The Lebanese House: saving a home; saving a city exhibit explores the reconstruction of the Mediterranean city since the devastating explosion in the Lebanese capital in 2020.
As the Beirut blast’s two-year anniversary draws near, architect Annabel Karim Kassar contemplates the national tragedy with a partial replica of a heritage building she is restoring in the battered city.
Accompanied by short documentary films, the architectural installation invites visitors to look at the destruction inflicted on Beirut after a badly stored cache of ammonium nitrate chemicals exploded at the city’s port killing more than 200 people and leaving 7,000 seriously injured.
The devastation left 300,000 homeless and caused immense damage to buildings old and new.
A reinterpretation of the traditional Liwan ― a small salon in the vast entrance hall of a Lebanese residence ― forms part of the installation, another part of Kassar’s attempt to “make people aware of the country’s architectural heritage”, she tells The National.
“It’s also about showing the changes that the Lebanese society is going through,” says Kassar, whose exhibit includes three specially commissioned films about the explosion’s aftermath.
“I’m not pretending to change what is happening, but just trying to do what I can on my level, as an architect, to show awareness, to have an emotional impact on people. To give talks and inform on heritage. That’s all I can do.”
As well as drawing attention to the rich detail and diversity of the country’s architectural past ― Phoenician, Classical, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Venetian ― the installation takes a stark look at Lebanon’s difficult present through video-recorded interviews with people across the city.
Kassar had been in the process of restoring Bayt K, a traditional Lebanese home in the historic quarter of Gemmayzeh, when the chemicals ripped through the city and much of the reinforcement work that had already been done.
“The house swayed from the force of the blast, the facade was separated from the structure, part of the ceiling flew away,” Kassar says.
Bayt K was the fourth heritage house taken on by Kassar’s practice, AKK Architects, as a restoration project during the two decades the French architect has been in and out of Lebanon.
Prompted by the challenge of preserving the ancient city’s cultural and architectural identity, Kassar says she wanted to use Bayt K’s reconstruction “as a catalyst to examine how Beirut’s architectural past can inspire the restoration and rebuilding of its latest iteration”.
Kassar founded AKK in Beirut in 1994 and was declared joint winner of an international competition to rebuild the souqs, the traditional marketplace at the heart of old Beirut.
In between the modernist works of her practice, which has offices in Beirut, Dubai, and London, Kassar has steadily worked on transforming historical 19th-century Lebanese homes into their liveable former glory.
In 2016, Kassar won the London Design Biennale Medal for the Lebanon pavilion at Somerset House and the following year the French-born architect unveiled Handle With Care, a project focusing on the conservation of Bayt K for Beirut Design Week.
The Lebanese House exhibit is, Kassar says, a “new iteration” of her first one, and seeks to “express important lessons in urban restoration and renovation”.
The four-metre high installation is a continuation of her personal crusade to restore one of the few remaining classic Ottoman-Venetian houses left in old Beirut.
“Local and international communities need to be mobilised and involved directly, to protect their common urban heritage. And that restoration is not about recreating a synthetic history but about finding a new, living purpose for traditional buildings, an approach that lies at the heart of my work.”
More than three years of work had already gone in to Bayt K when the explosion almost took Kassar’s team back to the beginning.
Kassar admits it was difficult to restart the restoration project while the country was in the middle of one of the worst economic crises in the world and still reeling from the aftermath of the explosion.
“Sometimes I lost hope because it is such a difficult moment in Lebanon to work,” she tells The National.
“A lot of people ask, 'who cares about what you are doing now?' I understand and in a way I think that’s true, but at the same time I think this is an important part of society and worth showing that the country is capable of other things.”
Kassar believes that "by saving a building, you can save a city”.
Work continued and after “redoing the roof, re-stitching the facade and reinforcing the flooring”, Kassar went further and replicated parts of the house for an international audience.
The centrepiece of the installation is the triple arcade, a symbol and trademark of traditional Lebanese architecture of the 19th century.
Some of the materials in the architectural installation, including the tiles and marble, are from Bayt K, and Kassar says traditional masons came from Beirut to build it on site.
Even the wood and stones on display were cut and brought in from Lebanon.
To see it put together at the V&A was “a really emotional experience” for the team.
“We all felt that way while we were doing it. You really feel like you’re in front of an old house, not a replica,” Kassar says.
With so much destitution and destruction pockmarking Beirut, the survival of one very old building may not be a worthwhile cause for celebration for its residents.
But that a part of Lebanon’s fragile heritage not only survived so many calamities, but is also being marvelled at abroad is perhaps just the inspiration the beleaguered country needs.
The Lebanese House: saving a home; saving a city, opened in June and will remain on until September.