Disegno #24

Life After Niemeyer


14 January 2020

The wild reeds surrounding the fair’s canopy are overgrown. The ceilings are crumbling and the floor is covered in rubble. Creeping stains on the bare concrete surface reveal its decay. A strong coastal wind sweeps through the unwalled building. The grounds beyond the canopy, facing the city, are punctuated by a series of low concrete structures: a dome, a thin arch, a star-shaped cone, a pavilion with pointed arches, and a circular landing pad that appears to be floating.

The Tripoli fair, or more officially, the Rachid Karami International Fair, was designed as a permanent expo site by Oscar Niemeyer in the 1960s. Today, it stands as a reminder of how Lebanon embraced international modernism, and of what many view as the country’s golden age before its descent into civil war. But it is also a symbol of national failings. Since construction halted with the start of the war in the 1970s, the space has never been revived. The Syrian army, which occupied parts of Lebanon during the conflict, used it as a base. Since their departure in the 1990s, plans to resume development have stalled due to Tripoli’s political and economic instability. “Most people remember it as a base for the Syrian occupation,” says Wassim Naghi, a Tripoli-based architect and a leading campaigner for the fair’s preservation. “It has never lived up to its potential.”

Recently, however, events have signalled the fair’s possible revival. Firstly, in 2018, the site was placed on Unesco’s Tentative List, marking it as a candidate for World Heritage nomination. Secondly, part of the fair’s unbuilt grounds, as well as two of its buildings were leased to the Tripoli Special Economic Zone (TSEZ), an initiative launched in 2008 by the government to attract foreign investment to Lebanon. As part of this, two of the structures, a customs house and the administrative building, are to be rehabilitated.

The TSEZ plans centre around developing the land into a technological and business hub, named the Knowledge and Innovation Centre (KIC), with offices for start-ups and small-to-medium enterprises, as well as educational programmes. The hub would benefit from the fast internet connection provided by the I-ME-WE submarine fibre-optic cable, a communications system between India and France that connected to Tripoli in 2011. Its satellite tower on the coastal edge of the city is visible from the fair. The proposed development of 60,000sqm would include office spaces and a data centre, as well as a car park, service and utility buildings and housing units. It would be divided into two phases, of 35,000sqm and 25,000sqm respectively, with the second phase implemented according to demand.

But such large-scale corporate development risks destroying important modern architectural heritage. Opponents do not have to look far to build their case. They point to the fair’s social-housing unit, modelled on Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, which was converted into a chain hotel in the early 2000s. “We lost a jewel,” says Naghi. Today, this hotel presents one of the main challenges to the fair’s World Heritage application.

In order to ensure that the new development did not damage the site’s integrity, the TSEZ announced it would launch an international tender for proposals in September last year, in collaboration with the Union of International Architects. “The new proposal must optimise the area but also meet our developmental and environmental standards. We hope it can contribute towards reactivating the fair,” says Raya El Hassan, who was the TSEZ’s chair until she was appointed Lebanon’s minister of interior and municipalities in January this year.

For architects, the contest presented the challenge of introducing a new building into an existing cultural heritage site. “The tension between preservation and development was a fundamental question throughout,” says Amale Andraos, who took over from El Hassan as jury chair and is dean of Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Contemporary adaptations of existing heritage buildings, such as David Chipperfield’s restoration of the Neues Museum in Berlin or Bernard Tschumi’s New Acropolis Museum in Athens, are becoming more common. “The future of the field will be how we re-think these historic buildings. This is where we will see the most architectural innovations,” says Andraos.

Such was the popularity of the competition that it attracted 900 registrations from all over the world, and 112 final proposals were submitted. The winning proposal was selected by a jury over two days of deliberation in June 2019 and received a cash prize of $60,000. Second and third prizes were also awarded, and the jury made three special mentions.

The site's open-air theatre.

Tripoli was once a major Levantine port serving cities from Aleppo to Baghdad. It has the largest existing concentration of 14th-century Mamluk buildings and the recent destruction of Aleppo has made it the biggest living medieval city in the Middle East. But when the borders of Lebanon were drawn by the French colonial powers following the end of the First World War, the city was cut off. Under French mandate, Beirut was named the new nation’s capital and Tripoli fell into decline. In the decades after Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990), the city suffered from a local conflict between two warring suburbs, which was compounded by the fallout from the war in neighbouring Syria. Today, the densely populated city of more than 400,000 people suffers from 9 per cent unemployment and accommodates more than 64,000 Syrian refugees. “Tripoli does not have the infrastructure to host an international fair,” says Naghi. “Until recently, the security situation was a deterrent and the city received no economic or political support from Beirut.”

Today, plans to revive the city as a regional hub are under way. The port has been reactivated and expanded with local and foreign investment – its natural bay is able to attract larger numbers and sizes of ships than Beirut, which has become congested. The city is being prepped as a logistics hub that may contribute to the reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Syria. “Nonetheless, serious issues around poverty and unemployment remain,” cautions El Hassan. While local investment has been the TSEZ’s main source of funding, many hope that the zone will attract more foreign investment once it is operational.

The Tripoli fair was designed as a permanent expo site that would attract in excess of two million visitors a year. It was commissioned by then-president Fouad Chehab as part of a policy that promoted a better balance of development between Beirut and the rest of the country. This was Niemeyer’s first project outside the Americas. He was in his fifties and had just finished working on the planned city of Brasília. He travelled twice to Tripoli, spending a month on his first visit.

Niemeyer envisioned a 717m-long, boomerang-shaped canopy for the exhibition presentations, as opposed to the independent pavilions that were popular at the time. “Architecture would be simpler, disciplined,” wrote Niemeyer of this decision. This was complemented by a series of smaller structures to “enrich the conjunct”, including a domed experimental theatre, an open-air theatre, a unit for staff housing and a helipad. The fair’s masterplan was modelled on Brasília, but the pavilion featured pointed arches as a nod to regional architecture. A second phase of the design, which was never built, included an extension of the city. “I played on the site as a child while it was still in construction,” says Naghi. “Its geometry was attractive because it had nothing to do with the other buildings.”

As well as Niemeyer’s conceptual innovations, the fair’s engineering and construction presented important breakthroughs for the time. “The curved structures were built on the principle of thin plates and shells,” explains Nazih Taleb, the site’s original design consultant who worked with Niemeyer. “The plates at the top of the dome are mere centimetres in thickness.” Through his consultancy Dar Al Handasah Nazih Taleb & Partners, Taleb was behind key urban development projects in the Middle East, including the expansion of Saudi Arabia’s highway network to Mecca. Now in his late eighties, Taleb keeps a photo of the dome in construction on the wall ofhis office in Beirut, and continues to read mathematical papers relating to thin plates and shells.

Ambitious as it was, the project took a toll on its surroundings. The construction contributed, in part, to the loss of an important aspect of Tripoli’s identity: its fragrant orange blossom. Part of the fair was built on the orange orchards and banana plantations that once surrounded the city. Niemeyer acknowledged this by including an almond-shape opening in the grand canopy, which echoes the form of an orange leaf. Recently, the city of Tripoli replanted orange trees along the streets in an attempt to restore this heritage.

The fair’s decline is tangible in all of its 15 existing structures. For example, Niemeyer designed a space exploration museum beneath the helipad, which could have been among the first of its kind in the world. But until recently, the underground exhibition room was used to store plastic chairs, which were melted in a fire around a decade ago; the debris was only cleared last year.

Lebanon has no rules protecting modern architecture, which, in part, has driven the Unesco application. The Getty Conservation Institute has also begun work on a conservation management plan for the site. But with the concept of a permanent international fair now obsolete, the question of how best to implement conservation through adaptive reuse remains challenging. “The Lebanese government took land from Tripolitans to build an international fair,” explains Naghi. “Those contracts could present legal problems if it were used in another way.” The KIC may offer a solution, but campaigners are adamant about maintaining a variety of uses on the site. “I hope it will be one of many projects that will help reactivate the fair,” said jury member Farès el-Dahdah of Rice University, who is also on the board of the Fundação Oscar Niemeyer. In addition, there is the question of how the fair can contribute to Tripoli. Last year, Minjara, an EU-funded workspace for Tripoli’s carpenters, launched in the fair’s former guesthouse. Minjara held its first furniture fair in early July. But public access to the site is presently restricted by a protective wall that surrounds the grounds.

Thus the complex’s uncertain future is due partly to the fact that it oscillates between two concepts. As an international fair, it was built with the universalising, context-less philosophy of international modernism. Its potential as a World Heritage site also implies a global, public ownership. Yet it is a space that is deeply connected to the city of Tripoli and its political struggles.

The Lebanon pavilion.

These challenges and questions formed part of the jury deliberations for the KIC’s architectural competition. I arrived to observe on the second morning. The jury of seven architects and heritage specialists, all independent from the TSEZ, included representatives from Unesco, the Fundaçaõ Oscar Niemeyer, the Union of International Architects, and two architectural and engineering industry bodies for Tripoli and Lebanon. The TSEZ’s collaboration with the UIA was intended to ensure the selection process remained transparent. However, I was asked not to quote from the deliberations and additional interviews with the jury were conducted afterwards. The final entries were kept anonymous to avoid bias.

The challenge was to maintain Niemeyer’s original language while coming up with an architectural expression for the new development. “The fair is subtly organised according to distinct sectors, with clear fronts and backs,” explains el-Dahdah. “It was important to make sure that the proposed projects did not alter the integrity of this spatial grammar.” This parameter included keeping the fair’s different buildings visible from beneath the canopy and respecting the proportions of the existing structures.

These considerations gave the jury clear criteria. “One alternative was to go underground, another was to occupy the periphery in what could become a buffer zone between the fair and the city, and yet another alternative was to reject the given programme and occupy an area elsewhere on the site that could easily accommodate the required square footage,” says el-Dahdah. The competition also considered the rehabilitation of the customs house and administrative office under the proposed lease. The two buildings are low-ceilinged, curved bungalows that have been severely damaged by decades of neglect.

Niemeyer's experimental theatre.

At times, the temptation to uncover the proposals’ authors was almost overwhelming. One practice created a masterplan for an international fair located in Tripoli, the capital of Libya (spelt “Lybia” in the concept note). It included a monument for “Wars, Martyrs and Heroes”, alongside a “Piazza of the Flags” and an adjacent “Kiosk for Sodas, Coffee and Popcorns etc…”. Other renders appeared to have the Emirates in mind. One of these showed a man walking through a lively retail space in a white dishdasha (robe) and keffiyeh (cotton headscarf), the traditional clothing of Gulf countries. Other slightly more informed proposals drew on pastiches of Lebanese cultural history. One included two oval-shaped towers resembling pine cones, in reference to the native stone pine tree. Another recalled the shape of a phoenix, the mythical bird from which the ancient Phoenicians of Lebanon derived their name.

The winning proposal was an underground scheme that featured 10 square office blocks with central courtyards, two storeys in depth, allowing natural light to penetrate the floors below. It was created by MDDM, a Beirut-based practice that has designed corporate and residential buildings, as well as landscape architecture, in Lebanon, and projects in Ghana and Saudi Arabia.

The two existing buildings will be revamped with minimal intervention. “We’ll use thin transparent glass panels that reveal the concrete and the ceilings, while also giving continued visibility to the other structures,” says MDDM’s co-founder Imad Aoun. MDDM also proposes turning a portion of the two buildings into spaces for wider public use: the customs house will serve as a lecture hall and meeting room, and the administrative building will include retail spaces. “We will try to use concrete and steel as much as possible, which we believe can be done within the existing budget,” says Aoun.

The aim of the subterranean scheme was to minimise the visibility of the intervention. On the surface, the scheme will present six long rows of concrete surrounded by gardens. “We wanted to keep Niemeyer’s project intact and develop the KIC as a landscape,” says Aoun. “We did not need another icon at the fair,” says jury member Jad Tabet, head of the Lebanese Federation of Engineers and Architects. “Niemeyer is the icon.” The second prize was awarded to Beirut-based practice Dagher Hanna & Partners, which put forward another underground scheme. Dubbed, as a nod to Le Corbusier, “The Subterranean City”, it borrows elements from Niemeyer’s structures: the orange leaf-shaped slit is repeated on a shading panel above the main corridor.

But while such schemes protect the fair from any intrusive interventions, they raise other questions. “It’s an invisible architecture that suggests that nothing new can be built alongside Niemeyer’s work,” says Naghi. Such concerns were echoed by the jury. “Entering into dialogue with Niemeyer was difficult. It was easier to erase, to make it invisible,” says Andraos.

I couldn’t help but wonder what the construction engineers might find when they dig beneath the site. Tripoli’s first settlements are 3,400 years old. The ruins of an ancient city were unearthed during the reconstruction of the nearby Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, which had been destroyed after a month-long war in 2007 between the Lebanese army and an armed Islamist group. The discovery lead to delays and serious divisions. In the case of the Tripoli fair, questions around the value of modern and ancient heritage would be seriously tested.

Arquivos Architects, a Madrid-based practice, was awarded third prize for its proposal to rehabilitate the existing buildings with glass walls and timber frames. This allowed for panoramic views of both ends of the fair, while adding lightness and warmth to the cold, concrete structure. “It evoked Mies van der Rohe,” says Tabet. “It showed us how both of these giants could co-exist in one building.”

However, the jury also advised on changes to the KIC plans. The “60,000sqm requirements of the competition would impose an excessive densification of the proposed area,” said the jury statement, advising that the second phase be re-examined. As such, one of the three special mentions was awarded to the Beirut-based practice Unit 44, which envisaged building the KIC within the grand canopy, although it had not been leased to the TSEZ.

A week later, the results of the competition were announced at a special televised ceremony held in the very same structure. The competition’s international jury had flown back home, leaving behind only their decision and a promotional teaser video. All entries were printed and on display along white plastic panels, and crowds and cameras huddled in front of the one showing the winner, the second and third prizes and special mentions. As it was when Niemeyer last visited, the fair was once again in the hands of politicians, Tripoli’s civil society and the local media.

The event drew more than 500 people to the fair’s grounds. In the guesthouse nearby, the Minjaraproject held its first exhibition of local woodwork and other crafts from Tripoli. The combined activity of the event and the furniture fair gave a glimpse of what could be achieved should the entire fair eventually be brought into use. The speeches gave a sense of a city on the cusp of change – a place with tremendous geographic potential that is often stymied by its political and economic struggles.

The competition succeeded in gaining support for a large-scale intervention that could potentially revive the Tripoli fair. “There was agreement all around, from the jury, the city and the TSEZ,” says Andraos. Nevertheless, it also highlights the challenges of preserving modern iconic buildings. Namely, how to reconcile the contextual spaces that such sites inhabit; and how to enter into contemporary dialogue with revered modern architects. While an underground architectural scheme may protect Tripoli’s fair’s integrity, it also suggests that architectural history ends with Niemeyer.