In Beirut's Sodeco district, there is a life-size painted mock-up of a building which, at first glance, looks like of one of the many plywood visions of a gleaming high-rise future that adorn construction sites across the city. But behind this one is a hidden architectural gem, whose history is fatally intertwined with Beirut's own.
The Barakat building, or the 'Yellow House' as it is more commonly known, was designed in the 1920s by one of Lebanon's most famous architects, Youssef Aftimos (who also designed the Grand Theatre and the Serail clock tower), and finished in 1936. "It has a unique relationship with the city", explains Mona Hallak, the architect whose passion for the building drove her to spearhead a successful campaign to save it from demolition. The design of the eight family apartments reflected the cosmopolitanism and diversity of pre-war Beirut, blending Ottoman and classical architectural influences. In the 1960s, the colonnaded balconies of a Phalangist dentist and a Palestinian family faced each other diagonally in the courtyard interior. The building's most innovative feature was the way that an empty space in its centre means that every room in every apartment has a view of the street outside.
When war came in 1975 however, the building found itself on the green line between Christian East and Muslim West Beirut, and its innovative design was exactly what made it attractive to snipers, who could shoot in to West Beirut from the relative protection of deep within the building's interior. The building was occupied by Christian militias, and was battered by counter-attacks from the other side of the line.
Battle-scarred buildings are a familiar sight in Beirut, and have become part of the city's background noise, like scooters. But walking in to the Barakat building today, somehow this constant historical backdrop becomes alive: there is a chilling disconnect between the gracefulness and warmth emitted by the architecture, which speaks of civilized family life, the life the building was intended to have, and the bullet holes and scorched walls - its actual fate. "I shiver every time I go past it" admits Hallak.
The building's organic relationship with the city did not end with the civil war. "Another layer of its connection to Beirut is how in the 1990s heritage, memory and identity meant nothing; only money", Hallak explains. As real estate prices in Sodeco area went up after the war, the building's owners sought to have it destroyed in order to sell the land to developers. "I thought 'if we can't keep this building, it seems there is nothing in this country worth keeping' ", recalls Hallak, who persuaded the Lebanese daily An-Nahar to take up the cause in 1997. In 2003, campaigners eventually succeeded in getting the building expropriated by the municipality.
The building then became the site of a new struggle: what to do with it? The French government offered the municipality technical assistance with developing it into some kind of museum, but the team of cultural experts who were supposed to come and advise on its development had to be put off in 2006 and again in 2007 because of the political situation. This autumn they finally came, and will be making recommendations to the municipality in the near future. The working title for the museum is Beit al-Medina - the house of the city.
According to Habib Debs, an architecture professor at the AUB who has been involved in the consulation process, the municipality originally wanted the site to be a conventional city history museum, going back to Roman times. In the consultation process however, different ideas emerged. "During the meetings and workshops the idea came about to have a living space, a space that is open to everybody in the city, and to help people to know better its different quarters."
Hallak echoes these thoughts. "I want a museum that tells you about Beirut….little details....That would make people feel closer to the city, because we don't know our own city, I want to know where what I see comes from."
Kamal Salibi, Lebanon's most famous historian, and an Emeritus Professor at AUB, supports the idea of a museum more focused on the recent past. "People have no time for unhappy memories, so to have a museum that forces you to face the facts of the past would be a good idea," he told NOW Extra. "It shouldn't be about the Romans, with whom we're just geographically connected, but about the last two to three hundred years."
Hallak is also keen for the civil war damage and sniper positions to be preserved in whatever the site ends up becoming. "I'd like it to be a museum of memory, not war, though war is part of our memory, we have proven in the last two to three years that we are ready for war if we don't look deeply at what we did to ourselves".
Whether the conservative or the more radical visions for the site prevail remains to be seen. For now the ravaged building, littered with bottles and rags, continues to be a mute testament to Beirut's ongoing internal divisions. "From the outside, the building looks like its all one", says Hallak, "and on the inside there's this void, which is how I see the city: divided and divided and divided".