Artists vs. Bulldozers: Battle to save Beirut's heritage gets creative

This story, and several others on Beirut, complement the CNNGo TV series. See more of the show here: www.cnn.com/gotravel.

Beirut (CNN)In the back garden of Beirut's Villa Paradiso house there's a single date palm tree, a species endemic to Lebanon, with a dramatic swooping trunk.

Wrapped in fairy lights, it's undeniably charming. It's popular with visitors to the house's events and exhibitions.
But when asked about it, pain clouds owner Remi Feghali's face.
"There was a miscommunication with a worker," he explains. "He chopped down all the baby trees around the mother. I still feel physical pain when thinking about it.
"This is a symbol of what is wrong with this country's approach to heritage. We leave only the one most beautiful thing as an example, while tearing down everything else that contextualizes it."
The destruction of Lebanese architectural heritage, a concern since the first high-rises began to replace the gardens of historic Ras Beirut in the 1950s, has accelerated at an alarming rate in the last 20 or so years.
The city's skyline is continually crowded with construction cranes, building ever more towers filled with apartments that the vast majority of the city's residents can't afford.
"An initial census in the 1990s counted 1,600 traditional homes and buildings in the greater Beirut area," says Save Beirut Heritage activist Giorgio Tarraf. "Today we estimate the number to be close to 350."
The restoration of Villa Paradiso has incorporated its turbulent history.

Bullet holes and bomb damage

Now several enterprising Beirut residents, tired of waiting for the public sector to act, are taking it upon themselves to turn crumbling old houses -- some still with bullet holes and bomb damage from Lebanon's civil war -- into public art, event and even office spaces.
Villa Paradiso (+961 03 384 532) in Gemmayzeh, restored with aesthetics as a priority, plays host to art exhibitions and private events; Zico House (+961 01 746 769) in Sanayeh is a space more focused on civic activism, and the productivity of its occupants.
"The goal," says British painter Tom Young, whose idea sparked Villa Paradiso and a still-developing space in Ain el-Mreisse called the Rose House (Ain el-Mreisse; +961 03 384 532), "is to create spaces that improve the social cohesion of a city that is impacted by all sorts of divides."
Ultimately, this will make their destruction more difficult.
The oldest remaining houses in Beirut were constructed beginning in the 19th century, in a unique style combining Venetian (and other Mediterranean), Ottoman and Islamic architectural influences.
Many wealthy families added floors or rooms to their homes during the 1923-1946 French Mandate.
As a result, many of Beirut's oldest homes are a mix of architectural styles, as well as building techniques.
The houses generally have at least three things in common: red Marseilles roof tiles, very high ceilings, interior arcades and three pointed arches in the street-facing wall of a large central room.
"The style developed as a direct response to the Lebanese environment and society," says Feghali, an architect trained between Paris and Beirut.
High ceilings were born from the need for cool rooms during Lebanon's hot summers, and the central hall was convenient for extended families living together in the same house.
The large arched windows evolved to take advantage of the sweeping views of Lebanon's hilly coastline.
A militia camped out on the ground floor of Villa Paradiso during Lebanon's civil war.

Lost golden age

Happily stumbling home from a Gemmayzeh nightclub one New Year's Eve, Tom Young and his wife, Nour, were stopped in their tracks by the intoxicating aroma of jasmine -- and then by the sight of the decrepit yet still magnificent house behind the vines.
"At the time, my work was becoming more and more about loss and memory; the idea of a lost golden age ... as well as transformation ... a very pertinent issue in Beirut," says the painter. "I realized this was the perfect place to do a show, in a context that was meaningful."
Young called the number on the door, struck a deal with the Feghali family (the house's owners were thrilled with the idea of showing art in the house, despite extensive renovation costs) and Villa Paradiso was born.
In the renovations, the goal wasn't to make it appear new -- "that would have been impossible," Feghali says -- but rather to honor the history of the house.
Concrete was necessary to cover extensive holes in the walls from bomb blasts, but when Young and Nour lovingly painted it over, matching the original color exactly wasn't a priority.
The house had been through the war -- a militia camped out on the ground floor for a time -- and Feghali and Young felt it was important to incorporate that into the house's new iteration.
Feghali also decided to keep the jasmine vine that made such an impression on Young.
"The front gate is the way it is because I didn't want to cut the jasmine -- another little concession to the heritage and the flora," the architect says.
After Young's initial exhibition, Feghali opened the space up to other artists, events and private parties.
When CNN visited, a textile exhibition by Mexican artist Paloma Torres was on display against a peaceful background of faded pastels.
The slant of the afternoon light brought out the subtle colors in the traditional Lebanese tiles, different in each room.
There was even a hint of jasmine in the air.

Utilitarianism over beauty

The BEYt bed and breakfast is outfitted in classic mid-century furniture.
Twenty minutes across town in the west Beirut neighborhood of Sanayeh, the building that's become known as Zico House has been standing on Rue Spears since its construction in 1928 by the Yamouth family, who had made their fortune trading fabric.
In 1994, a few years after the end of Lebanon's civil war, Moustapha Yamouth opened up his family home to the remaining members of the neighborhood's formerly vibrant community of artists, poets and theater professionals.
His nom de guerre during the war, chosen as an homage to the Brazilian footballer Zico, became the name of the new collective.
Zico went to the front lines as a fighter ("with the communist party") three times during the 15-year conflict, he says.
After the war, he felt the same impulse to get involved.
"I was never underground waiting for something to happen," he insists. "During the war, after the war, I was always on the street, trying to make things happen. I want my city to be my city."
Unlike Villa Paradiso, the interior of Zico House evokes utilitarianism over beauty.
Few concessions have been made to the interior architectural heritage of the space, but the plastic chairs, tables and couches give the rooms a lived-in aspect more conducive to work.
Zico's office, presided over by traditional stained glass interior windows, is cluttered with art, papers and antique furniture.
Looking out the window, he speaks fondly about the interaction of stairways, gardens and balconies of Beirut's old houses.
In addition to the regular art exhibitions, Zico House has incubated several associations and organizations that have gone on to launch successfully elsewhere in the city.
These include the Arab Image Foundation (a nonprofit working to preserve photographs from the Arab world), Ashkal Alwan (a non-government organization working to promote creative work and learning), Helem (another NGO, this one working with LGBT youth) and others.
The collective nature of Zico House, as a place for both artists and people in the civil sector to collaborate, corresponds with his communist political alignment.
"It's my property, but I use it as public property," Zico says. "We're always aware that we're the people who are going to make change in society," as opposed to the federal government, "and in order to do that we have to organize."
BEYt is a bed and breakfast in an old house outfitted with mid-century furniture. It should appeal to those interested in traditional Beiruti architecture (+961 01 444 110).
The Mansion is a collective art space in a traditional Lebanese home located in Zoqaq el-Blat (Abdulkader Street, Beirut; mansionblatt@gmail.com).