It was home to people from all walks of life. It hosted exhibitions, concerts, panels, film screenings, plays, fashion shows, and even business and political meetings.
It witnessed its 500 or so residents over the years, succeed, fail and change careers. Unfortunately, the space won’t be celebrating its 12th anniversary.
Nestled in Zoqaq al-Blat, to the left of Rue Spears, Mansion closed its doors for good on Friday, Sept. 15, at least for the time being.
Opened to the public end of 2012, this bourgeois two-story villa, with its yellowed and dilapidated facade, is more than just a co-working space and an artists’ residence.
“It’s a living space open to all,” said filmmaker Ghassan Halwani, who bore witness to the early days of Mansion.
More than just a community center
It all began in the late 2010s. Architect Ghassan Maasri was looking for a community space to house cultural activities and events.
He came across the villa, which had been abandoned since the end of the Civil War, and presented his project to its owner, a well-known Beiruti who declined to be named.
The building’s owner bought the villa in 1999, but kept it as is because the cost of renovation was too high.Se
By the second visit, a deal was struck: the owner would hand over the keys of his property to Ghassan Maasri and his partner Sandra Iche, who would begin reparations of the villa and eventually open its doors free of charge.
The first of the Mansions residents were Ziad Bou Assi and Ayman Hassan, two fresh graduates. Halwani joined a few days later. Without knowing one another, the five initial residents, began the refurbishment work of the villa. It marked the beginning of friendship and a new experience.
Mansion "very quickly became a not-for-profit co-working space and a politico-socio-cultural space open to all communities.”
It “took on the color of the people it housed,” said Halwani nostalgically.
Over the years, the place welcomed Arab and foreign artists, as well as architects, farmers and students.
“In 2015, many Syrians in search of themselves and their future took refuge in the villa, while the conflict in Syria was in full swing. During the thawra [the Oct. 17 2019 uprising in Lebanon], the place was teeming with people eager for change,” he recalled.
“It was on our premises that the members of the Order Revolts list, a coalition of several engineering groups formed in the wake of the Oct. 17 movement, decided to launch their campaign for their syndicate’s elections in 2021,” he added.
A living space
On Sept. 14, Mansion’s regulars cleared out the place for an auction. The owner wanted the villa back. Myriam Prado, an activist with the Alliance for Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon, who had staged a play in the villa in 2021, found it hard to conceal her bitterness.
“Mansion is home to our cause. Everyone was welcomed there without racism or prejudice. It’s hard to disassociate oneself from it,” she said.
Accompanied by his son, Syrian artist Majd al-Hamwi was also struggling to pack up after “growing up” here. “Mansion has been a testament to my multiple identities, from music to documentaries and now gardening. It’s a place that looks like me and allows me to live differently. Mansion is more than a place to meet and work, it’s a living space,” he recalled.
Hamwi will relocate to the Mar Mikhael neighborhood. He expressed regret at the lack of public spaces in Lebanon, and the loss of a refuge that housed the dozens of people that lived in the villa.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.