Spotlight on Beit Beirut

Katharine Gordon
Staff Writer

The “Yellow House”, “Beit al medina”, “the house of death”, or the “museum of memory.” Whichever name you use to describe the building on the corner of Independence Street and Damascus Road, it is hard to deny that it is a structure fraught with socio-political and historical complexities.

I struggled with a way to speak about it that could capture both the history, but also my critique of the contemporary treatment of the building. For me, changes in visuality and interventions in the spaces significantly impacted the structure. There are four episodes, or points in time, that changed the way those inside the house saw the city, and the way the house was seen by those on the exterior.

In 1924, Nicolas and Victoria Barakat hired architect Youssef Aftimus, to design a grand home for their family. Aftimus came up with a plan that was avant-garde for his time, using the strategic location at the corner of Independence Street and Damascus Road and a central void in the house so that each room could have a ‘corner view’ of the city. When you are inside the house, this impressive use of space is still striking. From each room you can see multiple parts of the city at once. Thus, the first layer of visuality was a blurring of the public and private spheres, which opened the house outwards towards the city, but also allowed the city to enter through each window and balcony.

Various architectural elements were added, included a handrail which, although structurally fake, gave the appearance of wrapping around the entire façade, giving the house a sense of unity in its construction.

This first moment, in which the city and mansion were able to see and be seen by each other, was violently altered when the Lebanese Civil War began. During the war, the house took on its moniker: “the house of death” due the use of its particular location and structure by snipers. Positioned on the Demarcation or “Green” Line, the house was invaded and various structural interventions were added that allowed the snipers complete visual control over the space outside of the building, while making themselves invisible.

By literally cementing themselves within the confines of the building, they were able to stay sandbags and build wooden ‘killing boxes,’ from which they could see anyone passing across the line, between East and West Beirut. These snipers changed how people saw the house, by appropriating the unique visual aspects of the architecture. The aspects of Aftimus’ design that had connected those in the house with the city, now sharpened the interior-exterior boundary between the two. Looking from the outside into the house was lethal, as those looking out from inside were aiming to kill.

The third moment is one that began in 1997 when the municipality attempted to demolish the bullet riddled house. It was near collapse when they started to take out certain elements, including the iron handrail, to prepare for its destruction. This was the moment that architect Mona El Hallak stepped onto the scene, resulting in another kind of intervention in the building. When she first saw the building, she saw a certain quality in the building worth preserving, and for the past twenty-three years, has been fighting to keep it standing. Her work has paid off, and now the building can be entered by guests. Its structure is sound and it has been cleaned and opened up as an exhibition space and cultural center.

However, her actions did change the visuality of the building yet again. When she entered the rooms, she came across thousands of photographs, letters, official documents, cinema brochures, and other vestiges of the pre-war period. As she combed through these materials, El Hallak began to select those that she deemed worth keeping, thus altering the building’s narrative. It could be argued that it was her choices and discretion that changed the way one experiences the space now.

The fourth intervention, one that was simultaneous with El Hallak’s work, is the one I find to be most problematic. In 2009, architect, Youssef Haider was commissioned to work in conjunction with the Municipality of Paris to refurbish the house. With a total expenses reaching 18 million USD, his work resulted in some very disjunctive additions to the house, not to mention that it was cleaned, sanitized, and beautified in many ways. Haider chose to reconstruct the central void of the house, imposing a bizarrely out of sync, Modernist wall of glass panels, as well as various mental columns and supports that attempt to mimic that original structure of the house. Instead of maintaining the original façade of the house, he filled in the missing pieces, which may sound like smart construction work, except that he added fake bullet holes. The addition of windows and doors also changed the way the house feels inside; the way the air and sound circulates around the space.

It is the spectacular addition of movie theater seats and colorful lights in the ground floor of the museum that I found particularly troubling. These elements now frame the former wall from which the snipers fired, transforming it into some kind of disturbing, macabre theater. All of these gestures are attempts to aestheticize a place that should not be. For instance, the fake bullet holes are troubling in that they appropriate the shape of actual architectural ‘scars’ from the war.

Why add more of these marks to an already marked building? They are not a stylistic element, but rather the impressions left by a very acute form of violence. This is just one example, but it conveys the way this third intervention has been more of an aesthetic endeavor, than one that attempts to capture the real experience and memory of a war.

In terms of visuality, Haider’s work did more to change how the public will see this structure than any of the others. The alterations made to the supports, and to the void in the center of the structure, have made the building more easily digestible for visitors, but have also taken away the kind of organic connection that the building once had. Of course, I do acknowledge the impossibility of ever returning the building to its original form. There is no going back from its war-time conditions.

The spectacular and stylistically disjointed remove it even further away from any historical narrative to which it once belonged. In attempting to adapt the building to contemporary sensibilities and preconceived notions of what a museum should be, he made it very hard for the kind of vision I think El Hallak had to be realized. Her intention to create a space for recollecting and remembering not only the war, but also the period before and after it, will be exceedingly more difficult. She intended to focus on the stories and people who passed through the building, but frankly, that building no longer exists. The building that stands now is a hodge-podge of different active interventions and I think it should be treated as such.

If we begin to think about Beit Beirut as a new structure, then perhaps the possibility for a constructive use of the space can be realized. While visiting the space recently I jotted down notes as I walked through, listening to El Hallak talked about the various rooms:

Aesthetics of the sniper rooms-hearing stories whispered in the dark-impression of sandbags still imbedded in the waves of cement-the cramming of bodies in the bathroom-splintered wood sniper boxes-the door handles of scrap material still cemented in the ceiling-all around, death.

When I look back on these notes, I realize that these anecdotal recollections of the spaces, and the experiences that took place in them, are only fleeting now. They can be discussed and diffused through exhibitions or guided tours, but their real signification and the experience that they describe is lost now, to history, and to the interventions in the buildings structure.

I would encourage any and all to visit the space, and come to terms with it on their own. It is still an impressive structure, and despite what I consider to be problematic alterations of the space, it remains worth seeing. This is only one take on a place that will likely be the source of extensive critical discussion. I can not deny that it spurred questions for me that I never considered before, and altered my perception of Lebanese history, not only in relation to the war, but also in relation to the socio-political fabric of the city. El Hallak speculates that there is about five more years of work to be done to develop the space into what she first envisioned when she began her work. With all luck, the red tape that has delayed her work up until now will eventually ease up, and the Museum of Memory will be able to take shape in a way that does justice to the stories and memories it is designed to house.

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