Last Word: Much of Beirut's rich architectural heritage--the product of the Ottoman and French colonial eras--in the historic business and financial district around Martyrs' Square, was turned to rubble in the 1975-90 civil war.

Author:Blanche, Ed
 
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NOW THE CITY, ONCE KNOWN AS THE "PARIS OF THE MIDdle East", is facing another threat: a building boom dominated by high-rise towers of luxury apartments and office blocks, exploiting loopholes in Lebanon's outdated planning and preservation laws.

This anything-goes urban planning nightmare is gutting irreplaceable architectural gems and their jasmine-scented gardens in central Beirut that had survived nearly 16 years of conflict.

"The Dubai of the Levant" is what many of Beirut's dismayed denizens now call their city, built on the remains of nearly 5,000 years of ancient civilisations--Canaanite, Phoenician, Hellenistic, Roman and Ottoman.

Instead of the elegant, ornate sandstone facades erected during 400 years of Ottoman rule and the three- or four-storey art deco structures of the French mandate after World War I that gave Beirut its characteristic charm, there is now a forest of glass and steel skyscrapers.

The building boom began in the early 1990s, after the war, when the late Rafiq Hariri, construction billionaire and rags-to-riches philanthropist who later became prime minister, began rebuilding Beirut's shattered heart, seeking to restore a divided nation.

His company, Solidere, painstakingly reconstructed thousands of buildings, and continues to do so.

The city centre, 472 acres of block after pastel-shaded block of pristine bur sterile perfection, has come back to life after a fashion, though many Lebanese disparagingly call it "Disney Downtown".

So the conservationists' quixotic struggle against the current craze for futuristic skyscrapers, and the attendant sky-high property prices that only the very rich can afford, is seen by many as a battle for Beirut's soul.

Surprisingly for a country as battered as Lebanon has been, there are actually some vague preservation laws. Bur money talks, and blind eyes are turned to the rules, such as they are.

"Some good politicians have tried in the past to passa law, bur so far there's not much hope," laments Yvonne, Lady Sursock Cochrane, a prominent 88-year-old philanthropist whose aristocratic Levantine family owns many of Beirut's fashionable old mansions and who has been at the forefront of the fight to save Lebanon's historical heritage for more than four decades. One of Beirut's most famous hostesses and supporter of the arts, she's the founder of the Association for the Protection of Natural Sites and Old...

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