Beautiful Boundaries

Beautiful Boundaries


While Beirut’s wrought iron handrails undoubtedly serve a functional purpose, a project by the architect in conservation, Mazen Haidar, reminds us that they are also a key component of the city’s rich architectural heritage, representing works of art in themselves



What made you decide to focus specifically on wrought iron handrails in your current project from all the possible elements that make up Beirut’s cultural heritage?


When I was a young boy, I used to stand for hours looking out on Rue de Lyon, where my parents lived, parallel to Hamra street, leaning on the handrail. The balcony was sometimes the only place to breathe during difficult times, especially around the last year of the civil war. The handrail was what connected you to the outside world but, at the same time, offered protection from it.



When you think about Beirut’s handrails, you realise that they contain a variety of motifs, even though the modern buildings constructed between 1950 and 1970 were characterised by modernist and pure architecture, with simple geometrical shapes. It’s as if this space offered architects a place of freedom beyond new constraints, somewhere they could go and portray elegance through geometrical and floral forms.




You have made clear your passion for the aesthetical value and importance of wrought iron work, such as the motifs featured and the architectural creativity it inspires. What characteristics are of particular interest to you?


I think what interests me most is the ability we have to extract the motifs from their context. In other words, you can observe these forms on their own, detached from their context, but you cannot imagine the original context without them. The building will most definitely lose something of its elegance and visual identity. Again, handrails are to be observed as a work of art in themselves. In Beirut, they were clearly inspired by the modern, French wrought iron metalwork, transferred through specialized catalogues showing examples from the latest works of masters like Raymond Subes, Gilles Poillerat and others. The strategic positioning of the balcony in modern residential buildings in Beirut makes the story of these motifs both interesting and challenging.



How did you set about channelling your passion into The Handrails of Beirut? What techniques did you decide to use with printed media?


I have been documenting these motifs through sketches and photographs for years. More recently, I decided to move to another level by producing an accurate metric reconstitution of these elements. My decision was in part driven by the knowledge that modern architecture is both under threat and disappearing moment by moment. Reproducing a drawing in this context is, in itself, an active engagement in its protection. Drawings produced on different computer software were then printed in black, using a white font, like a shadow engraved in our memory.



Why do you think Lebanon hasn’t done a better job of preserving its

heritage? Is it a lack of legislation or a lack of enforcement?


Firstly, it’s down to a lack of historical maturity; there is no acknowledgment of the importance of modern heritage or even the older legacy, which has been reduced simplistically to central hall houses. And even these are being torn down. Every period replaces the previous one, with complete disregard for the memory and history.

Secondly, on a practical level, there are no planning strategies - a situation that has been accentuated by war and a lengthy period of instability. We are lacking a global vision, featuring elements such as zoning. Because preserving the built heritage doesn’t reward owners in the short term, and since the construction laws allow you to build, owners begin demolishing a three-floor building and replacing it with a tower without hesitation. Citizens are making the law. If there’s no law protecting the heritage in Lebanon, it’s mainly because the issue has long been an elitist one, with the majority uninitiated in the economic importance of the built heritage. We should now think about preserving on alternative terms; not freezing, but sometimes adapting the building to new exigencies. This may well provide a solution and help to halt this tragedy that Lebanon faces.



Is there any particular destruction that has really upset and angered you?


Yes - the demolition of the Carlton Hotel and the vandalism of the Akar Palace next to my parents’ place. To this day, I avoid looking around when I’m there. Their destruction is what prompted me this year to write my first novel in Arabic, entitled ‘Four Steps Down’, about a bookshop in Hamra street that has disappeared.



The Handrails of Beirut is described as a “promenade of discovery”. Is this somewhat unusual description significant?


The project represents an invitation to discover the hidden treasures of Beirut. People in Beirut are deprived of the simple and basic right to walk in some areas or even to look at a building since they can often be very quickly prevented from doing so by tenants or worse, people who are armed. Imagine what happens when you want to take a photo of a residential building. By retracing these elements of beauty, I am trying to provide a reminder that yes, indeed, there is a genuine, valid reason to walk around and see what you find.


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