Beirut expanded during the second half of the 19th century and became one of the most prosperous cities of the declining Ottoman Empire. The “Lebanese house” was invented during this period. The Lebanese house is a world of sunshine and light, of color both subtle and vivid, of simplicity of form and elegance of proportions.
Walking through Beirut is a fascinating experience. Lebanon’s history has shaped the Mediterranean capital into a peculiar mixture of war-torn houses, skyscrapers and old traditional architecture. The oldest remaining houses in Beirut were constructed beginning in the 19th century, in a unique style combining Venetian (and other Mediterranean), Ottoman and Islamic architectural influences.
Many wealthy families added floors or rooms to their homes during the 1923-1946 French Mandate. As a result, many of Beirut’s oldest homes are a mix of architectural styles, as well as building techniques. In a country devastated by sectarianism, the house symbolizes unity since its style was used among all communities in Lebanon.
The relationship of architecture to nature is the central force in the design of any Lebanese house. A moderate climate allowed the Lebanese to enjoy the outside for more than six months a year. From most locations, dramatic landscapes provided exciting and inspiring views. Thus was born an architecture that was open to the outside, embracing the landscape, capturing the cool breeze in summer and the warm sun in winter. This openness was achieved through a variety of architectural means. A simple window or an elaborate gallery depending on the wealth of the owner opened up the house. In the grand houses of the region, courts surrounded by graceful arcades opened to the side of the valley forming a platform for the enjoyment of the dramatic landscape. In more modest houses, an elegant mandaloon window framed the view and brought light and color to the heart of the house.
The houses generally have at least three things in common: red roof tiles, very high ceilings, interior arcades and three pointed arches in the street-facing wall of a large central room. The style developed as a direct response to the Lebanese environment and society. High ceilings were born from the need for cool rooms during Lebanon’s hot summers, and the central hall was convenient for extended families living together in the same house. The large arched windows evolved to take advantage of the sweeping views of Lebanon’s hilly coastline.
The triple arch has a central door with a window on each side and a small balcony outside it. The orientation of the main space towards the valley and hence the breeze, the high ceilings and the placement of windows and doors ensured excellent cross ventilation, creating a comfortable cool environment even in the midst of summer.
The red tiled roof, probably an Italian import, appeared in the nineteenth century. Never used as a living space, the roof has no windows nor chimneystacks. Known locally as the Tarboush or fez of the house, the red roof was a source of pride for its owners.
“Your house is your larger body (nature, the forest, the world of freedom). It grows in the sun and sleeps in the stillness of the night; and it is not dreamless. Does not your house dream? And dreaming, leave the city for grove or hilltop?” Khalil Gebran