Fake Spaces Make up Fake Places
The Red House, in the Hamra district of Beirut, has received some significant publicity as of late. As much of Beirut faces redevelopment that dissociates the architecture from its cultural roots, the Red House remains one of the few truly Lebanese villas to remain in the city. A local activist group, Save Beirut Heritage, has taken it upon themselves to save the city’s heritage – to balance the preservation of old Beirut while addressing the needs of new Beirut. Beirut’s urban fabric was originally populated by buildings from the Ottoman and French colonial period but after war ravaged the city, leaving a lot of it in rough shape, developers began buying up land, demolishing these architectural beauties, and building skyscrapers that saw very few occupants and towered over parts of the city, often empty.
Studying the economic and social issues that come with rapid urbanization of areas previously ravaged by war, such as Beirut, can result in the fabrication of fake societies, intentional or unintentional. These places, wanting to wash away the traumas of the past, work especially hard to produce an identity that ends up feeling forced and disconnected from the inherent identity of the place – creating a “golden grandeur city” and, consequently, a massive wealth gap for its actual citizens. Appearing as an identity crisis of sorts, parts of the city stand lavish and shiny, while the true parts of the city – the connections between these alien landscapes – remain raw with a quality of gritty character.
The disparity that results, economically and socially, weakens the general morale of the city. Redevelopment, in less fortunate places, is often synonymous with gentrification. That being said – the class of citizens that would typically reside in the cities aren’t able to afford the new construction, therefore gentrifying the city of it’s own people and allowing wealthy foreigners to purchase units that rarely get used. While redevelopment is crucial for progress, there are ways that redevelopment can be culturally respectful and ways that it can not. In places across the Middle East, the sudden absorption of wealth creates a physical manifestation of the failure of trickle down economies because the changes don’t touch the surface of the place or its people in meaningful ways.
The concept of fake societies poses such a problem because it’s the history of a place is what makes it interesting. It’s what gives it an honest identity.