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M. Haidar, A. Rayess, Public Sounds, Private Spaces

OIS 3 (2015) – Divercities: Competing Narratives and Urban Practices in Beirut, Cairo and Tehran

Mazen Haidar and Akram Rayess

Public Sounds, Private Spaces: Towards a Fairouz Museum in Zokak el-Blat

Figure 1: Young Nouhad Haddad (Fairouz) to the right, with one of the neighbours, on the staircase of her family's house in Zokak el Blat in the late 1940s. Source: Fairouz 1981 USA Tour catalogue.

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The idea of dedicating a museum to Fairouz, the famous singer and doyenne of musical theatre in Lebanon, at her childhood home in Beirut has circulated in the local media for several years.1 The persistent media campaign, initiated by a number of associations and activists calling for the preservation of plots 565 and 567, the cadastral numbers of the two properties on which Fairouz's childhood home was located, came to fruition when the endangered nineteenth-century mansion in the Zokak el-Blat district was declared a building  of public interest.2

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This paper discusses Fairouz's house as part of a contested urban space, and the multiple readings and interpretations of Beirut's architectural heritage that have arisen in this contentious context. First, we reflect on the dialectical concept of the "space of sound" in relation to the physical references of what was originally a private space; and second, on the space's legacy and memory, and the connection between the museum's function as a shrine dedicated to a Lebanese legend, and the transformation of a modest nineteenth-century building into a key cultural and public centre.

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Rather than retracing the topic over time, we will focus on the significance of the site's preservation, the obstacles this will face, and the history it can promote. Although the objective is not to detail the campaign for expropriation, we will, however, start with a declaration of public interest. The ministerial decree that officially forbids any alterations to the building, lists the facts reported in the General Directorate of Antiquities' assessment in 2010 of lots 565 and 567 in Zokak el-Blat.3 This evaluation highlighted "two existing buildings constituting one integrated architectural unit". According to the text, the site's value is due not only to its architectural features, but also to the record it offers of late nineteenth-century urban planning in Beirut. The decree also recognized a "historical and cultural meaning", and acknowledges the building's high value in society's collective memory because of its connection both with the Ottoman period and with Fairouz. This bold move by the Directorate of Antiquities revealed two clearly opposed visions for the city's future: on the one hand, the desperate reclamation and preservation of what little remains of Beirut's architectural heritage and an interest in its past; and on the other (in a best case scenario), a passive disregard for the city's constant disfiguration, or most commonly, promoting this under different names.

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This paper is an initial attempt to rescue and preserve a physical, authentic space associated with Fairouz as a person, as distinct from the various performance venues she has graced, which have different connotations and resonances. Among these were permanent settings such as the Piccadilly Theatre in Beirut, where nine plays by the Rahbani brothers (Fairouz's husband Assi Rahbani and his brother Mansour) were performed, and locations for temporary events and festivals such as the Roman temples in Baalbek, the Cedars forest and the Beiteddine Palace.

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Our observation, in accordance with best practices of major architectural conservation projects, is that the appropriation of any building of public interest follows these steps:

Rescue: To halt the ongoing destruction of what little remains of the architectural heritage of a country. Government measures indicate an initial interest by decision makers. These measures do not necessarily include physical intervention, which might be postponed to a later phase.

Preservation:Establishing a long-term action plan, or implementing legal measures. This can take various forms. For example, it could simply be the addition of a commemorative plaque.

Upgrading: Physical intervention in the existing site, with the intention of redefining its function. This may lead to its museumification, but this is not inevitable.

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However, the preservation of the sites 565 and 567 in Zokak el-Blat and their conversion into a museum were announced at virtually the same time. The amalgamation of the first and third steps mentioned above is essentially because the attempt to preserve any private property in Lebanon has rarely been successful. This is why, in order to rescue what remained of the two lots, the upgrading phase was brought forward. Instead of imposing preservation guidelines (such as incorporating the existing fabric in any new development, or specifying its future use), the need for expropriation because of public interest became the only efficient way of rescuing the historical building from private pecuniary interests. Furthermore, this had the effect of protecting the fabric from obsolete building regulations that permitted major redevelopments in and around the historical city centre. Consequently, the idea of transforming the building into a museum became the primary means of confirming the expropriation, while at the same time guaranteeing public support.

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Yet, according to a different reading, the anticipation of the third phase – the upgrading of the site – is here generated by the collective need for a tangible expression of the national cultural heritage. It is a decisive response to the ongoing devastation of the city, when cultural references become the only surviving symbols of the collective memory.

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In our view, the museumification process can be better researched and promoted only when the necessity of rescue and preservation have been understood both by the public and the authorities. Once the public interest in this particular house is clarified, the conversion process can begin. Otherwise the debate about how to preserve the building's fabric, what image to promote and how, will remain fundamental questions without precise answers and may even obstruct the rescue and the preservation process. Let us now define further the importance of the site via three different readings.4

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The first reading assesses the value of the physical structure itself, before taking into consideration the additional value of the memory inherent in the place. The second reading is based on the memory of the place irrespective of any inherent value in the structure. The third reading combines these two and gives them equal importance by emphasizing both tangible and intangible aspects.

Reading 1: The Site

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Figure 2: From the left: The Chawaf house (plot 577, now demolished), the western side of the Ottoman Corps de Garde complex (Fairouz's parental home) and its eastern side (now demolished), 2004. Source: Gebhardt, Hans et al., History, Space and Social Conflict in Beirut: The quarter of Zokak el-Blat (Beirut, 2005), 371, Fig. 68.


Figure 3: Fairouz's house today, the former Corps de Garde, 2015. Source: Rawad Al Kuntar.

A visitor's discovery of the area of Zokak el-Blat begins with the history of urbanization outside the city's confines and the first road to be paved beyond the walls in 1831-1840, which gave the district its name of "the paved path".5 The name itself, therefore, bears witness to an infrastructural achievement and is a constant reminder of Beirut's modernization, that is, its expansion beyond the fortifications. Consequently, the developing fabric of Zokak el-Blat can be observed in what is left of its architectural heritage from the late Ottoman period. Despite losing some of the rich meaning of the urban context because of continuous deterioration, this district remains of unique historical significance for its considerable number of buildings dating back to this period. Among these, a survivor of the frenetic destruction, was the Ottoman police station, also known as the Corps de Garde (the living quarters of Ottoman officials), a complex of two connected late Ottoman buildings situated between Rue du Patriarcat and Rue Boutros Boustany.6 This complex, which denotes our site in question, was inhabited until recently and is structurally sound.7 Several images document the site as it stood in 2004, before it suffered the latest alterations. It was a rare example not only of late Ottoman architecture per se, but also of an Ottoman ensemble where the relationship between both exterior and interior space and with the surrounding lots was remarkably well preserved.

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What remains of this complex today, after the destruction of two dominant elements, does not have the same significance. Having lost both its western side and the adjacent Chawaf house to the east, the Corps de Garde is now reduced to a dilapidated structure deprived of its original meaning.

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If we compare the site's condition in 2004, which was virtually unchanged from its original state, and its radically changed appearance ten years later, one might conclude that its value has diminished. Similarly, when faced with a decision about which conservation approach to adopt, one might opt for a thorough restoration of the whole complex. In this case, repairing and preserving the site would need to take into account the rebirth of the nineteenth-century complex in the contemporary city, representing perhaps, but not necessarily, the original interior organization of the space.

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If, however, in a quest for values, we would conclude that a significant homogenous architectural ensemble emerges from this particular urban complex, which creates a dialogue with, or relates to, the modern city. This complex represents a fine example of low-rise buildings in a district bordering the city centre and strongly recalls developments in rural landscapes. Rather than representing an isolated example detached from – and outside of – time, its role is to reconnect past and present and to raise the historical awareness of the new urban dwellers. The benefit of this scenario is the ability of the historical building to readapt and integrate the actual demands not in terms of mere refurbishment and modern utilities, but by a form of rebirth through a new function that combines public use and an intimate experience of history, without diminishing the building's original character.

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In this way, the value of a restored building is not limited to its physical preservation, but extends to the process of revealing the spirit of the place through its rehabilitation and interior refurbishment. The principle by which we aspire to identify the value of architecture is thus strongly linked to our understanding of the articulated and evolving meaning of the building. This meaning encompasses all of the significant functions that enriched the history of the building over time. The closer a conservation project reflects the fusion between the content (the interior space and its use), and the structure (the ensemble of physical components or the exterior), the more the equilibrium between the aesthetic and historical values is respected. This compels us to rethink the potential value that a space may acquire.

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Although the preservation of the site in its early condition, before the demolition of the Chawaf house and the western side of the Corps de Garde, could have profitably revealed the combined value of late Ottoman settlement, today's dilapidated house can narrate its entire history, both by recalling and deploring what is lost from the original neighbourhood, and by sheltering what little is left. With the fracturing of this dialogue in the contemporary urban context, the house, as a separate and isolated element, can develop a sense of rarity: the main value of the abandoned house now becomes its uniqueness in a chaotically urbanized city. This rare example could thus change from being an anomaly, to becoming a key feature that would define the area as "a little oasis within a congested urban conglomeration".

Reading 2: The Person

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Figure 4: Young Nouhad Haddad (Fairouz) with the school choir around 1947/48. Source: Fairuz 1981 USA Tour catalogue.