Saving a home, saving a city: London's V&A museum recreates heritage Lebanese houses after Beirut blast
In a new exhibition recently opened at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Lebanese architectural heritage is taking centre stage.
Award-winning French-Lebanese architect Annabel Karim Kassar has unveiled The Lebanese House: saving a home; saving a city, an installation exploring the reconstruction of Beirut after the August 4, 2020, explosion that ravaged much of its urban fabric.
The show documents the aftermath of the explosion and the reconstruction of the city’s heritage architecture through the plight of a single building – a 19th-century Ottoman heritage home that Kassar had already spent years restoring, only to be near-destroyed in seconds.
For Kassar, the work on Bayt K is more than just the repair of a single house. It’s about her dream to preserve the city's heritage and not allow another piece of Lebanese history to disappear"
The show falls under the museum’s Culture in Crisis programme, which acts as a resource and centre for the protection of the world’s cultural heritage. Their adjacent editorial project, Beirut Mapped, explores the impact of the blast, and its economic and political consequences, from the perspective of Lebanon’s artists and writers.
“[Kassar] has transported a bit of Beirut to London, to the Architecture Gallery of the V&A,” Christopher Turner, V&A's curator of art, architecture, photography and design told The New Arab.
“Kassar has been at the forefront of the conservation movement to save the city's historic fabric, and her academic and architectural approach to this has resulted in an invaluable resource.
“The V&A has a long-standing interest in conservation and heritage around the world, and this fragment echoes other pieces of important architectural salvage on display in the museum,” he added.
A government survey found that 640 heritage buildings were damaged during the explosion.
Two years on, a lot of the city is still recovering, with repairs happening at a snail’s pace, due to the ever-worsening economic crisis. The preservation of heritage homes – some of which were already abandoned and derelict – is not seen as a priority for many.
Completed in 1890, the three-story mansion once belonging to the Tarazi family boasted triple arcade windows, hand-painted ceilings and marble pillars, partially restored by Kassar and named Bayt K. The blast destroyed the intricate ceilings, collapsed the port-facing wall and tore the terracotta-tiled roof off the building.
“It’s taken us two years just to stabilize and repair the architectural damage,” Kassar told The New Arab.
“The triple arcade of the second floor collapsed. The beautiful ceiling of the second floor was destroyed, 60 percent is gone. The ceiling was by itself a piece of memory and I hope I can restore some of it. I still have some pieces that fell on the floor that could go back.
“It’s been devastating. The main façade detached from the walls and some of the foundations needed to be supported. The house didn't collapse, barely,” she added.
“We started to immediately react, clean the house and try to avoid the collapse. Since that period we succeeded in redoing the roof, some of the facade and reinforcing the north wall. We've done some work on the foundation, stabilised the house and put in the windows and shutters.”
The exhibition centres on a life-sized reconstruction of the facade of Bayt K, built by Beiruti craftsmen. A reinterpretation of the traditional liwan – a small salon in the vast entrance hall of a Lebanese residence – is set to the right, mimicking the layout of a traditional house.
“I thought it was necessary to do it at the scale of a real house to replicate the feeling of a Lebanese house, so it's five meters high,” Kassar said. “Some of the parts are things that came from Beirut, like the tiles or pieces of marble and real stones that are used on facades. Two masons from Beirut came to install that so it’s all been done traditionally.
“I also added on the right a podium with some colourful mattresses on it, so you can watch the films there, like a little family room,” she added. “On the other side, I design a diwan to receive the viewers, just like a real Lebanese house. I hope that through this project we can get some funds to help people with the restoration efforts back in Beirut.”
From the liwan, viewers can watch three documentary films by directors Wissam Charaf and Florence Strauss, exploring the psychological impact of the explosion through interviews with people across the city.
The commissioned films analyze the effect of the explosion across various demographics and public and private spaces, as well as look at the wider conservation efforts by NGOs to save Beirut’s heritage buildings.
Those unable to visit in person can browse an accompanying digital platform, which serves as a guide and archival database for the many architectural elements that make up a typical Lebanese house – such as plaster-painted ceilings, cornices, timber truss roofing, balcony styles and geometric-tiled floors. The films are also there to see.
For Kassar, the work on Bayt K is more than just the repair of a single house. It’s about her dream to preserve the city's heritage and not allow another piece of Lebanese history to disappear. She hopes the exhibition will inspire others to do the same, and gain some much-needed help for other homeowners facing the same situation.
“I can maybe start the next phase in six months. At least the house is safe, so that's the main thing,” Kassar said. “Part of my work has always been to take care of houses in Beirut. Cities are about people as much as buildings and architecture, for me, connect people.
“In Beirut, especially after the civil war, I think it’s important that we try to preserve some of these buildings, which are in danger of disappearing,” she added. “I think that everyone in their field has to make an effort and as an architect, I had to go on and continue my work by talking about what's happening to these heritage houses, which are part of Beirut's urban fabric.”
Maghie Ghali is a British-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. She worked for The Daily Star Lebanon and writes as a freelancer for several publications, including The National, Al Arabiya English, Al Jazeera and Middle East Eye, on arts and culture/design, environment and humanitarian topics.
Follow her on Twitter: @mghali6