A century after the opening of the Bauhaus school, the legacy of modernism is still visible on every Beirut street – and a local NGO is laboring to keep it that way.
Founded in 2009, the Arab Center for Architecture (ACA) aims to foreground and preserve the hundreds of buildings across Beirut and throughout Lebanon and all Arab countries that exemplify modernist architecture – a chic but functional style popular from the 1920s to the 1970s, distinguishable by its geometric shapes, clean lines, and concrete and steel structures.
To commemorate its tenth anniversary, and ensure its work can continue into the future, ACA will hold a fundraiser Saturday, June 22, at SUrf shared office spaces in Mkalles. The event will feature music (all the performers are architects turned musicians) and an auction of sketches and photos by modernist architects. “We are basically all architects,” ACA board member Joy Kanaan tells The Daily Star, “trying to give to this cause.”
From the Electricite du Liban headquarters to the Gefinor complex to numerous residential buildings, the modernist style is an integral part of Beirut’s diverse and chaotic cityscape. The ACA believes they should be held in the same regard as Ottoman and Mandate-era buildings and protected from rampant development.
“These buildings were built during the ‘golden era’ of Lebanon,” Kanaan observes. “They are not recognized as major icons, but they should be.”
The ACA maintains archives and databases of Arab modernist architecture, from Casablanca’s Palace of Justice to the Le Corbusier-designed Baghdad Gymnasium. The sprawling, ever-growing archive includes projects by Wassek Adib, Karol Schayer, Ferdinand Dagher, Farid Trad, Assem Salam, William Saba and many others.
The archival work is time-consuming and costly in material terms. Members and volunteers digitize the often hundreds of technical documents associated with each building, log the information associated with them in a database, and preserve decades-old original documents between sheets of acid-free paper for storage in temperature-controlled rooms in the organization’s Ashrafieh office.
The organization also engages the public through lecture series with modernist and contemporary architects and walking tours of neighborhoods rich in historic structures, such as Hamra, Badaro, Zuqaq al-Blat and Ain al-Mreisseh.
The work is made urgent by the routine, unrelenting destruction of iconic modernist structures, including the Cinema Roxy, the Hotel Normandie, the Gondole Building (designed by Joseph-Philippe Karam), the Carlton Hotel and many others.
Still more have been “disfigured,” or renovated beyond recognition. The ACA documents these demolitions and aims to organize communities against further development.
Complicating preservation efforts is the fact that most of these buildings are not landmarked, with older structures taking the lion’s share of attention (and post-Civil War nostalgia). Landmark laws also prioritize individual buildings over clusters that contribute to the feel of a neighborhood. Developers helped create these loopholes, Kanaan says, and now exploit them.
“We cannot only discuss the value of a single building without recognizing the urban fabric to which it belongs,” she says. “Developers threw themselves into these vulnerable clusters [of historic structures], leading to demolition to make room for new towers.”
To understand the significance of Lebanon’s modernist heritage, one must look back to the presidency of Fouad Chihab (1958-64), who commissioned countless modernist public buildings. Other Arab leaders including Gamal Abdel Nasser did the same – not to Westernize the region but to make it futuristic.
“Modernism is not a Western import,” the ACA’s Claudine Abdelmassih explains. “It is the product of a technological and social revolution at the time,” a democratization of public spaces and institutions. Now, the ACA hopes to make the fruits of this forward-looking period accessible to future generations.
The ACA fundraiser starts June 22 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets start at $100 a head. Rates are available for couples, groups and students. Contact: email@example.com