Home Historical art A historic Beirut home damaged in the devastating explosion at the city’s port is being rebuilt at the Victoria & Albert Museum

A historic Beirut home damaged in the devastating explosion at the city’s port is being rebuilt at the Victoria & Albert Museum


Almost two years have passed since the devastating explosion of a large cache of ammonium nitrate in the port of Beirut in Lebanon. Among the death toll of more than 217 and 7,000 injured, it is also the damage that occurred in the neighboring districts of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhaël. The blast destroyed entire old houses and caused immeasurable damage to the structures and facades of some of the most unique examples of 19th century Ottoman-Venetian buildings in the Middle East.

Franco-Lebanese architect Annabel Karim Kassar addresses the events by highlighting the cultural value of architectural restoration in her large-scale installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Title The Lebanese house: saving a house, saving a citythe installation is a poetic response to the devastation, tracing the architect’s personal crusade to restore one of the finest remaining examples of Ottoman-Venetian houses in old Beirut.

The north facade of the original house in Beirut. © ColombeClier

Built in the museum by craftsmen from Beirut (overflown for the construction of the facade), the reconstruction by installation of the most eye-catching element of the house, the triple arcade of the facade, draws the visitor’s gaze to the sky. The replica aims to evoke a visual experience similar to that of wandering the cobbled streets of old Beirut.

The triple arched front also accompanies a seating area in the traditional style Liwan style, often placed in the grand entrance halls of such homes. The from liwan the seats are made of upholstered mattress-like pillows and the low seat offers visitors the opportunity to sit comfortably. Kassar’s installation invites viewers to contemplate and imagine the sensory experience of being in such a house where the high ceilings and the infused Mediterranean sunlight filtering through the large panes of the triple arcade evoke an experience of calm. .

A painted decor in the original house. © ColombeClier

The installation includes a digital archive allowing visitors to explore various architectural elements of ancient houses in Beirut, such as balconies, cornices, wooden lattice roofs and plaster painted ceilings that uniquely identify a vernacular particular Lebanese architectural structure that has been formed over the years from the influences of Byzantine, Classical and Phoenician culture and history in the old port city.

The installation is accompanied by three films commissioned by Kassar’s AKK architecture firm. Directors Wissam Charaf and Florence Strauss present films in which they interview subjects across Beirut about the emotional impact the explosion had on citizens of various enclaves in the city. It also describes the effect that the physical destruction of private and public spaces has had on a country already rocked by political and economic turmoil. “We believe that by saving a building, you can save a city,” says Kassar.

Kassar’s history in preserving Beirut’s ancient buildings dates back to her work restoring Beirut’s old historic market district, a project she won in an international competition after the end of the lebanese civil war. Today, the Souks, a central shopping district in downtown Beirut, have been integrated into Beirut’s daily commercial life and have helped connect the two sides of a city once separated by daily fighting. The success of architectural restoration efforts has helped make Beirut a glamorous shopping and leisure destination in the region. Moreover, today it serves as an example to the governments of neighboring countries like Egypt, which has also begun to restore its historic markets to preserve the cultural significance of these sites.

There is no doubt that Kassar understands the importance of architectural preservation not just in his own city, but across the region: “This installation seeks to express important lessons in urban restoration and renewal that can be applied elsewhere. “, she says. “That local and international communities must be mobilized and directly involved, to protect their common urban heritage. And this restoration does not consist in recreating a synthetic history but in finding a new living function for traditional buildings, an approach which is at the heart of my work.