Beirut’s brilliance

Karen Chekerdjian’s 120-year-old home in Beirut was renovated by Habib Debs. Her decor includes a LC4 lounge chair by Le Corbusier and ceramics by Ettore Sotsass

Furniture and object designer Karen Chekerdjian’s gallery in the rejuvenated Beirut Port District stands as a small, stubborn monument to Lebanon’s rapidly disappearing past, particularly its artisanal tradition. Though her aesthetic sensibility is unmistakably influenced by mid-century Danish and Italian design, everything that bears her name is handmade by local craftsmen who specialise in a single material, such as wood, brass, or glass.

Chekerdjian is among a handful of prominent designers and architects in Lebanon contributing to the preservation of the country’s fading heritage. For Chekerdjian, the price of employing artisans, like the price of living in a renovated turn-of-the-century home in scenic, comparatively well-preserved Gemmayze, is one worth paying. “Craftsmen are expensive,” she says, “but I feel like I’m protecting a knowhow.”

Long-suffering Beirut, where Chekerdjian was born and raised, is a study in how 15 years of civil war, poorly planned reconstruction, and a lack of zoning laws can result in the rapid erasure of a city’s past. Today, the forest of builders’ cranes visible from every rooftop provides a telling contrast to the images from the 1970s and ’80s which made Beirut synonymous with complete urban devastation. Within 40 years, Beirut has gone from a celebrated architectural gem, unique in the Middle East, to a congested and haphazard collection of cinder block high rises, with more popping up daily.

Karen Chekerdjian’s home in Beirut, featuring a work by Lebanese Artist Seta Manoukian painted during the civil war in 1978

Architect and urban planner Habib Debs is one of the driving forces behind the renovation of some of Beirut’s most picturesque old buildings, and it’s been a constant struggle. “If you compare Beirut with other cities in the region, like Damascus or Cairo or Istanbul,” he says, “this is the only capital where nothing has been protected from destruction.” Lebanon’s laws permit landowners to build high rises on plots of land where once stood three- or four-storey multi-family homes. Vacant and decrepit but still standing, most of Beirut’s oldest buildings have either been left to slowly decay or are razed to the ground to make way for a much more lucrative alternative.

As a result, few examples of the city’s famed mix of Ottoman, French colonial, and art deco architecture remain, and even fewer have a chance of surviving the ongoing construction boom. Along the seafront Corniche, among the last remaining public spaces in Beirut, newer areas featuring eye-catching examples of early modern architecture have been neglected, fallen into complete disrepair and overtaken by ever-taller apartment buildings vying for a glimpse of the Mediterranean, at least for their penthouse dwellers.

“People don’t realise what they’re losing,” says Chekerdjian, who moved with her family from their “very modern apartment” into one of Debs’s restored 120-year-old homes last July. “I can’t think about how Beirut has changed because it really hurts me.”

Designers Hoda Baroudi and Maria Hibri of Bokja, a furniture gallery in the high-end shopping district of Saifi Village, are driven by a similar wish to safeguard endangered skills while engaging with the issues of the day, from the Arab uprising to the election of a new pope. It’s not unusual for objects in the gallery to elicit strong reactions from visitors; a sofa chair featuring an embroidered portrait of Hugo Chávez was an alarming sight to a Venezuelan couple who once dropped by the store, though no one has so far had any issues with the Stalin chair. Fusing together art and functionality, the Bokja atelier employs artisans and recycles materials found in antique stores and flea markets.

While Beirut’s architectural decline causes heartbreak for Chekerdjian, Baroudi and Hibri often feel inspired by what they call the city’s “glitches.” According to Baroudi, Bokja’s essence is “a very unusual juxtaposition of the beautiful with the ugly, the ordinary with the special, the brocade with the jute. It’s our way and it’s definitely the result of being a Beiruti and living in Beirut.”

But as the city’s streets and neighbourhoods become more and more indistinguishable, so do the interiors of people’s homes. “Until 10 years ago, interior design in Beirut was still very classical – old-fashioned sofas and big chandeliers. Today, people who have money want their homes to look what they think of as ‘modern’,” says Chekerdjian, who credits furniture company B&B Italia with the dubious distinction of outfitting countless Lebanese living rooms in shades of black, beige, and off-white. “It’s all neutral colours. B&B used to be a very interesting company but they don’t take risks any more.” Neither, she says, do Lebanon’s interior designers.

Baroudi and Hibri agree. Beirutis “play it safe”, they say, choosing to conform to the trends of the moment rather than gamble on their individual design instincts. “What we’d like to see is a house that reflects the people who live in it, their idiosyncrasies as well as their passions. Not a copy of a house in California or Morocco or one that was recently published in Elle Decoration.”

It’s not surprising, then, that each of the three women lives in the sort of Beirut house that one rarely sees the inside of any more, brimming with history and intimations of what’s being lost in the name of development. With its high, arched ceilings and traditional layout, Chekerdjian’s home has done more than provide the family with a change of scenery. “The living space is in the middle and the rooms all around it,” she says, “so if you want to go from one room to another, you have to pass through the living room. It’s a beautiful thing. It creates something new in your family, another way of living. You always have to stop in the middle of the house and say ‘hi’ to someone.”

Chekerdjian’s handpicked furnishings work in unexpected ways with the space and Debs’s painstaking and judicious renovations, which include terrazzo floors in the bedrooms and stone walls that have been stripped of paint. In the living room, pieces by Mario Marenco, Giò Ponti, and Børge Mogensen are mixed in with a Colombo chair and a Le Corbusier couch. Chekerdjian combined Arne Jacobsen’s famous Ant chairs with a dining table from her own gallery. And against the dining room wall is a four-metre long chest of drawers – useful as a buffet – that was used, in a former life, to cut fabric in a now-defunct factory. It’s a dynamic well-suited to Chekerdjian, a French-speaking Armenian Beiruti, educated in Paris and Milan, in love with the Scandinavian penchant for understatement.

Unlike Gemmayze, Zkak el Blat, the birthplace of acclaimed Lebanese singer Fairouz and the neighbourhood where Hibri now lives, has seen very little investment and upkeep. Hibri’s house, like most in the area, is worse for wear. “It’s changed hands several times in its 100-year existence,” says Hibri, “including housing, at one point, the British Consul and, during the Lebanese civil war, at least a dozen families of refugees.” Today, it holds what she calls her “coups de coeur”, a piecemeal collection of objects that tell the story of her family: “Victorian lace curtains, a church bench, a battered but delicate green sofa that I dare not reupholster, and ... a psychedelic electric teeter-totter [see-saw] that my son rescued from a rundown theme park.”

And Baroudi, who enjoys the good fortune of living in one of Beirut’s last remaining habitable art-deco apartments, built in 1939, can’t help but feel sentimental about the things in her home, the way they connect her to the past few tumultuous decades, such as the paintings she and her husband bought during a period of constant shelling in 1986. Baroudi grew up in the southern seaside town of Saida and moved to Beirut at the age of 17, when Beirut’s reputation was not unlike what it is now: “Fun – within a framework of war.”

Bokja store in Beirut’s Saifi Village, an area popular with galleries and designers

But Baroudi, like most Lebanese, is wary of things continuing as they have been going. “I live on a street that used to be all turn-of-the-century houses. One after another I’ve witnessed the destruction and thereafter construction of monstrous buildings that have replaced old jewels.” And while the Bokja ethos is fuelled by its founders’ talent for spotting humour in disheartening surroundings, Baroudi and Hibri confess that they must “choose to have a selective memory and vision.”

Debs, familiar as he is to the obstacles facing anyone who attempts to preserve what remains of the Paris of the East, finds little to be optimistic about. “Within 20 years, maybe less,” he says, “Beirut’s heritage will have completely disappeared.”

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