The Barakat building was commissioned in 1924 by Nicholas and Victoria Barakat. Designed by Youssef Bey Aftinos, the same architect who created Beirut’s City Hall, the Barakat became the victim of an unlucky location. Sitting right on the Green Line, which divided East and West Beirut during the civil war, the building made an ideal location for snipers, who were able to view and target the street from every room – a fact exploited by militia fighters. Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, the building witnessed innumerable gunbattles, and suffered extensive damage in the process.
After the war ended, the Barakat’s owners wanted to tear it down. Then, in 1997, a group of architects active in the area of architectural heritage preservation started a campaign, in partnership with the Lebanese daily An-Nahar, to restore the Barakat building. In addition to its architectural and aesthetic values, the building’s iconic crumbling colonnade had become one of the most powerful symbols of the war years in Beirut.
Sociologists and historians have observed that many Lebanese have a tendency, at least on the surface, to try to leave the war behind them and simply move on with their lives. The fact that high school history textbooks still fail to address the civil war is just one example of how greater Lebanese society has tried to forget the past. A handful of intellectuals, however, including the architects behind the campaign to save the Barakat Building, have argued that Lebanon cannot move forward from the civil war until it creates a “collective memory” and then uses that unified account of civil war events to heal some of the divisions fracturing society today.
With this ambitious aim, the renovation proposal for the Barakat, which was officially adopted by the Beirut Municipality in 2003, detailed plans to restore the building as a museum to document 10,000 years of Beirut history. Beirut Mayor Abdel Mimem al-Ariss told NOW Lebanon that the museum will function through two units: (1) The Urban Planning Unit, a joint venture between the Municipalities of Beirut and Paris, and (2) Beirut’s Memory, a museum that will tell the history of the city. “Archeological excavations at the city center have revealed that human beings have lived here since the Stone Age, and the museum will show the entire city’s human history, including the civil war,” Ariss said.
Recently, the building has disappeared behind a plywood façade: The rehabilitation of the Barakat is on track, as the municipality prepares to accept bids for the museum’s design and construction contract.
The interior will obviously have to be completely gutted and revamped, and an annex will be built behind the existing structure. Though much of the exterior will be renovated, a section of the Barakat’s ruined façade will be preserved in disrepair, to serve as a stark reminder of the darker chapters of Beirut’s history for generations to come.