This story was originally published in The National.
March 9, 2015
It has all the makings of a fairy tale: something beautiful, fragile and irreplaceable, saved from destruction by a painter with a vision. Earlier this year, the crumbling edifice of La Maison Rose, perhaps Beirut’s most iconic Ottoman villa, was brought to international attention after British painter Tom Young held an exhibition there, opening it up to the public for the first time in its nearly 150-year history. The overwhelming response helped convince the new owner, a property developer, to restore the mansion and turn it into a museum.
The story stimulated debate about the status of Lebanon’s vanishing architectural heritage. But La Maison Rose is simply the latest in a line of historical houses that have found new leases of life as cultural spaces.
Ravaged by 15 years of civil war, Beirut’s urban fabric is disjointed and schizophrenic. Crumbling historical villas from the Ottoman and French Mandate eras are interspersed with experimental modernist structures from the booming pre-war period and the business-driven monoliths of post-war construction: glittering tower blocks that would be equally at home in any capital city.
Beirut’s old mansions, with their roomy central halls, soaring ceilings and beautifully proportioned rooms, are no longer in demand. Expensive to restore and maintain, they are being torn down one by one, replaced with premium office space or luxury apartments. Happily for the public, a few visionary individuals are ensuring that not all of Beirut’s architectural treasures meet this fate.
In Zoukak El-Blatt, a run-down area in the centre of the city, once home to the country’s richest and most powerful, artist Ghassan Maasri runs Mansion. The elegant three-storey villa, which dates from the 1930s, serves as studio space for around 20 artists, and also hosts regular public performances, workshops and events.
Maasri doesn’t own Mansion. Long frustrated with rising real estate costs and the lack of public space in the city, which have forced many artists to flee the capital, he saw limitless potential in the city’s abandoned buildings. After years of searching for a space, he managed to meet Mansion’s owner, who agreed to allow Maasri to use the building rent-free for a period of five years. In return, the artists who work in the villa are gradually restoring it.
“I have always thought that these ‘abandoned’ spaces offer a pertinent context for the creation and display of art,” says Maasri. “Collectively inhabiting and maintaining the building becomes the currency for rent and leaves us outside the speculative bubble. Such spaces are mysterious, vast, with a complex architecture and interior, loaded with past memories and uses, and left as a void that calls for new methodologies and functions for work and inhabitation.”
The success of the project has given rise to a wider initiative to reconsider the structure of Beirut’s urban fabric. In January, Maasri launched the Inquisitive Citizens Urban Club.
“The club wishes to be a vehicle for concerned residents of Beirut who want to collectively define and activate their rights to the city and their needs to develop spaces where the notion of public can thrive,” Maasri explains.
A short walk away in Gemmayzeh, Villa Paradiso offers a more commercially driven example of how old houses can be repurposed as cultural spaces, rather than razed.
As with La Maison Rose, it was Young who first spotted the building’s potential as a cultural space and asked the owner to let him exhibit his paintings there. The stunning villa, which dates from the 1920s, had been partially restored by architect Remi Feghali and his family. Young’s request inspired him to turn the war-damaged property into a cultural space.
Over the past year-and-a-half, Villa Paradiso has hosted numerous art exhibitions and performances. A design gallery now rents part of the upper floor. The family also rent out the property for photo shoots and private parties, making a small profit that helps finance the renovations and maintenance.
The symbiotic relationship between the promotion of cultural production and the preservation of cultural heritage exemplified by La Maison Rose, Villa Paradiso and Mansion suggests that hope exists for Beirut’s remaining historical houses.
“That’s what art can do,” says Young. “It can really make a difference in just getting property developers and urban planners and politicians to think about public space and buildings in a different way, so that everyone is a winner.”