A Lebanese Meditation House Is The World’s Best

I recently stumbled on a gallery that featured the winners of the World Architecture Festival, which took place in Singapore in early October, and which awarded the best architectural projects of the world that took place between January 2012 and June 2013. The projects didn’t need to be built in order to compete.

A Lebanese project, as I’ve found out, was chosen as the best house among future projects. Designed by MZ architects, the meditation house looks quite odd and definitely not anything we’re used to as Lebanese. It’s made as something that blends into its surrounding hills and mountains, doesn’t challenge the location it’s in and provides its owner a means for him to feel closer to God.

The house also has a room which is dug vertically into a nearby cliff. The house itself, it seems, satisfies the requirements of Islam without it being anything typically Muslim. The vertical room is akin to a minaret. Its location, overlooking its surroundings and the seaside, can be considered to be a dome and the direction towards Mecca is conserved.

You can check out more information about the meanings behind the house here.

Check out the following renderings of what the house will look like. I personally wouldn’t want my house to be like this and I’m definitely not an architect in order to appreciate the work that has gone into it. But at least this is a ranking that matters.

Following Up on Beirut’s Soon-To-Be Destroyed Roman Hippodrome and The Best Way To Save It

Lebanon isn’t a place where much changes in a year. Seriously, if you look at where we were last year around this time and where we are today, you’ll see a lot of similarities. The only exception, perhaps, to our Lebanese reality is real estate, especially when it comes to all the contracting taking place in Downtown Beirut.

More than year ago, I wrote about the Roman Hippodrome that was soon to be destroyed in Beirut (link), in Wadi Bou Jmil next to the Jewish Synagogue. A lot has happened in a year. So courtesy of a piece (link) by Habib Battah, an LAU professor, published by the BBC, an update on Beirut’s Roman Hippodrome is in order:

  • The developer who wants to use the land is Marwan Kheireddine. Sounds familiar? He is a minister in Lebanon’s current government. Way to go for transparency.
  • The project that will see the destruction of the hippodrome is a gated community where only “elite” Lebanese will enter. In other words: you and I are off limits. Unless you can afford paying millions for a Downtown Beirut apartment.
  • According to Kheireddine, the site is not worth preserving. How does he know this? He hired an archeologist who said so. Yes, because such matters are most transparently handled by the people you buy into your service.
  • Kheireddine is offering 4000 squared meters of the land to turn into a museum of sorts that people could access. Because a Roman Hippodrome was meant to be contained within the parking lot of a building, right?
  • Plots around the site in question are said to contain other parts of the stadium and need to be properly excavated as well.
  • There is an immense shortage of archeologists in the country. The job of those archeologists is to make sure such transgressions never happen. But the government doesn’t seem to care about such an issue.
  • Beirut is not the only place where Lebanese archeological heritage is being destroyed left and right carelessly. In fact, what’s happening outside of Beirut in lesser known areas might be worse.
  • Concerned activists are trying their best to halt the development. But there will come a time when they won’t be able to do much anymore.

I remember back in 2005-2006 when a local cafe in Batroun was being built. The initial digging site revealed a Phoenician burial site, sarcophagi and all. People flocked to see what the site was all about. The following day, nothing survived to tell the tale. Today, instead of that entire burial site lies a cafe known for its shisha and its July 2012 drug scandal.

The Best Way To Save The Hippodrome:

Earlier in 2013, hell broke loose twice over ancient ruins in Beirut. The first time was because some henchmen at District S assaulted the same person who wrote the aforementioned BBC article over him taking pictures of the ruins they were busy dismantling to open up Beirut into the new Dubai-esque age (link). The second time was due to Lebanon’s possibly oldest Church getting discovered at another site where a Jean Nouvel hotel was to be built (link).

The discrepancy between the fate of sites one and two is striking. The former is still operation. The latter has been halted. Churches can do miracles? Believe, people.

Arguments about how priceless a monument is, how irreplaceable it is, how silly it is to replace it with a building, how rare it is to find such a thing in Lebanon, how economically profitable it would be to keep it and turn it into an attraction are all useless simply because most people don’t connect to them on a primal level, enough to get them rallied up.

The only way, apparently, to get to a result, force government to get involved and save such sites in Lebanon is to infuse a dose of religion in the stones. The more religious those stones, the more people get rallied up, the less our government can stand quiet as bulldozers raze through the field. Unfortunately for the hippodrome, there doesn’t seem to be an ancient church in its ruins as of now. Let’s hope that changes soon.

The following pictures are all courtesy of the BBC:

Disfiguring AUB with Zaha Hadid’s Building

Zaha Hadid AUB

Towards the end of my AUB days, someone decided to close down the area that held an infirmary in order for some new construction to take place.

I am not unfamiliar with construction projects at AUB which filled my time when I was there: both the Olayan School of Business and the Hostler student center opened when I was a student. I’m no expert nor do I know anything about architecture but they never struck me as disembodied elements of AUB’s campus.

The building depicted in the above picture is what’s standing in place of the infirmary today. Is it hideous? You bet. Is it an atrocity? Definitely. Does it take away from the charm of AUB’s upper campus? Well, it is a concrete block with holes in it. Again, unprofessional opinion here.

Why is such an ugly building overshadowing Nicely Hall? Because it has Zaha Hadid affixed to it, the world’s most famous architect, who “won” the competition to build this. As if the pull of her name alone isn’t enough to sway the competition.

I have to ask – and it’s obviously too late now for such a question – but didn’t anyone from AUB’s administration get a tinge of nausea as they passed by this growing structure and saw it disfiguring the campus many of them call home? And isn’t the mere presence of such a building disrespectful to the architecture faculty at AUB which is more than capable of coming up with better and more campus-relevant buildings?

But I guess this is how things roll around the country: go with the flashiest, most expensive, most prominent names because that’s sure to be better. Issam Fares- no relation-, after whom this building is named, should probably sue them for libel.

The Death of the Lebanese Dekkéné

Rue Aabrine Beirut Lebanon

Aabrine Street was, until recently, one of the last remaining Achrafieh streets that still contained a flair of an old Lebanese life that you wouldn’t believe still existed in Beirut, especially Achrafieh: one where a family lived in the same building which had a dekkéné that they ran. Their house harbored them for decades – all through the civil war.

Their house’s entrance is very inconspicuous. The cats roaming around the place hid in the space of those traditional windows. The family took care of them. I went to their place a few times: high ceilings, old chandeliers and armchairs… what you’d expect to find in old Lebanese houses in the village was there. Except this was the heart of Beirut.

Their house was also the witness to the Civil War story I wrote on this blog in 2011. You can read it in its three parts here.

Their home is no longer theirs as some investors took over the entire stretch of buildings on their block, all of which are old buildings. But this isn’t Amin Maalouf’s house for it to cause a ruckus.

Beirut Aabrine Street Old Bldg Beirut Aabrine Street old building 2

As I walked by the house yesterday, I was saddened to see all the dark, empty windows. What used to be lit apartments and the voices that emanated from inside is now nothing but emptiness awaiting for it to become non-existent.

The family that lived in that apartment lived off a small dekkéné at the other side of the building which stretches down the street by being connected to lesser maintained parts. This dekkéné allowed their father to send many of his children to the United States where they got naturalized shortly after the civil war ended. He ran the small place for 50 years. He played cards with my grandpa and other Aabrine men as customers came in and out – Tarnib Koubba in case you’re wondering. Backgammon tables were there as well.

Dekkane Beirut Aabrine Street Lebanon

Today, the door of Sassine’s dekkéné holds a paper which he signed to announce that he had relocated. Another small office a few meters away, in that same building, announced the same thing. This dekkéné, which by the looks of it could fit anywhere but in Achrafieh, is gone for good. It still stands. But not for long.

The building that contained the dekkéné and all the nearby buildings connected to it will soon be demolished to allow another colorless high rise in their place. The history of the place will be gone for good. The place where my grandpa played cards with his friends, where small children would run to get their mother something she urgently needed for the tabkha she was cooking will be gone and with it another chapter in the life of a city that will soon not recognize itself anymore.

This isn’t about the worth of the dekkéné or its efficiency – it’s about what the dekkéné signifies: how easily we tear down what is old to bring in what is newer but never better.

This is the other side of the building in question, less maintained than the section where the family lived:

Aabrine Street Old Building

Beirut Rue Aabrine old bldg

And this is what the dekkéné and its building will be replaced with. Beautiful.

beirut achrafieh high rise

Let Them Demolish Amin Maalouf’s House

Amin Maalouf's Home Beirut

Many people are panicking that Gaby Layon, our minister of culture, has approved the demolition of Amin Maalouf’s house in Beirut’s Badaro neighborhood, which started yesterday. You can check out pictures of what’s left of the house here.

My problem with the issue can be formulated in the following question: should we be against this demolition because it’s Amin Maalouf’s house, which is why most people are outraged, or because it’s is a one-of-a-kind Lebanese mansion that has been around for over a century?

While Amin Maalouf is definitely a Lebanese to make us proud and whatnot, I do not believe him living in the house holds any cultural value for the Amin-Maalouf-Lived-Here protesters. He did not create most of his literature in it. I don’t think the house he couldn’t wait to get out of helped shape him as a writer in any way. If Amin Maalouf wanted the house saved, I’m sure Amin Maalouf could have gotten it saved.

However, the house is more than a century old. It is an old fashioned Lebanese house, present in a capital that is fast losing any form of architecture that makes it distinctive – and this is where the wealth of this residence lies. Long-gone are those mansions that our forefathers helped build and told us about when we were younger. Long gone are those houses that make Beirut Beirut. They are but a distant memory stranded among a concrete jungle of high-rises, slums and Zaitunay Bays. The house shouldn’t be demolished not because Amin Maalouf lived in it but because it would, if renovated, fit in and give grandeur and character to its neighborhood – one that the coming high rise wouldn’t even dream of doing.

Not all old Lebanese buildings are nice and should be preserved though. But their demolition is a reflection of two serious problems: we have a lack of urban design that is only getting worse with each tower ruining Beirut’s skyline. The idea that high-rises shouldn’t be stranded all around the city but located in one main district is non-existent. For example, my neighborhood in Achrafieh has a very high building that hasn’t been completed yet and it’s been ten years at least. It sits there, out of place, out of character and absolutely disgusting-looking. These old buildings are being demolished at an increasingly rapid pace as well – out with the old, in with the ugly new. And this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the horrors of Beirut’s current designs.

The second problem is that those who should care about preserving our culture don’t. And those who have the power to point that out are in a deep state of apathy.

While the issue of electricity and Lebanon’s ancient ruins are different, they are both of the same importance. However, how many TV stations do you see grilling Gebran Bassil day in, day out? All of them except OTV and Al-Manar. How many stations do you see grilling Gaby Layoun for demolishing more landmarks during his time than any other minister of culture? None.

Gaby Layoun isn’t Michel Aoun’s son-in-law. He doesn’t have a protective clout around him. He can be very easily disposed, another Charbel Nahhas if you want.

Gaby Layoun doesn’t have the faintest idea what culture is. He is the minister behind the current demolition of Beirut’s Hippodrome in Wadi Bou Jmil and the demolition of the Phoenician Port in Downtown Beirut as well. For all matters and purposes, this is a man who doesn’t know anything that extends beyond the growing depth of his coffers. And yet he’s still adorning our government with his presence. He was even quoted “apologizing” for Maalouf’s home, not knowing its architectural worth. Please.

Let them destroy Amin Maalouf’s house. What remains of our ancestor’s Beirut doesn’t rest on it. Odds are there’s another house somewhere in Beirut right now being demolished as well. But no one cares. Lebanon’s cultural identity crisis isn’t contingent upon a house standing, in a country whose national heritage is a matter of disagreement, where those landmarks being destroyed are considered by some as unnecessary – “the tourists don’t want to see that.”

Let them demolish Amin Maalouf’s house. It is not his home. It is but a tiny speck in a dying country, a cancerous and corrupt ministry, an idle media and a wretched people all getting ready for Lebanon’s upcoming 2013 elections. I’m pretty sure if the ministry wanted to demolish Gebran Khalil Gebran’s home, few would have cared as well.

Let them demolish Amin Maalouf’s house because, if anything, leaving his old home actually allowed him to be great. 3a2belna.

Lille, France

I spent the month of August discovering the gorgeous city of Lille in Northern France. I went there for a clerkship at one of the city’s hospitals and I absolutely fell in love with its culture, its people and everything it had to offer. Lille is one of France’s biggest cities and yet it still has this rustic feel to it – especially in its older streets, aptly called Vieux Lille.

I made a lot of memories in that city. I won’t go down memory lane and enumerate them for you because I’m fairly certain you couldn’t care less. But I am thankful for getting the chance to go there and meet the people that I met and make those memories that I cherish now.

Xavier & Camille, our amazing French hosts and friends that made us feel at home – literally – for the entire month that we spent there, this is for you. Thank you for everything.

Here are some of the many pictures that I took of the beautiful city of Lille. I’m not a professional so these are not meant to be impeccable – but I do hope my love for the city comes across in them.

Palais des Beaux Arts

Palais des Beaux Arts

Another old street in the city

Another old street in the city

A parc bench in the city

A parc bench in the city

Rue de Bethune

Rue de Bethune

The city's opera house

The city’s opera house

Vieux Lille

Vieux Lille

The view from our apartment

The view from our apartment

A statue next to Palais des Beaux Arts

A statue next to Palais des Beaux Arts

A war monument

A war monument

One of the city's cathedrals

One of the city’s cathedrals

Lille France Street

Welch - one of the city's specialities

Welch – one of the city’s specialities

Lille France Restaurant Comptoir 44

Inside one of Lille's cathedrals

Inside one of Lille’s cathedrals

A mural found in one of Lille's subway and train stations: Lille Europe

A mural found in one of Lille’s subway and train stations: Lille Europe

One of the specialties of the North

One of the specialties of the North

Beer, another specialty

Beer, another specialty

Another street in the old parts of the city

Another street in the old parts of the city

One of the streets of Vieux Lile

One of the streets of Vieux Lile

The opera house

The opera house

Gargoyles

Gargoyles

The city's heart - place du General De Gaulle also known as Grand Place

The city’s heart – place du General De Gaulle also known as Grand Place

Lille doesn't like Sarkozy

Lille doesn’t like Sarkozy

Old Street Lille vieux Lille France

Another street in old Lille

These pictures were taken using a Nikon D5100 and edited using my iPhone 5’s Camera+ app.

Old Achrafieh (Geitawi) House To Be Demolished

A few seconds’ walk away from my house is a small building that I never took much notice of. That small building, however, is counting the days until it exists no more to give way for a new high rise.

As I walked next to it this past weekend and was taken aback by the metal frames to keep people out, I looked at the facade of the two-story building and couldn’t but notice how beautiful it could be. It’s a shame really that the mentality of renovating instead of demolishing isn’t taking hold in Beirut, especially Achrafieh.

Former minister of culture Salim Warde had a law proposition involving forcing contractors to have the new building they intend to erect be of the same number of stories as the one they demolished. His proposition went into a bureaucratic drawer and will probably never get out of it.

Achrafieh desperately needs such regulations. It’s fast becoming a concrete jungle of buildings that all look alike and feel imported, without a Lebanese flavor to them apart from the people that live in them. It’s a shame really.

And what’s even worse, the parking situation in my apartment’s street is about to get worse. People were allowed to park next to the building set to be demolished. The new building will obviously not allow that.