As the saying goes, it is easy to fall but hard to rise. Yet there is a villa in Lebanon, perched among thousands of pine trees in a small town to the north of the Beirut-damascus highway, which shows anything is possible, even after suffering from the trauma of war and neglect. This is a tale of nature, renewal and one insightful architect.
When architect Nabil Gholam first saw Villa Z, an old abandoned house damaged by years of civil war and military occupation, it was far from love at first sight. From an architectural perspective, it was no gem, with a façade covered in rough stone coursing and a red tile roof that seemed, well, a little dated. Even worse, the structure had been ravaged by years of civil war and used as a base and detention centre by military groups. There was eeriness to the place, an eeriness that begged to be expelled. “It was like a punch in the stomach,” the architect recalls of the moment he first set foot on the expansive property, not long after its last occupiers, the Syrian military, had pulled out of the country following the popular uprising of 2006. What was left behind was a sombre reminder of dark times. There were local tales of prisoners who had been brought here, never to be seen again, and there were signs of them too – etchings made with matchsticks or fingernails on the inner walls of a small water reservoir, spelling out the names of the detained and the dates they had been taken. There were discarded torture instruments too, and bullet holes. “I must tell you it was very disturbing. Maybe I’m a sensitive type, I didn’t think I was. But I was really shaken.” Given the unexceptional design and disturbing history, it’s not surprising that Gholam was veering towards an architectural tabula rasa that would raze the property to the ground and allow him to start from scratch. After all, if the goal was to erase the bad memories, it seemed like the most logical way to proceed. Except, that’s not what the villa’s proprietor had in mind. This owner, whose grandfather had built the house in 1947 after returning from Africa, wanted the original façades to be kept intact so that they could at least preserve the good history, while removing much of the bad. The home, which is situated in the beautiful area of Bologna, near Bteghrine and Dhour El Choueir, on the edge of Beirut’s northern mountains, was modern and luxurious for its time, boasting the first private tennis court in the country. It also sat on an impressively large 40,000 squaremetre plot of land overlooking Mount Lebanon. To add to its provenance, it turns out the home was also once used by former President Camille Chamoun, when he was momentarily ousted from office in the late 1950s. The owner’s grandfather reputedly offered his villa as a temporary office and refuge until the president was called back to duty in the parliament. And then, there were the memories: the good ones, of childhood summers spent frolicking in its idyllic gardens, as well as