The capital city's brutalist architecture
Discover the capital’s modernist treasures through the work of the Arab Center for Architecture
Balancing precariously high above the Sassine Square underpass in Achrafieh is an unassuming mid-to-late 20th Century residential tower block. One of the building’s apartments is home to the Arab Center for Architecture (ACA), a nonprofit organization for the preservation and dissemination of modern Arab-built heritage, which was set up in 2008 by architect George Arbid, alongside photographer Fouad Elkoury, architects Bernard Khoury, Jad Tabet, Hashim Sarkis and Nada Assi, and urban planner Amira Solh. Open to the public and researchers (by written request), the large space is minimalist in style and remains much the same as when the building was first constructed. The center collects and preserves photographs, drawings, models and notebooks that deal with modern architecture and urbanism, which are evident throughout the center; architecture books line the shelves in each room and framed photographs, renderings and plans of modernist buildings line the walls. In one of the center’s rooms are rolls of plans stacked on metal utility shelves. The collection is small but steadily growing. In another room sits a modernist office desk, once belonging to Polish architect Karol Schayer, who designed the nowdemolished Hotel Carlton in Raouche, the 1958 Ilyas Murr building in Hamra , better known as the Horseshoe – the name of the café which once sat at its base, and the 1959 Shell building in Beirut. Today the desk is owned by ACA founder George Arbid. “ACA has three missions,” says Claudine Abdelmassih, the center’s project manager. “Firstly, it’s about collecting archives on the modern movement in Lebanon and make research of it in the Arab world. Secondly, we want to raise awareness on modern architecture – we just got funding from the EU – and we are offering tours for the public and for students, architects and journalists, with a tour of the Bourj Hammoud area for the public on the cards. The third mission is to advocate saving modernist architecture.” Abdelmassih knows that saving them is not an easy task due to the public’s perception of modernism. “The buildings are still perceived as modern, constructed in the near past so don’t hold as much value as older buildings,” she adds. “They are also seen as part of colonialism, although Arab architects chose modernity to express themselves, which in turn was adopted by politics to show [the world] progress.” Some of the capital’s modernist buildings have become well known landmarks such as the Beirut Dome known as "the egg", an intriguing concrete structure in Downtown Beirut that was initially used as a cinema designed by Philippe Karam in 1965 or the headquarters of the Electricité du Liban (EDL) building in Mar Mikhael designed by Lebanese architect Pierre Neema, a construction which is influenced by the Brazilian movement in modern architecture. Others are less well known, such as the Interdesign building in Clemenceau, designed in 1975 by the late, great Lebanese architect Khalil Khouri and his brother Georges Khouri as a showroom for the family furniture business and the 1950s space-age beach “Chalet Raja Saab” in Ouzai by architect Ferdinand Dagher. Today the chalet is split into four dwellings and difficult to locate and view due to the built-up environment that surrounds it, a teasing challenge to modernist buffs eager to explore and see it. While Beirut’s traditional architectural heritage has been shattered in favor of shiny new tower blocks, the outcry has been loud with pressure groups such as Save Beirut Heritage, a cultural heritage organization, vocalizing the dangers facing Beirut's ancient sites and traditional buildings. The voice, though, for the more recent-past’s brutalist architectural gems is not as loud, but it is there and growing ever louder.