APLH interview by Scuola Politecnica di Milano graduate Karl Mansour [republished in the book ‘Traditionalist’].

1. When, how and why did you start your organization?
the APLH originally started as a facebook group in march 2010,
known as ‘stop destroying your heritage’. It was created by Pascale Ingea as a
reaction to the rapidly  changing post-war urban landscape in Beirut and the
systematic loss of traditional lebanese buildings as a result of post-war reconstruction.
the group still exists and is still run by APLH. in october 2010, APLH became
a fully registered NGO under permit number 1764. It is based
in zouk mosbeh, Lebanon.
2. Briefly describe your organization task
To re-awaken cultural responsibility through published works
(online, film and print), events and projects (lectures, workshops,
archeological tours, etc…).
3. Are you supported by the community? And what are the challenges you are facing?
Support is very limited, which is understandable in a country where
people are too busy surviving. it’s hard to stop a little and think
about abstract notions like culture, collective memory and heritage
when you have to make ends meet. our greatest challenge is to make people understand that heritage doesnt mean a bunch of old houses we need to be protecting. it’s actually more than that.
4. Why do you think it is necessary as an activist to fight for this cause (saving and preserving old houses)? Some strong arguments?
we dont save old houses. our cause is to revive a spirit we have lost around the beginning of the XXth century. we broke away with our past at roughly the 1930s, the start of modernism as a cultural movement. since then, anything we’ve built and used, has been of foreign origin and therefore not linked to us in any way. before that period, whatever cultural ideas we borrowed from abroad, were laced with our own creative cultural insight and vernacular and that was especially evident in our levantine architecture where local design fused seamlessly with venetian design into an original outcome, which is the famous triple-arched traditional lebanese house that still charms so many tourists. with modernism religiously applied, architects were told that the past is dead, that only utilitarianism (function) matters, and this transpired into buildings completely disconnected from their people. if you want to understand the current malaise of the modern world, look no further than its cubicle jobs, anonymous/generic apartments and total disconnection of architecture from natural environment. this digression was necessary because we want to clarify that it’s the builder of the house, not the house itself, who needs saving.
5. Can you provide the approximate number of old properties in Beirut (Timeline for example from 1995 to present)?
counting houses is missing the point. they can be a thousand or a few dozens. if the people have still not re-linked with their past, we/they are driftwood and our/their future is an ocean of uncertainty.
6. Are there any documents or papers that prove what you are fighting for? ( illegal papers, misconducting of properties)
we have so far conducted a large number of legal pursuits and
complaints with the legal council (known as shura council) regarding illegalities and improper proceedings in obtaining demolition permits. all of it is documented.
7. As an expert, do you think the landlords have taken any juridical measures regarding this issue?
in the 90s, the APSAD has produced a grading list to be used to
assess traditional houses. grades A, B and C were worth preserving
and restoring, while D and E were not. we have heard of many cases
of landlords purposefully degrading their houses to facilitate
the obtaining of a demolition permit. that practice has now been
outlined in a decree that has yet to be implemented (it is now
still a draft).
8. Do you think Real estate companies and developers have a big influence on this issue? How?
they do, and their influence is predictably profit-oriented: it is
more profitable to raze a single house and build a 60 apartment
building in its place, maximizing space profitability.
9. Why do real estate companies and developers target these old houses? ( could be related to the previous question)
please see previous question. also, it is not that they are targeting the old house for the sake of it, but simply because they want the plot on which the house is built, in order to have a skyscraper that would contain multiple living spaces where just one house used to stand. urbanists would use that as an excuse to tackle the problem of overpopulation, but they dont seem to want to go through the effort of actually designing a skyscraper that looks ‘lebanese’ or incorporates the needs of the people who live here. modern architecture is generic. modern buildings could just as well be in paris, hong kong, moskow or new york, you cannot tell, so much they are interchangeable. we are not anti-tall buildings and we are aware of overpopulation as a pressing problem, but we wish architects and urbanists could design spaces to look and feel and behave ‘local’,to carry an identity that is distinct. this is their challenge. a building could very well be built in 2019 and be a heritage building, because it carries the essence of the people who designed and built it. a building does not have to be 200 years old or more in order for it to be considered ‘heritage’. this is what we want the reader to understand. many falsely believe that in 500 years, the buildings we live in, will (automatically) be considered heritage. it is not so, if those buildings only had utilitarian function.
10. This is a cultural matter: Have any of the ministers of culture taken any actions regarding saving the properties from demolition?
the actions taken are usually never taken all the way to the end because the developer is usually linked to the political sphere, the same sphere who appoints the culture minister and who can force his hand at will or just tell him to look the other way. there is no political will to save lebanese heritage at the moment, and the awareness is still at the material level, i.e, the ‘protectors’ of our heritage think like most people, that protecting heritage is about preserving a bunch of houses/stones from demolition and/or degradation.
11. As some quoted: cutting off “some” of these houses could bring benefit to the city? Do you agree? If yes, in what ways?
it is sad to hear such cynicism on display- because what do they mean when they refer to ‘the city’? is it the mass of concrete they are pushing for? or is it the people whom they are building housing for? and shall we remind them that no lebanese citizen can afford the current housing being built in beirut? so whom or who are the cynics benefiting? could they tell us in what way will ‘the city’ benefit by cramming more generically designed ‘housing’ that outprices almost every economic stratum in lebanon? architects learn of the importance of preserving the environment while building, but never seem to apply their theories upon entering the market. anyone looking at beirut from afar would agree: here is an urban tumor, and removing further traditional houses will not cure nor ease that tumor.
12. Does the Municipality of Beirut play any role on this behalf?
yes, an irresponsible, ignorant and counterproductive one. the last green area left in beirut (around the beirut hippodrome) is the target of relentless efforts by the municipality to ‘urbanize and rentabilize’ that space.
13. Few years ago, the interior ministry has agreed to give the culture ministry power of first veto over any applications to destroy old buildings before the file is handed to the Beirut Municipality. Such regulation exists in practice? If yes how? state an example
We have not heard of such a regulation. the only regulation in existence is a law for the protection of archeological sites which dates from the french mandate (1933). there is a draft of a decree to protect lebanese heritage, which has yet to be voted into law. ex-culture minister ghattas khoury presented it but it has not been promulgated into law yet.
14. What areas in Beirut are being subject to demolition? The highest rate and why in your opinion?
all of beirut is being actively disfigured. the trend has slowed
a little as of recently, due to the slump in the real estate market
and of course the worldwide economic recession that has not yet abated since 2008.
15. As a local, living/ From Beirut, what can be done to bring these houses back to life?
enact and enforce the law to protect built heritage, and most importantly, relink the people to their origins, and for this to happen, all modernist dogmas must be fought off from schools and universities. in the current times we are in, such speech is heresy, but decades of ugliness in art, architecture and thought, are proof enough that we went in the wrong direction and that it is necessary to reconnect with our past (i.e: identity) so that we better navigate the future. modernism and identity cannot coexist. when modernism thrives, identity is suppressed (and people are aimless and frustrated without knowing why).
16. How many properties did you save so far?
only a few. and some of these properties ended up illegally
destroyed later, which is why we came to the realization that
it’s really not about the houses but rather the mentality of people
(cynical and profit-oriented) which needs to change.
we have nothing against profit, but it shouldnt come at the
expense of collective identity and culture.
17. In what ways could we save them? (Preservation, restoration, etc…) and do you think turning them into cultural spots (museums, art galleries, etc…) example Sursock Palaces could be a way to preserve them?
repurposing these houses is definitely a valid solution but securing
funds to do so, is the impossible mission (because it involves the purchase of the actual building first). it’s made even more impossible with the absence of the heritage protection law. once this law exists, the government (as well as NGOs) could under that law, raise funds and campaign for crowdfunding towards the restoration/repurposing projects.
18. Is this topic “Saving Beirut Heritage” been discussed in universities of fine arts?
yes, the APLH has conducted several academic projects in that theme
at the lebanese university. we also conducted a workshop with students of the lycee verdun, beirut.
19. Are students in schools and universities aware of the impact of changing Beirut’s image?
They are aware, but the challenge is to make them interested.
A good suggestion would be to coordinate with schools and universities and include heritage-themed projects into the curriculi. This is already being done at the lebanese university fine arts faculty in the chouf/deir el qamar area. for additional reach, the APLH needs more members.
20. Have you collaborated with other local organizations or activists? State them. If yes, what project/s did you work on? And what was the outcome?
we did collaborate with the following entities:
Nahnoo (beirut-based civil action NGO)
beirut madinati (beirut-based civil action group)
save beirut heritage (beirut-based group)
Lebanese Eco Movement (Beirut-based grouping of environmental NGOs)
Association for the Protection of Jabal Moussa (keserwan-based
most of our collaboration efforts are mainly confined to the awareness or consultative field and not in a concrete project, except the Jabal Moussa foundation, where environmental visuals and children stories focused on the Jabal Moussa reserve, are being illustrated/designed by a APLH member.
21. Have you ever collaborated with international organizations? If yes, in what ways?
the APLH has approached the EU organization Federculture for a large historical project that is still in the making.
22. As an organization, have you relied on some ideas made by other organizations (outside the country) fighting for the same reasons and tried to implement them in Lebanon? If yes, what organizations and countries? What were the ideas you used?
we do follow the news of regional and world heritage but every country and region has its distinct problems, but we surely are always self-updating in case any foreign-implemented idea could be of use to us in lebanon, but so far, such a thing has not happened. we mainly rely on ourselves and devise our own projects internally.
23. What are your future plans/ actions/ aims regarding this subject?
secure a sponsor or donors who believe in our mission because we have a stream of ideas waiting to be implemented all over lebanon. some of these ideas have their feasibility study already completed.
24. Please Feel free to add any additional comments, experiences and facts that would be beneficial for this thesis.
many want to help but cannot get past social media ‘activism’. to help the APLH, and to help save heritage, real commitment, real members and real effort are needed. social media ‘awareness’ is another modern-day non-solution that makes one feel good without actually doing any effort. we thank our volunteers and real-time members and wish we had more of them. and thank you for your interest and we hope the above information will be useful to you!

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