Built in 1920, the house that Riad Asad’s family has called home for decades outlasted 15 years of civil war but took what could be a fatal blow in last month's mammoth, port-side explosion.
Asad says his family - who has sought refuge outside Beirut - wants to restore the elegant home, with its high, ornate ceilings, arched windows and marble floors.
It faces quite a task.
The roof is caved - right to the dusty floor - and its structural bones are in danger of total collapse.
In the sitting room, a grand piano sits shrouded in blankets, lit by the warm afternoon sunlight. The glassless windows give onto Beirut's once-lively Gemmayze neighbourhood, its many cafes shuttered a month on from the blast.
What's left of Asad's home is skeletal; many walls, windows and wooden shutters went while the house awaits its rebuild.
People sort through glass and rubble from the August 4 explosion on 26 August 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon. (Reuters)
Members of the Beirut Built Heritage Rescue 2020 initiative are standing in a damaged heritage home on 26 August 2020 in Beirut. (Reuters)
Labor of Love
The Sursock Museum is shown after the explosion with its windows, designed by Maya Husseini, blown out. (Supplied)
Independent heritage architects and structural engineers teamed up to form the Beirut Built Heritage Rescue 2020 two days after the blast, a collaborative of 40 Lebanese professionals intent on restoring the city’s oldest houses - as well as turning them back into homes.
“We try to have people back in their buildings as soon as possible, but if the structure is at risk, the move will have to be delayed until international funds have arrived,” explained architect and archeologist Yasmine Makaroun.
Makaroun said many Beirutis had moved in with relatives after the blast or had fled to nearby mountains.
Juggling priorities is hard, she said.
“We are trying to find the right balance between making houses habitable again quickly and renovating heritage, which requires specific, precise skills and is much slower. But right now, the priority is to secure houses before the rain.”
A rescue team searches the rubble in Beirut's Mar Mikhael area. (Twitter)
A view of the damaged site following the explosion at Beirut port, Aug. 26, 2020. (Reuters)
Abbas Mortada, Lebanon’s Minister of Culture, told a press conference that the state and the president are keen to preserve heritage buildings, but the population is skeptical, citing past controversy over reconstruction.
According to Save Beirut Heritage, a non-profit founded in 2010 to preserve architectural heritage, Beirut had about 4,000 heritage buildings when the civil war ended, many of them damaged. Numbers have since decreased to about 600.
“Around 80 percent of the buildings could have been saved,” said Beirut Heritage’s Founder Naji Raji.
“Today it (downtown) is barely recognizable and has lost its heart. We don’t have any laws to protect heritage buildings.”
Almost a month after the explosion, shops and businesses are slowly opening again in Gemmayze.
Engineer Chalhoub said so many people were donating time and expertise to restore the vibrant neighborhood.
“It’s not only about restoring cultural buildings; it’s the social culture, the life, the neighborhood dynamics that need restoration. Eventually we hope we can do just that.”