From: Michel Ecochard (1905-1985)
To: Dr. Bilal Hamad, President of Beirut Municipality
Dear Dr. Hamad:
It is said that people die twice, once when their bodies are buried, and another time when their names are no longer mentioned. I write, almost thirty years after my first death, to demand the right for my second.
Every time an urban crime is committed against your city, my name is evoked as an authority that should not be questioned. When the building code requires that you set buildings back from the streets, and you destroy the continuity of the street, you say, it was Ecochard’s idea. Truly, I was behind the idea of allowing the breezes to flow between buildings and into the streets, but that was not to be done at the expense of the livelihood of the streets or to use these setback areas for parking. Look at how well these ideas were implemented in Damascus and how well the Abou Remmaneh neighborhood has aged.
I did submit a plan for Beirut in the early 1960s that included many of the highways you are planning to build today, but remember my plan was in part to protect the historic city (now also destroyed) and to create a modern city next to it as a way to absorb the growth and to avoid congestion. Certain parts of the old city had to be sacrificed but these were at that time understood to be replaceable. This was one of the mistakes of my generation. Admittedly, my generation and I made many mistakes.
For one, no historic building is replaceable. When you destroy a building, it is gone. When a society decides that it values a part of its heritage then you should respectfully accept these values, debate them if necessary, but not destroy them. And don’t let the architects hide their complicity in these crimes by covering up new buildings with historical facades that resemble the old ones. This is worse than the crime itself.
When it comes to building and not plans, my legacy in the region has fared much better. The restoration of the Azem Palace in Damascus, and the modern addition to the palace, prove that preservation and modernization are not incompatible. The College Protestant building in Beirut also shows that modern architecture can integrate well with its urban environment. By now, many cities around the world have reconciled their desire to protect their heritage with the need for modernization and the pressures of development. There are solutions out there that have proven to work. You have no excuses.
And then there were other mistakes. I thought that as an urban planner, I had all the answers to the problems of the city. I thought urbanism was a science and that science had better answers than a democratic process.
I also trusted the transportation engineers a bit too much when deciding how the city should be planned. Today, I would consider quality of movement to be far more important than quantity. Quantity of roads is what is creating the traffic.
I also made the mistake of not working hard enough to dissociate my name from this infamous master plan. Such stains are hard to remove and Beirut may very well have denied me the right to a second death. I am ready to take the blame and to live (or die) with infamy forever if you listen to your citizens, protect the old houses of Mar Mikhael and stop this by-now-ridiculously-obsolete bridge project. You know better. Beirut, or whatever is left of it, deserves better.
Hashim Sarkis, May 13, 2013