Born Again

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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

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