05/01/2022 by Elie Saad and Edmond Mickel Rahme
On 3rd September 1962, Rachid Karami, the Lebanese prime minister, presented an architectural mode
l at a press conference. It was made of cardboard, stitched with various curvilinear shapes and forms, united by a flat surface that joined the two extremities of the drawn plot at the base. Little did the minister know that this project would hold his name in the far future, and that it would take part in the history of modern architecture of the Middle East.
In 1958, under President Camille Chamoun, it was decided to build an International Fair in Beirut in the hope of putting Lebanon on the world map and allowing Lebanon and other Arab countries to showcase their products. In 1960, the Lebanese President Fouad Chehab invited the socialist catholic Father Joseph-Louis Lebret, head of the IRFED (Institut de recherche et de formation en vue du développement) to plan a development strategy for the Lebanese territories. Less than a decade before, Lebanon had barely gotten out of a civil war; it was time to pull the country out of its ashes. Father Lebret’s plan focused on decentralisation. Hence, the Beirut International Fair plans were rearranged in order for it to be built in the city of Tripoli, in northern Lebanon.
The Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer was invited to design the famous project. Accompanied by two other members, he arrived in Lebanon by ship. He stayed in Lebanon for about a month where, after his first visit to the site, he brainstormed his design. The result of this brainstorming was the model presented by Rachid Karami.
The project was agreed upon by the government. However, it was not welcomed by local architects who questioned the choice of a foreign architect. Niemeyer’s critics continued to criticise his “baroque” buildings that broke many principles of Modern Architecture.
Despite the scheduled construction start in 1963, complex issues changed the flow of the planned program. A delay of 5 years saw the preparation of the construction documents as well as trials and battles to expropriate the terrain. Finally, in 1967, machines and laborers started taking over the site in efforts to build the International Fair. The contractors of the construction site were Abouhamad, Dar Al Handasah, and ACE.Construction efforts were progressing slowly to the point where the opening schedule of the fair was postponed twice: once from 1967 to 1969, and once again from 1969 till 1976. The architect visited Lebanon twice more in 1967 and in 1969. In 1970, he addressed the council of the international fare in a letter expressing his satisfaction with the work and his worries about the slow-paced progress.
The Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, which brought the work on the site to a halt. The project stood with its unfinished concrete shells during the war, only to serve as a depot for the Syrian army for over a decade. Only a brief visit from international experts Jemp Michels and Roger Weber in 1982 changed the format of the project to integrate a parking and a secondary entrance. The opening, rescheduled in 1983, was once again thwarted by the continuous military presence.
It was only in 1993 that the government resumed the construction of the fair. Many changes to the initial plans were made without consulting the architect. Further, the fair later welcomed several exhibitions between 1995 and 1998.
Efforts to revitalise the fair were made at the beginning of the second millennium. In 2004, an American-Lebanese company proposed the transformation of the fair into a Disneyland-inspired theme park under the name of Cedar land. Furious activists revolted against the project, which led to its shutdown. In 2006, the former president of the committee of Lebanese industries invited the company ChinaMex to redevelop the International Fair. The project did not continue due to the occurrence of the June 2006 war.
Great architectural value lies at the heart of the International Fair in Tripoli as the thought process of Niemeyer went far beyond that of building a single-use space. He thought of a consistent plan to run, not just a host project for international exhibitions, but a satellite neighbourhood on the virgin lands of Tripoli. The fair was only the nucleus of a fully developed residential quarter within close proximity to all needed services. The extension of the fair was rendered impossible by obstacles faced by the government during the expropriation process of the terrain, in addition to financial limitations.
The heart of the neighbourhood was an aesthetically and architecturally consistent fair that revolutionized the original concept of international fairs that gathered multiple pavilions built in multiple styles. The solution of Niemeyer was to regroup these pavilions under a single roof. The pavilions were now restricted and unified by the height and the dimensions of the Grand Cover. The strategy of Niemeyer was based on selecting a cheap and disposable structure that could enable the country to yield profits from rent paid by foreign countries.
His project being a fair, but also the heart of a neighbourhood, Oscar Niemeyer thought of adding services and recreational spaces inside the site. He wanted the visitor to be looking from one side at the exhibited pavilions under the Grand Cover and to be accompanied by the scenes of the other pavilions distributed across the green space on the other side. Those structures would each have a particular function:
The entrance portico shelters the reception area and a tourism office.
The Lebanese pavilion, comprised of an arcade of ogive arcs commented on by George Arbid due to the specificity of their design, hosts a restaurant.
The dome hosts an interior “experimental theatre”. Its stage was supposed to be a hydraulic structure that moves up and down; it was the first time Niemeyer used a mechanical structure in one of his projects.
A conical structure, in a triangular origami-like shape, was supposed to be a children’s pavilion where children could play.
The helipad was not only designed for helicopters to land as its basement was supposed to serve as a museum of the cosmos.
The water tower also hosts a restaurant with a panoramic view at its top level.
The exterior theatre did not only serve as an open-air site for events. It also hosts a basement under its inclined platform that serves as a playroom.
The architect wanted to present the future of living spaces through this project. He designed the housing museum that showed the evolution of housing throughout history and finished the museal procession by two housing models: the collective housing inspired by L’Esprit Nouveau of Le Corbusier, and an individual house very similar to his own. The collective housing unit, which is quite unique in the Middle East, was turned into a hotel without consulting Niemeyer. The individual house is now the house of the director of the fair.
Oscar Niemeyer knew how to translate his architecture into concrete structure. His capricious forms immediately take shape once their concrete shell is finished. This quality did not only promote one of the principles of modernist architecture but gave Niemeyer the opportunity to use the constructive material, concrete, to its full potential. This is why, in this project, the structures reach incredible dimensions (relative to the times). In the Grand Cover, Oscar installs beams that span over forty-two meters with twelve meters of cantilever on each side. The dome-shaped shell of the experimental theatre reaches eight centimetres of thickness at its peak. These examples repeat themselves all over the grounds of the fair, in the helipad structure that imitates a single mushroom column, the monumental arch at the entrance of the exterior theatre and the arched structure of its stage.
The futuristic architecture of the project reflected Niemeyer’s revolutionary thinking of architecture. His work reflected his vision to decolonize the world from the western architectural standards and, at the same time, contradicted his leftist vision by creating luxurious governmental buildings. He managed to integrate the curves of his architecture, which are said to be inspired by his admiration of the woman’s body, with his structured rectilinear building. This mix can be particularly seen in the integration between the hotel structure of the fair and the rest of the curvilinear structures. Although the hotel, an almost identical building of the “unité d’habitation”, was greatly modified from its original shape removing the essence of its spaces. What will really happen to the rest of the structures of the fair and how they will adapt to the new functions is yet to be discovered.
A lot of questions remain, and others will arise, but the most important is the following: what will happen to the fair? With the current economic crisis, no plan, until today, envisions any use of the land or the project. However, in 2018, an international competition had envisioned to use part of the land occupied by the fair as a “Knowledge Innovation Centre”. The competition was directed by the Lebanese Federation of Engineers and Architects, the Union of Mediterranean Architects (UMAR), and the Lebanese Government and won by MMDD, a Lebanese architectural firm. The design of the firm worked around the monumental architecture of Niemeyer by building underground and making the least impact possible on the soil and the project’s perspective. Architectural interventions are always a challenge in such a context especially with the project being listed in 2020 on the UNESCO world heritage list. The list has not yet been approved but, if approved, the fair will be Lebanon’s sixth monument to enter the list and the most recent one. In a country that defines architectural heritage to be buildings over 100 years old, this would be a breakthrough not only for the fair but for all modernist Lebanese architects and their work.
Other ideas are emerging, especially with the nearby Syrian war nearing its end and the importance of Tripoli, its port and its historical connections with the Syrian inland and the possibility of the project to serve the reconstruction purpose in one way or another. Will the project be used as a platform to relaunch the economy of Northern Lebanon as a whole, a cultural space for the city or simply a beautiful decaying concrete building? Only time will tell but the future remains grim. Knowing the Lebanese context, no action will be taken unless parts of the buildings/structures collapse, and permanent damage is inflicted.
About the Co-author:
Originating from a rural region in Lebanon and raised in a village famous for its traditional architecture, Edmond-Mickel Rahmeh obtained his master’s in architecture at the Lebanese University. He not only grew an interest in the field of architectural design, but also in its relation to the historical context and the traditional architecture of these sites. He chose to explore modern and contemporary heritage and its place in the Lebanese architectural identity and history.