The Stunning History Behind Ras Beirut’s Endangered “Red House”

Nestled in the heart of Hamra, on Abdel Aziz street leading to Bliss Street, is a house most of us passed by without noticing until very recently. Its red window tiles always caught my eye in the days when I used to frequent that area, but their history was never evident. Isn’t that the story everywhere in Beirut though? You pass by these gloriously beautiful old houses, sigh at their dismal prospects in a city that cares less about its history and more about its bottom line and just continue about without giving a second thought at the times and stories those walls inhabit.

Let me take you on a journey across Hamra’s Red House.

One Of The Oldest Houses in Ras Beirut:

The Red House is comprised of two stories, the first of which was built in the late 1700s, along with a small kitchen above it to consitute the first part of the second story which was later continued in the 1800s by the Rebeiz family, which was back then one of the main Orthodox families of Ras Beirut and a prime owner of much of the land upon which Hamra today is built.

The story of the Rebeiz family dates back to as far as the house they lived in: they came to Hamra around 400 years ago and slowly made their way up the echelons of society, buying land from the well-renowned Druze Talhouk family. Together with the other prominent Bekhazi family, they became forces to be reckoned with in their area. Their names became synonymous with Ras Beirut, and vice versa.

The Red House has housed many generations of the Rebeiz family, but its most prominent were two women: Samira and Marie Abdo Rebeiz, both of whom were widows who lived in the house in the early 20th century, and it is them that made the house the beacon of Ras Beiruti elite life.

Pioneering Matriarchs Of Ras Beirut’s Political Ring:

Marie ABdo Rbeiz

Marie Abdo Rebeiz was unfortunate enough to find herself a widow with two sons: Michel and Georges, at a very young age. Her plight was also shared by her cousin Samira Rebeiz who lost her husband at the tender age of 25, and was left with four children to take care of.

Marie Abdo then invited her cousin, whose inherited property had been taken by the rest of the Rebeiz family for fear of her remarrying out of the family, to live with her in Hamra’s Red House, along with her four children, in the “newer” upper story part of the house.

The two women co-existed quite well and their children grew up around each other. Michel, Marie Abdo’s son, still lives in the bottom floor of the house to this very day. Georges later became a prominent cardiologist in the area and has 3 children who currently inherited the house after their father’s passing a few months ago.

Marie Abdo and Samira, however, were extremely powerful women. They were so powerful in fact that they  had a major role to play in the dynamics of Beirut’s political life around that time: it is the Red House that became a reference for many of Ras Beirut’s elite politicians, of differing sects, in order to truly have a shot at whatever position they coveted: Marie Abdo and Samira were important electoral keys to the women of the area, the extended Rebeiz family and its 3000+ votes at the time. They kept a garden next to the house, cooked for their neighborhood and hosted many gatherings for the women of the region.

Among the politicians whose careers were majorly influenced by this house are Habib Abi Chahla, one of country’s independence heroes, Bahije Takieddine, Saeb Salam – father of current PM Tamam Salam, Sami el Solh and Fawzi el Hoss, all of whom became MPs or PMs at a later point in their careers. Their descendants tell tales, even today, at how important that house was to their fathers.

Louis Armstrong Visited Too:

Louis Armstrong

During his visit to Lebanon in the 1960s, Louis Armstrong, one of they key figures in Jazz music, visited the Red House. He was brought to Lebanon by one of Samira Rebeiz’s sons, Georges Rebeiz, who founded Caviar House and Prunier. That son wanted to introduce Armstrong to the house that built him.

It Survived The Civil War:

The house also made it relatively unscathed through the Lebanese civil war. Its tenants refused to vacate the house for the many militias that demanded it, and through a stroke of luck was left militia-free.

After the end of the civil war, its main tenant Samir Rebeiz, a well known conservationist and restorative architect with an impressive portfolio, who is currently vacating as per a court order, made sure to restore the part in which he lived to the best of his capacities. You can see from many of the pictures at the beginning of this post how relatively well-preserved the house is.

The current tenants even made it a yearly affair to repaint the windows with their characteristic red color, as I was told by Paola Rebeiz, a well-known Beiruti socialite and fashion consultant.

A Rebeiz Family Feud:

Over the past few days, the imminent threat to Hamra’s “Red House” got activists and Beirut’s heritage preservation groups to try and save the house. In their attempt to do so, a potential family feud between the Rebeiz family was unearthed: one between the descendants of Samira and Marie Abdo.

Helene Rebeiz, one of the three people who recently inherited the house after the passing of Marie Abdo’s son Georges, had the following statement:

Helene Rbeiz Red House Beirut Hamra

Samir Rebeiz, who has been living in the house for years, was doing so under Lebanon’s ancient and outdated renting laws, which effectively mean that tenants pay minimal amounts to their landlords and evicting them is near impossible.

When asked about this, Samir Rebeiz refused to make a statement and simply said: “I am leaving this house. I’ve done everything I can to maintain it, and my conscience is clear.”

When I visited, the house was being vacated. Everything Samir owned was being tucked away in boxes, leaving empty rooms and hallways.

The court order requiring Samir Rbeiz to vacate the premises mentioned that the owners wanted to demolish. It is unknown, however, which real estate mogul is interested in the property.

Heritage Trumps Money:

The fate of the house will be decided tomorrow in Lebanon’s Ministry of Culture which will determine whether the house fits the criteria to be considered a national heritage site, protecting it in theory from demolition.

In my opinion, the relevance of a family feud over this house’s fate is not important. We are not interfering in Rbeiz family matters when we give an opinion on the subjective worth of a property at the heart of their feud.

What is constant, regardless of all the other variables, is that this house is a jewel at the heart of Beirut that should be preserved regardless.

It is one of the last remnants of true Lebanese architecture of the area.

It is so preserved that Lebanon’s archeological committee warned against its demolition.

It is a representative of the history of its region and of its country.

It would be such a shame to let all of this go and replace it with yet another concrete block that can bring people millions, but rob them of their identity and heritage.

Beirut is a city that is being maimed every day by the construction robbing it of its flair, of its character, and turning it into yet another one of those plots of lands made up of concrete jungles. This house stands defiant to the progressive and purposeful de-Beirutification of Beirut. Let’s not ruin that too.

5 Major Projects To Take Place In Beirut: The City Losing Itself To Money

Between articles about how empty Downtown is and a reiteration of every form of the word “Phoenix” possible, there has been plenty that international publications have said about our capital. But there hasn’t been, in my opinion, as interesting an article as the one published in The Guardian today (link). In fact, it has taught me a few things about the city’s future that I felt should be shared.

Solidere’s view for Downtown Beirut is only halfway done. That empty but beautiful looking aggregation of charming but ultimately lifeless buildings is not where things end. Solidere’s view for how the center of Beirut should be is basically to get as many fancy worldwide architects as possible and have them build on one of the city’s plots.

As such, here are 5 projects that await the city in the future.

1 – Zaha Hadid’s Department Store in Beirut Souks

If you thought Zaha Hadid’s AUB building was bad, wait till you see this. Beirut Souks as they stand currently are not expensive nor are they enough for regular shoppers. So, naturally, they will expand in the future with the addition of a Zaha Hadid-designed department store that will also serve as a residential space in some of its floors. Why? Because money, I guess. The place will have be a 5-storey development of 26,370musable area (32,390m2 gross). And it looks ugly. For more information, check this.

2 – Norman Foster’s 3Beirut:

In the “Minet el Hosn” area, behind the Four Seasons hotel and facing Phoenicia, 3 towers are currently under construction, and nearing completion. The 3 towers are basically a staggered face that rises up to 120 meters. And here I thought urban planning in the city had a limit on how many “high-rises” you can have. They are considered “luxury apartments” and as such, add this to the list 99% of the Lebanese population can’t afford but will spend the rest of their days looking at. For more information, check this.

3 – Herzog & de Meuron’s “Beirut Terrace”:

Also in the “Minet el Hosn” area, facing Phoenicia, the “Beirut Terrace” project is currently under construction. An architect friend of mine once said he found the design to be impressive, so I would assume that this one of the better ones from an architectural point of view. In 2013, this project ranked 3rd among 36 projects worldwide in the MIPIM Awards. Of course, this apartments complex is also not within your budget, or almost anyone’s budget for that matter. The penthouse is $13 million. For more information, check this.

4 – Peter Marino’s  1338 Mina El Hosn:

Seeing as that same area isn’t saturated with wellness centers and shopping spaces already, here’s another one. The project includes retail, restaurants and cafés, high-end serviced apartments and a wellness center, the future Beirut Spa and Wellness Center. It will be a continuation of the Beirut Souks project and serve to connect the hotels area (Phoenicia, Four Seasons, Monroe) with the commercial district (Souks, Downtown). Located along Patriarch Howayek Street, it will cover an area of 17,173m2. For more information, check this.

5 – Renzo Piano’s “Pinwheel”:

Sama Beirut, which is nearing completion, won’t be the country’s tallest structure for long. “Pinwheel” is the name of the glass tower to be built at Wafiq Sinno avenue, near Biel, effectively blocking the view for most of the buildings behind it.  The towers will have a department store and ballroom in their lower levels, and a hotel with serviced apartments in the higher levels. For more information on the project, check this.

Bonus – Jean Nouvel’s “Landmark”:

We’ve all heard about this one when the plot on which it was built turned out to have Lebanon’s first Church. Naturally, everyone was outraged. Except this time, because it was a religious building, the outrage ended up putting the project on hold. As it looks now, this will be the project out of the 5 listed never to see the light of day. It was supposed to be a hotel, shopping center – because downtown doesn’t have enough of those – as well as a spa. For more information, click here.

They wonder why we feel disconnected with the city’s heart, and ultimately with the city itself. Beirut is not meant for us anymore. Even the less “fancy” development is not something most of us can afford. The Beirut that our parents told us stories about is nowhere to be found anymore, and if you thought the future would move retrogradely towards a city that’s more accessible to Lebanese, and less aimed at wealthy expats and Saudi sheikhs, you thought terribly wrong.

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.