Lebanese experts outline challenges and ways forward for the recovery of Beirut’s built heritage during UNESCO ResiliArt debate


On 24 September 2020, UNESCO organized the ResiliArt Lebanon: Bridging the Past and Future through Built Heritage online debate, in the framework of its #LiBeirut initiative. The debate brought together key actors in the field of built heritage to discuss the impact of the explosions of 4 August 2020 on the architectural and urban heritage of Beirut, as well as ways to implement a comprehensive approach to urban recovery that integrates cultural heritage protection and people-centred policies.

Ernesto Ottone R., UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture, introduced the debate, alongside Ambassador Sahar Baassiri, Permanent Delegate of Lebanon to UNESCO. The debate, which was moderated by Mechtild Rössler, Director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, featured some of Lebanon’s eminent experts and actors in the field of built heritage, including Sarkis Khoury (Director General of Antiquities of Lebanon), Fadlallah Dagher (Architect, Member of the Beirut Heritage Initiative), Mona Fawaz (Professor of Urban Studies and Planning, American University of Beirut), Catherine Otayek (volunteer, member of the NGO OffreJoie), Yasmine Makaroun Bou Assaf (Director of the Centre of Restoration and Conservation of the Faculty of Fine Arts and Architecture, Lebanese University and member of the Executive Board of ICOMOS Lebanon), Mousbah Rajab (Former Head of the Department of Urban Planning of the Faculty of Fine Arts and Architecture, Lebanese University), and Jad Tabet (President, the Order of Engineers and Architects of Beirutexpert of the World Heritage Committee, 2001-2005 and 2013-2017). 

The participants discussed the legislative, financial and practical challenges to ensuring the protection of Lebanon’s built heritage, while stressing that, beyond the striking damage to cultural built heritage, interconnected social and cultural life of the city itself was severely impacted.

Sarkis Khoury focused on the economic and legislative challenges, noting that the Directorate General of Antiquities is trying to protect historic buildings under the Law of Antiquities of 1933. Fadlallah Dagher highlighted that the social and economic and health crises that preceded the disaster are still ongoing and impacting heritage recovery efforts and noted that the Beirut Heritage Initiative is working to identify structures that need emergency intervention. Mona Fawaz stressed that Beirut's heritage was already under threat prior to the explosions, due to land speculation and existing policies. According to Jad Tabet, a vision and plan for safeguarding the unique neighbourhoods of Beirut need to be put forward. The involvement of communities is fundamental, and emergency measures must be put in place to enable people to return to their homes and to revive cultural life.

The panellists agreed that the way forward towards a people-centred approach to urban recovery should integrate cultural, socio-economic and educational aspects, within the framework of the Warsaw Recommendations on Recovery and Reconstruction of Cultural Heritage, the UNESCO-World Bank position paper on Culture in City Reconstruction and Recovery, and the UNESCO 2011 Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape. The engagement of youth and young professionals in the safeguarding of Beirut’s heritage will also be essential.

The ResiliArt Lebanon series of debates was held in the framework of UNESCO’s #LiBeirut initiative, launched to raise support for the rehabilitation of cultural heritage, recover of cultural life and reconstruction of schools, following the devastating explosions at the Port of Beirut. The first debate, held on 10 September 2020, focused on Defending Cultural Diversity through Creativity (available here), while the second debate took place on 17 September 2020 and focused on the role of Museums and Art Galleries for the Return of Cultural Life in Beirut (available here). The third debate Bridging the Past and Future through Built Heritage is now available here.