Nathalie Rosa Bucher

From Beit Barakat to Beit Beirut

The metamorphosis of one of Beirut’s most emblematic residential buildings into a museum and cultural center.

Beit Barakat
Beit Barakat
Beit Barakat
Beit Barakat
Beit Barakat
Beit Barakat
Beit Barakat
Beit Barakat
Beit Barakat
Beit Barakat

Local architect Mona El-Hallak remembers the day she noticed that the wrought iron balustrades were missing on Beit Barakat – a standard, telling sign of a building earmarked for demolition. “It was September 7 1997 and the first and second floors had been gutted. I was 29 years old, had few connections, and went to Al-Nahar,” she recalls. 


Three years after having first entered and fallen under the spell of the abandoned building at Sodeco, Hallak, with the help of the media, heritage activists and concerned citizens, managed to revoke the demolition order. In an unprecedented move and following many more years of lobbying, the municipality of Beirut acquired the iconic building on the grounds of public interest in 2002, intending to transform it into the Beit Beirut Museum and Cultural Center


Funded by the municipality of Beirut, the land was acquired for $2.8 million and construction costs are set at $20 million. The city of Paris, a partner in this ambitious undertaking, provides project management assistance. The first governmental project of this kind, it will be a museum, a cultural and artistic meeting place, a facility for archiving research and studies on the city of Beirut throughout history and an urban planning office for the city of Beirut. 


When it opens to the public in around 18 months, given the history of the formidable building, it will inevitably strike a deep chord with visitors. A sniper’s nest during the war, it was a feared fortress: a launching pad for rockets that would go as far as Mathaf. For (elderly) Beirutis and anybody who lived here during the decades before the civil war and during the war itself, it is bound to evoke strong – collective, shared – memories. After decades of amnesia, this is somewhat remarkable. It may well contribute to a shift from the current stasis to some kind of catharsis.  


Until a few months ago, political stalemates and delays characterized the state of play. The day NOW was granted access, some workers were busy carefully brushing faded walls, whilst others worked on the staircases (only the upper sections remain – militias demolished most of the stone stairways during the war, to block access to the building.) All over the building, some 50 specialized workers were restoring damaged walls and attending to bullet holes, one by one. “We use old techniques, lime plaster mixed with straw to restore the bullet holes,” Nicole Tabet, one of the architects explains.


“The greatest challenge we’re facing is to preserve and restore,” underlines the architect in charge, Youssef Haidar, who has, amongst other heritage and restoration projects, been responsible for the Soap Museum in Saida. “The first time I walked in here was very emotional. Would this raw emotion remain four or five years later? That’s the aim.”


Asked how the workers relate to their task, Haidar readily admits that there have been some heated debates. “At this point, they are proud of being part of this project, to be the first ones to undertake this kind of work. But it was difficult to explain to them that they were not to fix but to protect and restore the building.”    


“In light of the amnesty and general amnesia, this work deals with memory. We heal, we start to remember.” Haidar argues that while the Lebanese government tends not to follow or respond to demands made by a strong civil society it was laudable that it had done so this time.


“There should be many houses preserved for and open to the public. Other crises and historical events and chapters of Lebanese history need to be revisited, remembered and revalued – we forgot a lot, many have emigrated – for us to be able to refer to this as a nation.”


Beit Barakat, also referred to as the Yellow House due to the color of the stone, is huge: three floors, six apartments of 500 square meters each. Wandering through the building, which is stripped of doors and windows with one room opening onto another, one never loses the connection to the streets, to the outside and the light. 


Nothing quite prepares a visitor for what it feels like to step inside the fabled Beit Barakat. The way the light breaks is astonishing, the gamut of colors producing myriad shades on the walls. There are faded traces of past inhabitants, occupying the building through convivial, Bohemian, peaceful, and violent times. Tiles remain in kitchen and bathroom spaces, and here and there marble slabs sit. There are attics and servants’ quarters, outlines of missing staircases and peeling paint. Some of the arches and doorframes are still intact but gaps, gashes and gaping holes dominate, scarring the building. 


Dozens of workers seem almost like nurses tending to this phenomenal building.  Haidar comments: “I feel like a surgeon, caring for injuries, missing parts need prosthesis, scars need attention.”


Why wage a battle for a building? Why years of battling for this one? We can look to its history for ideas. 


Demographic changes and a growing demand for residential spaces between the 19th and 20th century went hand in hand with new building methods, materials and styles. This period also saw the emergence of ‘the architect', as opposed to (anonymous) builders and masons. 


The design was commissioned by Nicolas and Victoria Barakat, originally from Syria, who moved to Beirut towards the end of the 19th century and owned the well-known fabric store ‘Bachour and Barakat’, writes Sophie Brones in her doctoral dissertation. 


The man the Barakats entrusted with their request – and a fair amount of money – was Youssef Effendi Aftimus (1866-1952). Along with the Serail Clock and the Grand Theatre he was also the architect behind the Municipality building. 


“This building was a brilliant piece of architecture. It connects to the city; due to its spatial configuration every room gets a view of the city,” Hallak underlines. According to architect and academic Robert Saliba, this avant-garde, architect-designed structure built in 1924 is both unique and archetypal. “It sets a trend and provides an example for other buildings to follow, while keeping its own character... It is formed by two identical structures, one facing Damascus Road and the other Independence Street, which are tied together by a ground floor of shops built to the street line with a common corner entrance,” he writes. 


Inside the building, the rooms were covered with phenomenal marble tiles in Art Deco patterns. The ceilings were hand-painted – geometrical Art Nouveau patterns, lines in blue or grey along walls and staircases, painted grapes (which remain visible in some rooms.) These along with the fantastic wrought iron features gave it a style equaled by only a few buildings in Lebanon. 


To Hallak, the building mirrors Beirut and the avant-garde people the city produced; it talks about the capital’s social history. “There was a conviviality, they never put curtains on the balcony. There was an agreement, the building after all housed an Orthodox family, Dr Néguib Schemali, a Maronite Phalangist dentist, and the Fallah, a Palestinian family right across from him – this building is amazing.” 


Just as people’s lives changed when conflict erupted, and daily speech became characterized by expressions such as ‘roadblocks,’ ‘stray bullets’ and the acronyms of all sorts of vicious weapons, so too, the strongest architectural features of the Barakat Building were fatefully distorted.  A mere void that separated a Maronite and a Palestinian family became a battlefield. The social space that brought le tout Beyrouth together became part of the machinery that brutally made it all come undone. Its architecture was altered, functional features were added that in no way extend on Aftimus or Kozah’s work.  Massive concrete shafts and 1.8m thick walls were erected to sustain the ‘sniper architecture’ during the war.


“There’s one huge graffiti,” says Hallak, "I want to tell the truth, my soul will fly away in a minute’ and also ‘Begin.’ That tells us about this part of our history and affiliation with Israel.”  She continues: “I lived the war, we were displaced – this place makes me reflect. What we went through. It makes you engage in memories.”


She goes on: “The original architects opened up the city, the sniper wanted to hide, kill people in the city, he used the brilliant axis to shoot across the building diagonally. The building embodies the memory of the war, the city, nothing could be more of a monument to the civil war than that.” 



This is part one of a two part series on Beit Beirut. The next piece will focus on what we can expect in the future for this Beirut landmark.

When it was built, Beit Barakat was on the outskirts of Beirut and the tramway used to stop in front of it at Nasra tramway station, en route to the city center. (Image courtesy of Mona El-Hallak)

The social space that brought le tout Beyrouth together became part of the machinery that brutally made it all come undone