By Corinne Martin
Gregory Buchakjian’s book Abandoned Dwellings: A History of Beirut gives a new perspective towards the city and extends an appeal to reclaim it
Beirut has had its fair share of war, stunted growth, social and economic catastrophes and migratory movements over the past century. The city has built its character by being destroyed and rebuilt, by being broken and regenerated. In his latest book, Abandoned Dwellings: A History of Beirut, art historian and visual artist Gregory Buchakjian presents Beirut’s abandoned dwellings alongside a collection of archives and testimonies and a series of nostalgic photographs from within those spaces, where the subjects are surrounded by mounds of the rubbish that has remained.
“Most abandoned houses are a result of people leaving the city not because they want to leave. They are either forced to leave militarily or the owners have paid them a compensation to leave. Others can no longer afford the new staggering rents and move outwards to other neighbourhoods like Sid el Boushrieh or Khalde. As a result, the city is being emptied from its inhabitants,” says Buchakjian about the reasons for people abandoning their houses in Beirut.
Political and social turmoil, deterioration and heritage are an integral part of Buchakjian’s research and are among the issues discussed in his book. He examines the transformation of the city and its heritage starting with the infamous “battle of the hotels” in Downtown Beiruts and how luxury establishments were converted into strongholds. He explores the demarcation line, which divided the city into two and then focuses on places where people were imprisoned and executed. He concludes the book with the informal developments that often resulted from migratory movements and hostilities.
Among Buchakjian’s abandoned Beirut dwellings is the Dimitri Tarazi House located in Ashrafieh, Furn el-Hayek. Built in the early 19th century, this traditional structure arranged around a courtyard was home to Dimitri Tarazi, founder of a dynasty of craftsmen of Middle Eastern furniture, known today as Maison Tarazi. Another of the abandoned dwellings is the Excelsior Hotel in Minet el Hosn, which was in the past celebrated for its legendary nightclub, Les Caves Du Roy. It closed during the battle of the hotels during the 1970s, was then squatted by refugees in the 1990s and kept deteriorating afterwards.
Buchakjian’s survey of abandoned buildings in Beirut, with the collection of archives and the photographic scenes presented in his book, gives a new perspective towards the city and in many ways extends an appeal to reclaim it.