield themselves from return fire, the men created narrow slits through which to shoot. From one vantage, a bullet could cross a courtyard and a room – through one window and out another – before finding a distant target. Walking these rooms is a sobering experience, at once fascinating and harrowing.
This, Haidar says, is how the finished museum will look. With technical assistance from Paris Municipality, his team is ensuring that the building is structurally sound and earthquake resistant, and that it does not deteriorate further. The facade and interior, however, will remain as is, bullet holes, snipers’ dens and all.
Gaps in the facade have been filled with stainless steel beams – prosthetics, as Haidar terms them, so that any additions are immediately obvious.
“The building quickly began to seem like a living human being,” Haidar explains. “It’s someone that has his history, his memory, traces, like each and every one of us Lebanese has these wounds – hidden or apparent. ... If he has something missing, a leg or a hand or something, it will be replaced with prosthetics. The idea is never to add flash. ... It’s a kind of surgical approach.
The first floor will remain almost untouched, save for the addition of windows. For the second floor museum, the original paint, tiling, flooring and graffiti remain, but some walls have been removed and doors added to create a sense of space.
The third floor will be completely restructured, becoming home to a large exhibition space, roof garden and restaurant. “The idea,” Haidar explains, “is as you go up through the building you get freed.”
Stairs that once connected the building’s four stories were long sabotaged, the lower stages destroyed by snipers to prevent access to the building’s upper floors, while the upper flights hang in midair. A new building, which is being erected behind the Barakat Building, will facilitate circulation.
Haidar’s steel prosthetics are not to everyone’s taste. Hallak – who, as a member of a consultative committee of architects, urban designers and academics, continues to provide input – is supportive of much of Haidar’s work. She has reservations about the prosthetics, however, fearing they will reflect the sunlight, distracting from the original facade.
“The less you see the stamp of the new architect the more the architect is successful,” she says. “That’s my point of view. Having those stainless steel shingles on the facade ... might stamp [the building] with war much more than it should.”
Civil War history is a contentious subject, so creating a museum of memory is a complex process. The basis of the collection will be materials from Beit Beirut’s history – including photos from an old ground floor studio, which depict local history from the 1950s to the ’70s, and the personal effects of a dentist who had his office on the first floor, including his dental cabinet full of records.
A cultural team, of which Hallak is also a member, will propose further objects for exhibition.
Haidar says the aim is to unite people, rather than to include objects that could prove divisive. “Our approach is talking about human beings, human feelings,” he says, “at that level where we can really reach all communities. ... We cannot work on selective memory. It’s very important to understand what happened before, what happened after, how things took place.
“There is no one absolute truth,” he adds, “but maybe it can be reached gradually through small stories.”
Hallak believes the building will speak for itself. “The most important thing,” she explains, “is acknowledging the history of the Civil War, without hate, without accusations. ... When you see such a beautiful building, and what the war has done to, I think it’s enough learning experience for people that we shouldn’t go through that again.”
The French state last week honored Haidar and Hallak for their efforts to preserve Beirut’s heritage and the Barakat Building in particular, with Hallak receiving the National Order of Merit, knight grade, and Haidar the Order of Arts and Letters (part of the Order of Merit) also knight grade.
“It is always great to be recognized,” says Hallak, “but the dearest recognition to one’s heart should come from his own people. I know how much my work is appreciated by the Lebanese people who have followed my 18 years of lobbying for this building.
“Beit Beirut’s being realized with all its layers of meaning – preserving our collective memory, national identity and city history – this is my utmost recognition.”