A qualified architect but photographer by profession, Dia Mrad has taken on a career animating Beirut’s old buildings. Using photography as a medium, Dia narrates an often overlooked aspect of Lebanon’s history through his photography, immortalizing Beirut’s heritage and putting its rich culture on display.
Following his high school graduation, the Ras Baalbek native was unsure of the path he wanted to pursue in college, which prompted him to take a year off. During that time, Dia’s family moved houses, which led to his eventual inspiration to pursue a degree in architecture.
“I remember myself standing on our new house’s balcony, which faced an industrial building with trees and foliage coming out of it. I proceeded to take a picture of this view with my phone, a Nokia at the time, and thought that the scenery was nice. Then, it dawned on me—why don’t I design buildings that look nice?”
He saw architecture as an intersection between engineering, a profession his parents encouraged him to go after, and his own artistic creativity. Dia attended L’Universite Saint Esprit de Kaslik (USEK) and describes their architecture program as being “heavily focused on the traditional architecture of Lebanon.” The program thus offered courses that tied architecture to Lebanese heritage, all whilst focusing on urban analysis. It was actually during one of his university projects that Dia discovered his current passion and love for Beirut, specifically Gemmayze.
Following his graduation, the demand for architects was low, prompting Dia to take on various, odd jobs. He started working on interior designing projects, followed by a five-month stint with a floral design company, which allowed him to use some of his architectural skills in events across the Middle East. Realizing that this was not his calling, Dia eventually moved out of Beirut to Aley for two years with his partner at the time. There, he found solace in gardening and photography.
It was only upon Dia’s return from a family trip across Europe that he got a glimpse of what would soon become his true calling. During his travels, Dia realized how unique Beirut’s architecture was compared to what he saw in Paris and Rome. Though the architecture in European cities consisted of ancient historical details and styles, they did not quite compare to the architectural qualities of Levantine buildings. A quality he found especially unique to Lebanon is the use of the three arches, a feature that serves both functional and aesthetic purposes.
Credits: “Alb”, “Sayegh I”, and “Swatch” from “Faces of Beirut” (2019) Photos courtesy of Dia Mrad
“My love of the three arches started when I was a student and we were being taught the importance of this feature in traditional Lebanese architecture. Prior to being a mostly aesthetic characteristic of Lebanese homes, the three arches served the purpose of bringing in as much light as possible inside. Their placement and size depended on the floor plan and the air circulation. The three arches also adapted to the changes and development in architecture and construction, becoming immortalized in Lebanese structures. They are emblematic: they are like the cedar of Lebanese architecture.”
Motivated by his newfound passion for Beirut’s architecture, Dia began photographing its buildings and structures, and posting them to his personal Instagram page. This hobby eventually landed him a job with a real estate company which he considers to be his “first real job.” As part of his role, Dia photographed interiors of new buildings in Beirut, most of which happened to overlook and hide ancient traditional architecture.
“This is part of why my photos on Instagram are special. People had seen the buildings, but not from this particular angle. Beirut has many houses that are hidden by trees or can only properly be seen in all their beauty from inner courtyards that they share with three other towers. So I tried to benefit from the special access I had with my job to take in the hidden beauties of Beirut.”
Attributing his current style of photography to his education and the use of 3D software in architectural design, Dia meticulously weaves in both concepts of symmetry and good lighting into his work. His determination to find the perfect angle and his attentiveness for the optimal shots under the various shades of the Beirut sun has had many thinking that he uses drone photography and alters his photos. He is opposed to this as he aims to maintain a sense of authenticity in his pictures. His passion for traditional Beiruti architecture has led him to see buildings in a very personal light, just as one may see people.
“I actually do portraits of buildings much like you do portraits of people. I see the buildings change during the day, depending on the lighting, and take 10 different pictures of the same building at 10 different times a day, so I can get the best light. It has always felt personal, as though the buildings are people. You feel like there’s life in them. These structures, they’re a part of our history and losing them means losing that part of history. These buildings have scars from the war and from the reconstruction following the war. They talk, they’re alive.”
While working for the real estate company, Dia began sensing the imminent danger Lebanese architecture in Beirut was facing as a result of backhanded (bordering illegal) processes to tear down old buildings and replace them with new ones. To be classified as protected heritage sites, the Ministry of Culture requires buildings to be over 100 years old and possess certain traditional architectural features unique to Lebanon. Many of these buildings’ owners would actively remove such features and bribe government employees to declassify the buildings and thus allow their destruction. This prompted Dia to create a photo archive to keep the buildings alive after their eventual destruction, marking the official beginning of his journey into photography of traditional Lebanese architecture.
On July 28, 2020, Dia had finished documenting most of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael’s buildings, and began working on Sursock Street. Six days later, on August 4, Dia’s biggest fears came true as the port explosion obliterated the streets of Beirut, taking the lives of over 230 people, injuring over 7,000, and indiscriminately damaging and destroying the houses and buildings he had been tirelessly fighting to keep alive. Dia, who was on his way to another project at the time of the blast, was immediately thrown off his Vespa onto the street. Overwhelmed by emotions and distorted by the shock of such a traumatic event, he got back onto his bike after helping injured individuals nearby and sped through the streets of Beirut with tears streaming down his face, snapping pictures of the buildings before it was too late and they were gone for good.
“You know, no one was sure of what was going to happen next, or how the explosion even happened. At one point, we thought that there might be another attack, so I took pictures of Beirut in the fastest way possible and put them all on an SD card. My reasoning behind this was, if a bomb were to explode, the camera might get destroyed but an SD card is is more likely to remain intact. Then, if someone were to find this amongst the rubble in the aftermath, they would have evidence of what was.”
By August 5, a mere day after the blast, Dia finished his second round of photos of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael, and decided to head to Sursock Street, as he had originally planned prior to August 4. That is where his series, “The Morning After” was born. This emotional photo series captured the destruction of historical and once lively buildings, reduced to chaos and dust following the port explosion.
Credits: “Dunes of Beirut” from “The Silos Series” (2021) Photo courtesy of Dia Mrad
All in all and despite the tragedies that Dia, like many other Lebanese people, has faced, he still holds inspiring hope and love for Lebanon, clearly shown through his work. Followers on Dia’s Instagram page can join him on daily or weekly strolls through different parts of Beirut with lively content showcasing all things concerning the capital’s buildings and their historical significance. They can also learn more about the various initiatives Dia has taken part in relation to the restoration of structures in Beirut.
“Architecture represents many things. It represents the home in which we maintain family connections. It fosters a sense of community, the sense of belonging to a place, to a people, to a history. It is not just representative of buildings where people live, it’s also the social fabric. These houses have been passed down for several generations. Imagine how many people stood on the balconies of these houses, from one generation to the other, talking to each other as neighbors do. This architecture, these buildings, they’re full of memories and social connections. And I want to protect them for as long as I can, for future generations to make the same connections their ancestors did.”
Dia regards the maintenance of Lebanon’s architecture, which he calls a “national treasure,” as a form of preservation of our rich heritage. Each photograph captures a building’s unique architecture, and narrates the untold stories of the families that lived there, and the social and political events that occured at the time. By photographing Beirut’s buildings, Dia documents a part of Lebanon’s history and fights to keep it alive against all odds. Amidst Lebanon’s various crises, we often tend to forget about the less immediates needs of maintaining the country’s culture and heritage. Artists like Dia remind us of what is at stake and why we should care. The heritage we have in Lebanon is far too precious for us to allow it to slowly get destroyed, and we must protect it.
Michelle is a consultant and researcher. Her research focuses on matters concerning socio-economic rights and development in the MENA region, such as the right to health, food sovereignty, agriculture and more. She received her masters’ degree from Sciences Po, Paris in international affairs, with a concentration on human rights and humanitarian law.