The Mansion: Historic Villa Reborn as Studios

The Mansion project is an opportunity to have a dedicated work space and also the possibility for communal interaction (Photo: Ziad Abou Assi)

By: Rebecca Whiting

Published Friday, December 7, 2012

Six months ago, a peek over the wall of a grandiose 1930s abandoned villa in the Beirut neighborhood of Zoqaq al-Blat would have revealed a garden piled high with broken concrete slabs and years’ worth of other hapless junk. The enormous building, liberally decorated with graffiti and lacking most of its windows, groaned under the weight of decades of neglect and decay.

On long walks around the city, artist Ghassan Maasri’s attention was frequently drawn to the Zoqaq al-Blat villa.

For years, he has been looking for ways to engage with Beirut’s abandoned properties. “Although there are so many empty buildings, the idea of lending out a property is very rare here. The concept of ownership is something people can be very obsessive about.”

Over time he developed a relationship with the building’s owner, who lives nearby. He proposed to him that the building could be restored and become a living part of the community. The owner was convinced by the idea of the old plot, empty since 1987, becoming a multi-purpose working environment for cultural activity.

The house, now known as the Mansion, sprawls 800 square meters over three floors, a labyrinth of high-ceilinged rooms. Over the last six months, the building was nursed back to health, refitted, rewired, replumbed, and repainted.

The Mansion’s opening night, December 5, showed the garden newly replanted and lit by candles, the old trees that grew up with the house breathing freely now the rubbish is gone. Inside, the cavernous downstairs hall is furnished with an inviting array of mismatched furniture. Some of the rooms still boast the decor from the building’s previous life as an illustrious family home.

The Mansion now hosts eight studios, with artists, designers, curators, and researchers working there, all of whom contribute time, labor, and money to the ongoing renovation. Illustrator Ghassan Halwani has been involved with the work since he took a studio there a month ago. “I was looking for a studio in Beirut for seven years, finding it impossible to afford, and so worked from home. This project is an opportunity to have a dedicated work space and also the possibility for communal interaction.”

Beirut is something of a graveyard for abandoned old buildings, either fled from during the war or left to rot at the center of a tedious family debate over ownership. Many of them works of art in their own right, these buildings also house some rare empty space in the crowded city.

At the same time, affordable places to work, or quiet places to meet and talk are near impossible to come by. The last 10 to 15 years have seen an exodus of creative people from the central Beirut areas as many could not afford to rent studios. The exorbitant rental prices have created a deficit in creativity coming from young people and those of lower incomes.

The Mansion will be open to the public two days a week so that the work in the studios can be seen and will also function as a library and cafe, serving cheap homemade food. “People in the neighborhood have been very curious as to what we’re doing,” said Halwani. “We invited everyone from the area to the opening event. Communication and engagement will develop as our place within the community develops.”

As all the work on the house was done by the participants in the project with the help of handymen from the neighborhood, the Mansion did feel like an alien invasion to the local community, explained French artist Sandra Iché, who has been working with Maasri since the project’s inception.

Without external funding, the Mansion project has revolved around recycling and reusing materials and equipment. “The process of fixing up the house has been within the rhythm of our limitations in terms of finance and hands to work. With neoliberalism dominating the urban landscape and old buildings being torn down, it has been a real pleasure to counter this while working in a low economy style,” said Iché.

Builder and decorator Bilal Ismail has been involved in the renovation process from the start. “We’ve known this house all our lives. It’s good to see it used again, to see people working with their hands to fix it up.”

The materials needed have been accumulated over time, some from other art projects. Books for the library were found in other abandoned houses, and furniture was donated by an elderly woman whose house was declared unfit to live in. The whole life of the project breathes of rejuvenating the wealth of abandoned treasures constantly found in the city.

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