The cap­i­tal city's bru­tal­ist ar­chi­tec­ture

Lebanon Traveler - - CONTENTS - Derek An­thony Is­sacs

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.

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