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The history of RestART Beirut

Beirut has an immensely rich and diverse cultural heritage built over 5,000 years of History. Its tangible and intangible heritage was passed on from generation to generation and is expressed in Beirut’s historic urban core.

The 4th of August 2020 port of Beirut explosion in the heart of its historic neighbourhood took many innocent lives, left thousands of people in a precarious situation and damaged Beirut’s precious architectural heritage. Maintaining the authenticity of Beirut’s heritage, by raising awareness, can help transform societal challenges into positive outcomes and increase cohesion and general wellbeing. Cultural heritage rehabilitation is a major contributor to social cohesion, civic spirit and an efficient way of bringing communities together. The societal and economic benefits of cultural heritage rehabilitation are seen as innovative stimulants for economic growth, employment and education and are linked to a wide range of traditional and innovative industries and impact both the local and national economy.

After the 4th of August tragic event, innovative financing and new form of governance have emerged, among them public-private partnerships, crowd-sourced funding projects and many other forward-looking and creative approaches to harness the locked-up potential of Beirut’s heritage and local talents.

RestART Beirut has been created with the aim of reviving and harnessing the the socio-economic benefits of Lebanon’s cultural heritage, by supporting the rehabilitation of Beirut’s collections and with its flagship project: the Sursock Palace collections and its opening to the public. This Palace and future artistic residency, from which cultural awareness will radiate throughout Beirut, aims to become a driver for economic and social development in the city. The project will reinforce the role of heritage as part of Beirut’s underlying socio-economic fabric by generating growth, creating employment, increasing community cohesion and involvement.

RestART Beirut wishes to contribute to this dynamic in its many dimensions:

  • Education, with heritage awareness, the transmission of know-how in work-schools, and the dissemination of architectural and artistic culture to a young public.
  • the local economy, with the revitalisation of a network of Lebanese artists and craftsmen, and even the creation of new permanent jobs in this sector (mainly for young apprentices) between traditional gestures and innovative practices.
  • Internationally, to the extent of numerous transnational cooperations that will have to be established between institutions, universities, private companies or even individuals from the Lebanese diaspora and beyond.
 Swiss experts are assessing the extent of the damage. (October 2021)

Behind this initiative…

RestART has a multicultural founding committee of 6 people: Joseph El Hayek, Didier Goossens, Laurent Lise-Cabasset, Marie Eve Didier, Alexandru Dramu, Pierre-Henri Ollier.

In order to carry out its day-to-day activities, an operational committee has been set up, currently composed of Marie Eve Didier, Patrick Michel and Didier Goossens.

“We are convinced that in times of crisis culture is often left out of humanitarian aid efforts, but culture is the soul of communities everywhere, the backbone of social cohesion, the guardian of shared values that enable collective action and recovery. – RestART Beirut

Our mission

When thinking about Beirut, what springs to mind is the extraordinary resilience of its inhabitants, who have always been able to recover from the multiple dramatic events which have marked the long history of the country. It is this strength of character and this energy that RestART Beirut wishes to showcase in its projects, whose main purpose is not only restoring the past but also stimulating the artistic life of Beirut in the near future.

Our mission is to sustainably protect the invaluable cultural heritage of Beirut, to harness it as a vector to ensure socio-economic benefits for the country and stimulate the artistic future of Beirut through cultural exchange and education.

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RestART Beirut project

Back on the beginnings of RestART Beirut, Marie Eve Didier explains why it is crucial to have ambitious goals, and confides that the whole project around RestART Beirut is much more than philanthropy for the benefit of Lebanese cultural heritage.

ResART Beirut Conference


It was a year rich in lessons, because launching such an organisation is not easy, especially in this difficult general context. I am not only talking about the exceptional situation in Lebanon. But also about the particular health and economic context in which we evolved in Europe.

It is important to remember that we started with a blank sheet of paper, with all the advantages and disadvantages that this can have. The first few months were mainly spent contacting potential partners and explaining what we wanted to do with RestART Beirut. Building a relationship of trust was paramount. We are a young organisation, but above all we are highly motivated by the desire to help this beautiful country of Lebanon.


RestART Beirut is a fund under the aegis of the King Baudouin Foundation. Our mission is to protect Beirut’s cultural heritage in the long term. Ultimately, it will be used as a socio-economic vector for the country. Our role is also to stimulate the artistic future of Beirut through cultural exchange and education in the field of cultural heritage conservation. Being under the umbrella of the King Baudouin Foundation (KBF) is very important, as it means that all financial flows to RestART Beirut are controlled and audited by the KBF. This is an essential element for our donors and potential patrons.

We are also the first organisation active in the field of cultural heritage that has obtained the high patronage of Europa Nostra, with its activities outside Europe. These two elements demonstrate the seriousness of RestART Beirut. And I am delighted that in less than 12 months we have managed to get these endorsements.


But the situation and the challenges require ambitious goals. And despite the ambition, I believe that the path we are taking is totally realistic and pragmatic. Our pilot project around the Sursock Palace is a long-term project. Two approaches could be taken:

  • Wanting to anticipate everything and plan the whole restoration and transformation upstream and making sure to find all the funds before even starting the first actions.
  • Adopting a policy of small steps that allows us to move forward continuously.

It is this second approach that we have chosen.


We work in small missions, identify the needs and the partners to carry out these missions and then seek to find the funds, either by appealing for donations or by setting up collaborations. The recent mission with Swiss experts from SUPSI (the Swiss University of Applied Sciences and Arts) is the best example. We first focused on the decorative surfaces, identified the experts and then contacted the Swiss embassy in Lebanon, and finally jointly completed the project.

This is a first step that will closely involve experts, craftsmen and students in Lebanon to carry out the whole restoration of these decorative surfaces. During the week that the Swiss experts were in Beirut, we introduced them to a large number of people. They got to know the Lebanese ecosystem with the aim of building together academic exchanges to allow the perpetuation of this knowledge exchange.

…we want to play a key role in building long-term collaborations, to be a discussion and reflection partner…


This model, in its first application, has proved to be effective and relevant. It therefore seems logical to continue along this path. However, we need to clarify our actions : They all follow at least one of the following three axes :

  • Support education with international and local academic exchanges in the field of conservation, art and cultural heritage
  • Create and support workshops for the restoration and conservation of cultural heritage
  • Create a long-term socio-economic impact.

To take the example of the first Swiss mission, in the medium term, two of the three points mentioned above will be covered. The socio-economic impact is harder to predict, but it can be assumed that if we manage to complete the transformation of the Palace into a museum accessible to the public, this point will also have been covered.


It is clear that fundraising is an important element. We want to play a key role in the development of long-term collaborations. We want to be a discussion and reflection partner. And we wanted to provide support to the owners of the Sursock Palace, to create their own foundation. This foundation should be the bearer of the project of its restoration and its transformation into a cultural centre. The latter will include a private museum open to the public. RestART Beirut will accompany the start of the cultural centre, helping in particular with the implementation of the museum strategy.

Our role therefore goes beyond simple fundraising without spreading ourselves too thin.

Beyond these aspects, our initiative is also incredibly enriching for us. Indeed, we have so much to learn from the cultural richness and history of Lebanon, its people, and all the actors who fight for their beautiful country on a daily basis. It motivates us to carry out our task, and clearly, it is much more than a fundraising activity. It is a project that is very close to our hearts.

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Towards the restoration of the Sursock Palace

Giacinta Jean, Giulia Russo and Giovanni Nicoli are three experts in conservation and restoration of decorative surfaces. They came to the Sursock Palace to assess the extent of the restorations of the decorative surfaces.

Swiss experts from the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI) travelled to Beirut at the end of September 2021.

In this interview, Professor Giacinta Jean talks about the mission, the emotions felt when entering the Palace. She also talks about academic collaborations that, with our support, could lead to a sustainable knowledge transfer and exchange.

Conservation and restoration experts

Conservation and restoration experts


Giacinta Jean: Our aim is to contribute to the restoration of the Sursock Palace. We want to put our skills and knowledge at the service of education and research. These skills will be used for the conservation of architectural surfaces. We hope that our mission in Beirut will be able to provide concrete help to transform an emergency situation into a cultural project. Our hope is to initiate training activities for local professionals, but also to collaborate with those already involved in the recovery of this precious cultural heritage at different levels (architectural, technical, interpretative and curatorial). In September we focused on the analysis of the stucco decorations. These are an important part of the cultural significance of the Sursock Palace.


Giacinta Jean: When we first arrived at Sursock Palace, we felt a sense of inadequacy in the face of such profound devastation. A painful feeling of knowing that it will not be possible to recover this disastrous situation. The building was the precious chest of a whole history. On the other hand, a deep desire to help build a sustainable and meaningful future for this place.


Giacinta Jean: The explosion of August 4, 2020, caused very heavy damage. It also revealed some intrinsic weaknesses in the plaster decoration. The cause is due both to the execution techniques and to previous decay phenomena. Absence of nails or metal bars makes the decorative elements fragile and prone to detachment. The effects of the explosion were particularly severe on the second floor ceilings, as the wooden structure supporting the plaster was already weak and rotten.

In order to be able to carry out the best possible restoration of the Sursock Palace, we are considering forms of collaboration, both in terms of teaching and in a broader sense. This means thinking about the role that the memory of the past can play in shaping the future.


Giacinta Jean: The stucco decorations are handmade and partly composed of prefabricated elements mounted with a layer of plaster. These are the typical plaster decorations that can be found in the large houses of Beirut at the end of the 19th century. The challenge for their preservation is to create the technical and professional skills of the local populations capable of taking on this kind of work. How can this be done? In particular by balancing the issues of conservation and reintegration of missing parts.


Giacinta Jean: During our stay, we were able to establish contacts with universities and professionals involved in the study, conservation and interpretation of cultural heritage. We are considering forms of collaboration both at the pedagogical level (technical and professional training).

We plan to start the project this winter with a workshop for Swiss and Lebanese students. The workshop will focus on emergency and safety measures to secure damaged architectural decorations.

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The Story of the Sursock Palace

Sursock Palace is a grand residence in the city of Beirut in Lebanon. The 160-year-old palace withstood two world wars, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the French mandate and Lebanese independence. However, the terrible double explosion of August 4th 2020, heavily impacted this historical landmark. Here is a brief history of Sursock Palace.

Mixing Venetian and Ottoman styles

Completed in 1860 by Moussa Sursock, the palace is one of the country’s largest residences of the Ottoman era. It lies in Sursock Street, where many grand Sursock villas and palaces were built since the beginning of the 19th century. A century after its construction, the building was listed by the Lebanese Ministry of Culture as a building of historical importance on February 10th 1966 (decree no. 60), thanks to the efforts of the late Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane.

The three-story palace features four towers and triple arcade windows and is surrounded by spacious gardens. It reflects the image of the family who all contributed to the art collections that can be found there. French and Italian 17th-century furniture and tapestries, 18th-century Persian rugs, priceless paintings by Gentileschi and Byzantine glassware found while digging the palace’s foundations are small examples of the collection’s wealth. Mixing Venetian and Ottoman styles, the building is concentrated on one hectare and gathers almost all the Mediterranean flora. This house is a symbol of the rich history of the Sursock family.

2 seconds to undo 2 decades of work

After Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, the late Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane spent twenty years carefully restoring the palace to its former glory. The double explosion of August 4th 2020 destroyed the 19th-century Ottoman wonder, blowing off the terracotta-tiled roof and sending thousands of glass shards from shattered windows slicing through centuries-old artworks. Priceless marble statues crumbled.

Everything in the house has been very badly damaged. Nothing has been left untouched,” Owner Roderick Sursock Cochrane told Al Arabiya English. “Some is salvageable, but many things have been irretrievably damaged.

We need to secure the walls and foundations, realign the stones that have been displaced and put tiles on the roof. It’s a lot of work,” he added. “The most difficult part will be the ceilings, I think, as they’re very intricate.”

The explosion undid two decades of work in seconds, causing more damage than 15 years of war.

Sursock Palace Library before (left) and after (after) August 4th 2020 double explosion.

Injured during the blast, Lady Yvonne, 98, passed away shortly after. She was a beloved advocate for art and heritage, serving as president of Sursock Museum and founder of the Association for the Protection of the Natural Sites and Ancient Buildings (APSAD) in 1960.

”God only knows what will become of this property, surrounded more and more by ignoble towers (…) It is still the only green space in the neighbourhood (…) But it will remain in the memory of those who knew it, the image of an era when civilisation and the art of living were part of everyday life.“

Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane (in Palais Sursock Beirut, Preface to Yvonne Sursock Lady, by Dominique Fernandez, 2010)
Sursock Palace ground floor before (left) and after (right) August 4th 2020 double explosion.

In a letter dated October 2020 to the Lebanese Minister of Culture, the current owners declared their wish to undertake the restoration of the palace and its collections in order to transform the private residence into a museum open to the public. RestART Beirut is providing technical expertise for the entire project and fundraising for its implementation.

The Sursock family

The Sursock family, originally merchants, had acquired land and businesses once they moved to Beirut in the eighteenth century and rose in social circles to the extent that they married into the aristocracy of many European countries. Its headquarters, referred to as Sursock Palace, had served as a reminder of Beirut’s glory days. Housing an impressive collection of Ottoman furniture and European paintings is a treasury of Beirut’s history. The Sursocks are noted for their philanthropy, donating thousands of pieces of artwork to the state as part of the Sursock Museum.

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Restoration of the marble decorations

Among the many damages suffered by the Sursock Palace during the explosion of August 4, some decorative marble elements, which gave this unique refinement to the palace, came loose from the walls and, when they fell, broke down in multiple fragments.Therefore, our spring campaign aimed to repair and replace the 78 damaged elements, i.e. 130 m² of white marble. It was the first step of a more general plan regarding the elements of the decorative surfaces blown away by the explosion (stucco, woodwork, carved ceilings, etc.)

In detail, the weakened marbles still in place were deposited, the old mortars cleaned off the walls and marbles, the broken elements re-glued, and the marbles re-installed on the walls.

The restoration works took one month and mobilised three to four artisans.

Through this action, we could provide work to local artisans and induce a social impact on the local know-how and activities towards preserving Cultural Heritage. It is a first step towards transforming the Sursock Palace into a Cultural Center open to all, and there is way to go. 

June – July 2021