Lebanon, and Beirut in particular, is defined by its lack of a single identity, by the influence of diverse cultures and civilizations that have inhabited it, by the juxtaposition of ancient Roman ruins, old traditional garden houses, modernist apartment buildings, and new soaring glass towers.
The “Lebanese Traditional House”, a building type that emerged during the period of the French mandate, and spread throughout the country in different variations from 1920 to the mid 1940’s, is perhaps the oldest remaining form of habitation, and one of the most important testaments to the rich culture and history of Beirut.
Characterized typologically by a Central Hall, around which rooms branched out in enfilade, and built from “Ramle” Sandstone, the Traditional Central Hall House recalled the Ottoman courtyard houses, but was also emblematic of Lebanese hospitality and rituals of communal living. The reception areas (central hall with two rooms on either side) were lit by a triple arcade on the South and North facades, providing ample light, heat in winter and cross-ventilation for the summer months. The bedrooms were lined on the east, for proper exposure to the morning sun. The kitchen and bathroom occupied the western side, the Southwest prevailing winds carrying the smells away from the house.
In the city, the traditional house was a bourgeois, single-family, Marseille-imported red-tiled roof construction, adorned with colored glass and Italian marble patterned tiles in spacious garden plots.
Soon, this type spread to the mountain villages, adapting itself to the topography, the climate, and the income level of its inhabitants. The elements were the same, a load-bearing Central hall, thick insulating stone walls, high ceilings, stone arcades and wooden shutters, but each house was different, no two Lebanese houses could ever look exactly the same.
With the growth of the city and the arrival of concrete, the Lebanese traditional house morphed into an apartment building, layering 4 or 5 central hall apartments that began to adapt in plan to the changing social customs of the society and to inspire typologically what residential architecture in Lebanon would become.
Yet these old Lebanese houses, in all their forms, were much more sustainable, luxurious and flexible than the new, cheap, cramped apartments and buildings built today.
The charm and eclecticism of Beirut is rapidly vanishing as every day several of these old structures are being demolished in order for developers to construct out-of-scale generic towers, saturating the city with 10 million dollar apartments that no Lebanese can afford. Today Lebanese businessmen, artists and old bourgeois families are struggling to preserve these old buildings, turning them into museums, offices, nightclubs, restaurants, or keeping them as luxurious villas. The richness of these constructions lies in their beautiful spatial qualities, their durability, in their ability to accommodate the climate change, and their immense flexibility, which incites every artist, architect or sensitive citizen to desire inhabiting them, myself included.
Sadly, I often wonder whether by the time I have enough money to buy one, there will still be one left erect.