BEIRUT — Habib Debs, an architect and urban planner who helped preserve much of the architectural and landscape heritage in Lebanon and the region, passed away Friday. He was 64.
Debs may be best remembered for his collaboration with architect Mona Hallak in preventing the demolition of the war-torn Barakat building, a landmark piece of historic architecture in Beirut’s Nasra (Sodeco) neighborhood. Their efforts facilitated the renovation of the building and its being retooled as a cultural space, today known as Beit Beirut.
Debs was born in 1958 in Beirut’s Gemmayzeh neighborhood, where his family still resides today. He studied civil engineering at the American University of Beirut, graduating in 1981, later earning a degree in architecture from Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (Alba) in 1984, followed by a master's degree in urban planning from Paris’ Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussees in 1986.
After returning to Lebanon, he founded Habib Debs Architectes Urbanistes (URBI) in 1991. URBI developed several architectural, planning, and design projects for public and private development projects.
With Habib Debs, Beirut lost its best citizen. With a strike of pen, he made public beaches, large parks, green paths, history and life attainable. He could always show how, never asked for anything in return. This incredible talent and deep humanity will keep him alive for long. pic.twitter.com/qR45UjuyeN— Mona Fawaz (@mona_fawaz) February 11, 2023
Hallak told L’Orient Today that Debs “was one of the people who supported Beit Beirut since the early days in 1997. He was on the scientific committee that followed up the work with the municipalities of Paris and Beirut, and he was definitely one of the people who were influential in many of the decisions that were taken.
“Habib was a friend,” she added, “but he was also a fierce fighter for heritage buildings. In every meeting with authorities, since 1995, he was there ... His death is a great loss. It came too soon.”
The fight for the Liaison Douce green walkway
Among Debs’ most notable initiatives was the Liaison Douce (Green Spine) that he worked tirelessly to implement.
The idea arose when the Council of Development and Reconstruction was planning to implement a long-stalled highway through the heart of Achrafieh. This triggered outrage and protests among residents and concerned citizens who launched the “stop the highway” campaign.
With a group of activists, Debs worked tirelessly to prevent the implementation of the highway development. One of those activists was Antoine Atallah. He told L’Orient Today that when the highway project was first proposed, he contacted his former professors at AUB to try to help him stop this project. “They included [Debs] in the mailing list that they issued. Debs was active very quickly.”
Debs’ counterproposal to the highway was a promenade, running from Avenue Charles Malek to Mar Mikhael.
“He contributed to the idea of Fouad Boutros Park,” a green axis to be built over the proposed highway’s footprint. He was also involved in the [ensuing] EIA, Environmental Impact study. He was [pointing out] how useless and detrimental this highway was.”
Hallak said that Liaison Douce was Habib’s reason d’être. “He took it all the way to the municipality, to the Court of Audits [responsible for compensating expropriated property owners]. But he really followed up with it himself personally, going back and forth for years with the municipality’s endless administrative details. He didn’t give up on his project because it was a dream for all of us. I would have loved him to be there when it happens. I hope it does, because it’ll change the city and it’ll give us one of those rare humane spaces.”
Urbanism and educational works
Aside from his day-to-day work, Debs taught classes at the American University of Beirut and Alba, as well as Lebanese University.
Howyada Al-Harithy, Director of AUB’s School of Architecture and Design, spoke highly of Debs, whom she first met in the 1990s.
In the aftermath of the 2006 July War, Debs and Al-Harithy worked tirelessly to preserve the architectural heritage of many of the destroyed villages in the south away from mass development in the area. Many of these efforts were discussed in a chapter he authored in Al-Harithy’s edited volume Lessons in Post-War Reconstruction.
“He was dedicated and constantly volunteering to protect Beirut’s post-Civil War heritage. Over the years, I got to collaborate with Habib. We taught Reconstruction Studio [a class on Lebanon’s reconstruction after the 2006 war]. The last project we collaborated on was the UNESCO project identifying modern heritage in the areas impacted by the August 2020 blast.”
“As a person, he is the most generous, the most kind, and giving person I've known,” Al-Harithy recalled. “As a colleague, he was super dedicated. As a teacher, he gave so much of his time and effort to the students. He was a planner who held the highest ethical standards, planning cities, networks of open space and heritage neighborhoods with the utmost awareness of social justice and inclusivity. He was a brilliant, brilliant human being and he will be dearly missed.”
Debs worked on many national and regional planning and architecture projects, including those in Tripoli, Beirut, Jezzine, Sour, Damascus, Jeddah and Paris. He also helped design extensions of Lycee Achrafieh, and College Protestant alongside Jad Tabet, the former head of the Order of Engineers.
“He was my friend,” Tabet recalled, “and my younger brother.”
A loss deeply felt
“This is truly a tremendous and heartbreaking loss,” Debs’ Liaison Douce collaborator Cynthia Bou Aoun told L’Orient Today. “He was a wonderful person with big dreams and a big heart.”
“For us young architects and planners who had the chance to work with him,” she added, “Habib became our reference. He touched the lives of everyone he worked with, leaving a lasting impact on all who knew him. He will always be remembered for his unwavering dedication and passion that will continue to inspire us.”
Many took to social media to mourn Debs’ loss. Serge Yagizi, an Urban Planner and professor at ALBA and AUB, wrote: “He set the standards very high for all of us in terms of skills, methodologies and approaches, in what was actually layering the new foundations of our practice in Lebanon as well as the area.
“His numerous plans and proposals to protect Beirut’s coast, organize its mobility, valorize its public and green spaces, his Master Plans for rural areas, industrial strategies at national scale became references for many of us.”
Beirut and Lebanon lost one of its most genuine and visionary urbanists yesterday: Habib Debs is gone, leaving behind a fantastic legacy of urban projects that made his colleagues and students able to imagine a different urbanity, and that lives on through them.— Mona Harb (@mona_harb_) February 11, 2023
Harithy too mourned Debs’ loss saying, “Habib Debs stands out as a planner in our region. He put into practice a lot of the principles and values we uphold and theorize in the urban discourse. His projects are culturally grounded, ecologically sustainable and socially just and inclusive.”
Politically, Debs helped co-found Citizens in a State alongside Charbel Nahas.
رحل المحارب الهادئ، أبكر، لكن مخطئ من يظن أنه ذهب متعبًا.— مواطنون ومواطنات في دولة (@mmfidawla) February 11, 2023
سوف نفتقدك يا رفيق، يا حبيب، فعلى هذه الأرض، ولهذه الأرض التي من أجلها ضحيت، درب النضال طويل.
الكثير الكثير ما زال يحتاج معرفتك وشغفك وحبك للحياة.
الرفيق حبيب دبس pic.twitter.com/7N8WmBYRNd
He is survived by his wife Isabel, and his children Maya and Sari.