This Old House

Bespoke - - LIVING -

Beirut was once home to hun­dreds of palaces. Perched on the hills of Ashrafieh, Zokak El Blatt, Cle­menceau and Kan­tari, and spread­ing east to Gem­mayze and Mar Mikhael, th­ese spec­tac­u­lar gems of the Ot­toman and French Man­date eras were built by wealthy Le­banese mer­chants seek­ing peace and quiet, with easy ac­cess to Beirut’s com­mer­cial core. The boom years of the 1950s and 1960s, the decade and a half of civil war, and then the re­con­struc­tion era that fol­lowed all but erad­i­cated th­ese in­cred­i­ble houses – along with the vast ma­jor­ity of Beirut’s his­toric build­ings. “We have only 200 her­itage build­ings left in Beirut, out of 4,500 in 1994. That means that in just 20 years, we’ve lost over 95 per cent,” says Naji Raji, founder of Save Beirut Her­itage, an NGO fight­ing for the preser­va­tion of the city’s ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage. Many of the his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant build­ings that sur­vived the wreck­ing ball did so be­cause of pri­vate ini­tia­tives, like that of Annabel Karim Kas­sar, who re­cently pur­chased the once mag­nif­i­cent Beit Tarazi in Gem­mayze for a re­ported mega-sum of 18 mil­lion USD. “I ac­quired the build­ing af­ter five or six years of ne­go­ti­a­tion,” says Kas­sar. “There were 20 own­ers, with 20 points of view, and no one was speak­ing to the other.”

In­stead of de­mol­ish­ing an­other ves­tige of Beirut’s now en­dan­gered ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory for the sake of one more sky­scraper, architect Annabel Karim Kas­sar has cho­sen to re­turn splen­dour to a ne­glected 19th cen­tury Ot­toman man­sion.

At the end of May, dur­ing Beirut De­sign Week, AKK Ar­chi­tects (Kas­sar’s firm) staged an ex­hi­bi­tion in­side the 19th cen­tury palace. Ti­tled ‘Han­dle with Care’, the show aimed to en­gage the public in the restora­tion process, with sur­vey draw­ings, pho­tos and mod­els, as well as a film pre­sen­ta­tion and round-ta­ble dis­cus­sion all form­ing part of the ex­pe­ri­ence. “I did this ex­hi­bi­tion to help peo­ple un­der­stand their her­itage and the im­por­tance of pro­tect­ing old Le­banese tra­di­tions,” says Kas­sar. The hand­some build­ing, which clearly should be a listed struc­ture, dates back to 1870, and de­spite the wear­ing of time bears tes­ta­ment to many Ot­toman ar­chi­tec­tural de­tails. One of the most strik­ing is a Bagh­dadi ceil­ing com­pris­ing bril­liant and in­tri­cately de­signed tiles. “There are only three such ceil­ings in all of Beirut,” says Kas­sar. “There’s one at Lady Cochrane’s Sur­sock Palace, and an­other at the Heneine Palace in Zokak El Blatt.” An­other in­trigu­ing fea­ture is a wall foun­tain that pos­si­bly served as some sort of bathroom, since there were ap­par­ently none in the house. As the name would sug­gest, Kas­sar pur­chased the 750-square-me­tre three­storey Beit Tarazi from the Tarazi fam­ily. “They lived here for a long time,” she says, adding that the house was last in­hab­ited in 1983. She points to an old piano on the premises and ex­plains how it used to

be­long to a fe­male pi­anist in the house­hold. “She was ex­tremely ec­cen­tric,” says Kas­sar, “and leg­end had it that she would fre­quently throw vases at peo­ple.” Born in France, Kas­sar has a long list of mem­o­rable de­signs to her name, both in Le­banon and abroad. Her var­i­ous projects in­clude the once pop­u­lar Bal­ima Café in Beirut’s Saifi Vil­lage (now closed) and the daz­zling Cinemac­ity at Beirut Souks (AKK served as the lo­cal co­or­di­na­tion of­fice for the French ar­chi­tec­ture firm Valode et Pistre, work­ing along­side Dada & As­so­ci­ates who over­saw the com­plete in­te­rior de­sign). In ad­di­tion to Beirut and Lon­don, her firm has of­fices in Dubai – she de­signed the Al­maz by Momo restau­rants in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. And most re­cently, in 2016, AKK won the in­au­gu­ral Lon­don De­sign Bi­en­nale medal for its in­stal­la­tion at Som­er­set House, on the banks of the River Thames. While Kas­sar plans on pre­serv­ing as many old ar­chi­tec­tural de­tails as pos­si­ble, she also wants her fu­ture home – now re­named

Beit Kas­sar – to of­fer con­tem­po­rary ameni­ties and crea­ture-com­forts. “I will pre­serve colours, ceil­ing de­tails and the orig­i­nal floors,” she says. “And I will also try to avoid con­crete as much as I can be­cause the orig­i­nal house had no con­crete.” The am­bi­tious project will re­quire a mas­sive amount of struc­tural work, cost mil­lions of dol­lars and will take at least two years to com­plete. “It’s a res­i­den­tial project,” says Kas­sar. “One house. Or maybe two apart­ments. I haven’t de­signed the plan yet.” It is lo­cated on Gouraud Street – Gem­mayze’s main artery – and is walk­ing dis­tance to shops, restau­rants, cafés and Mar Mikhael’s bustling nightlife of­fer­ings. Yet, be­cause of its size, ar­chi­tec­tural beauty and en­closed 700-square-me­tre rear-sit­u­ated gar­den, it re­mains a haven from the city’s fre­netic life. In­ter­est­ingly though, Kas­sar says she has plans to re-es­tab­lish the ground floor street-side area as a com­mer­cial space – she favours ei­ther a café or an ex­hi­bi­tion space, for that is how it had been de­signed orig­i­nally. Still, her main goal is to cre­ate a unique liv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that high­lights the ar­chi­tec­tural le­gacy of the house. “A lot of old houses are dis­ap­pear­ing,” she says. “We have to stop de­stroy­ing them. If I hadn’t bought this house, it could have been bought by a de­vel­oper who would got­ten per­mis­sion to de­stroy it.” The architect be­lieves that the el­e­gant aes­thet­ics of the Ot­toman era are part of the Le­banese peo­ple’s col­lec­tive un­con­scious. For her, it’s nec­es­sary for the Le­banese to re­main con­nected to their roots – she be­lieves that such a con­nec­tion is es­sen­tial for growth. “I very much hope that Beit Kas­sar will in­spire oth­ers to pre­serve the other re­main­ing his­toric build­ings we have in this beau­ti­ful city.”

Top Left: The Bagh­dadi-style ceil­ing is a relic of the Ot­toman era. It re­mains al­most un­touched, de­spite ne­glect and the wear­ing of time. Above: Plans for an ex­ten­sive restora­tion in­clude a renovation of the for­mer gro­cery store and florist on the...

Below: French-born architect Annabel Karim Kas­sar founded her ar­chi­tec­tural prac­tice in Paris in 1994. She now has of­fices in Beirut, Dubai and Lon­don. Right: In­tri­cate de­tail­ing in the win­dows and ceil­ing serves as a re­minder of Beirut's op­u­lent past.

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