OSCAR NIEMEYER’S INTERNATIONAL FAIR PROJECT IN TRIPOLI, LEBANON (1968-1974)

13-05-2017 par UMR ACTE

The construction of a large international fair in Tripoli, the capital of North Lebanon, was the pivotal project in this new policy. It was set in one of the bastions of Arabism pulsating at that time with the appeal of militant Nasserism, and not in Beirut, the country’s commercial hub, so it was heavy with symbolism. Like the great fairs and expositions which marked the landscape of European capitals in the late 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, glorifying the industrial might and the colonial ambitions of those nations in the age of triumphant imperialism, the 1950s also saw the flowering of major facilities called “international (or world) fairs” in the capitals of newly independent Arab countries, such as the International Fair in Damascus, set up in 1955 on the banks of the Barada, covering almost 10 hectares/25 acres at the western entrance to the city, and the International Fair in Baghdad, created a year later, occupying 30 hectares/75 acres in the heart of the Iraqi capital. The decision to create an international fair in Tripoli thus stemmed from a twofold symbolism aimed, on the one hand, at asserting Lebanon’s central role in the region’s economy and, on the other, at announcing the end of Beirut’s hegemony and the distribution of the fruits of growth in hitherto neglected regions of the country. With its 70 hectares/175 acres, the area chosen to house the fair seemed to be on a par with that goal.

A few days after Niemeyer arrived in Lebanon, he went to Tripoli. There he spent a whole month during which he produced the essence of his ideas which gave shape to the international fair project. In his memoirs published 40 years later, he explained the principles which guided his approach.

First and foremost, the project had to be incorporated within an overall urban development plan. In the 1960s, the city consisted of two urban nuclei separated by extensive orange groves: the old centre, Tripoli Ville, clustered around the crusaders’ fortress, and the port district (Al-Mina). A sketch probably dating from 1962 expresses Niemeyer’s desire to make the most of the opportunities offered by the international fair project to create a third urban nucleus with housing, shops, and sporting and recreational amenities. What was perhaps involved in the architect’s mind’s-eye was a reinstatement of the urban trilogy which probably gave its name to the city: Tri-polis.

A second, more explicit sketch describes the urban wager underpinning the whole composition: the fair’s main building, a huge, covered, boomerang-shaped hall, is part of an ellipsis crossed by the coastal highway linking Beirut to the north of the country.

Between the fair and the sea, a project provided for an urban development made up of “comb-like” low rise blocks, with unobstructed views over the sea. The project which would eventually be accepted opted for reversing the boomerang, with the concave part of the hall now opening towards the city to form a protective screen against southwest winds, but the architectural concept drawn up by Niemeyer and referred to in his memoirs remained unchanged. Rather than complying with the usual typology of fairs, hallmarked by “the juxtaposition of free-standing pavilions of mediocre architectural quality”, the project provided for the construction of a huge roof in the form of a boomerang 750 metres long by 70 metres wide, beneath which the various countries would install their exhibition areas as they saw fit. This was an architectural wager marked by “simplicity and constructive discipline”.

The entrance to the fair complex took shape at the southern tip of the boomerang: a huge ramp led to a raised portico from where visitors could discover the composition as a whole. In the space created by the concavity of the curve, a series of “minor” architectural forms formed counterpoints, linked by gardens and ponds: the “Lebanon museum”, a square structure surrounded by pointed arcades, and an obvious nod to the traditional forms of Lebanese architecture; the dome-shaped experimental theatre; and the “space museum” with its heliport, accessible by way of a bridge marking the central axis of the curve. In the north part, a ceremonial ramp led to the open air amphitheatre, surmounted by a monumental arch forming a signal. In the middle of the composition would rise up a totem-sculpture by Marta Pan.

At the northern end of the boomerang the composition terminated in a hollowed low-rise building housing the official accommodation. For Niemeyer all this involved nothing than an “architectural lesson”: the housing units planned were “an example and a warning against lack of understanding of the habitat issue, this lack of understanding reducing collective housing to mere property interests […]. In Tripoli’s new neighbourhoods, these dwellings will be constructed between parks and gardens, surrounded by schools, day nurseries, clubs, cinemas, churches, and mosques”.

Niemeyer’s project thus took up the principles which he had applied in his major Brazilian works: Pampulha, Ibirapaena, and, needless to say, Brasilia. The attempt to translate these principles into Lebanese reality would take five years. Five years of negotiations and legal battles culminating in the expropriation of the land, five years of studies, developments of the operational plans, and signing of corporate contracts. The original project was definitely not left unscathed: Niemeyer’s ambition to create a new urban nucleus which would be developed between the Fair and the sea had to be abandoned. Following negotiations with the landowners, the highway would be moved closer to the coast rather than running along the land earmarked for the Fair. But the layout of the ellipsis, a grand symbolic gesture determining the boundaries of the project, would be kept, defi ning a huge area of 70 hectares/175 acres where the complex designed by Niemeyer could be built.

Construction work got under way in 1967. It would last eight years and never be totally completed. It was in 1975 that Lebanon sank into a war which would bloody the country for 15 long years. The Fair buildings were successively occupied by the different militias controlling the city. It is even claimed that the Syrian army used them to store munitions.

However, despite the plundering and the theft which left them completely empty, the structure of the buildings has remained virtually intact. Nowadays, anyone strolling through the Fair area does not get the feeling of being in a landscape in ruins, or of walking through an urban wasteland. Quite to the contrary, the forms now exposed are shown in all their plastic and visual quality. There is no sign of bullets or shells to remind us that the place was turned into a military base during the war years; the walks and gardens seem carefully maintained and all it needs is a few days of rain for the ponds to fi ll and resume their function as mirrors in which the white shapes of the buildings are reflected.

Doesn’t the magic of the place come about through this paradox? An unstable equilibrium, a freeze frame. Everything is there, almost perfect, the machine seems ready to work, exactly as it had been originally devised, but everything is at a standstill, frozen, like a corpse in a cryogenic state. The fact is that this large empty space in the heart of the city, adjoined by a chequerboard of housing projects built in the 1980s, seems totally anachronistic in an age when economics call every shot, an age when profi tability has been erected as the sole criterion for any urban intervention. If it is no longer possible today to imagine a scenario which would restore the site’s original function, many projects have been put forward over the last few years, aimed at reincorporating it into the urban “normality”, transforming this “useless space” into a “productive” place. Whether such projects involve the creation of a theme park, pompously called “the Disneyland of the Middle East”, or the creation of a mega-distribution centre for Chinese products destined for the region’s markets, they have invariably come up against fierce opposition from huge swathes of Lebanese society and have never in the end seen the light of day. Might it be that, because of its outstanding character but also its history and the way memory is attached to it, this place has acquired a sort of sacredness which protects it both from the appetites of speculators and from systems of economic logic aimed at “putting it in order”, the better to cheapen and trivialize it?

In his book The Empire of Signs (1970), Roland Barthes describes the city of Tokyo which revolves around an empty centre, inhabited by an emperor never seen by anybody, a centre “which is no more than an evaporated idea, existing there not to spread some form of power but to give the whole urban movement the basis for its central void”. Does the emotive power stirred within us by the empty ellipsis of the Tripoli Fair come from the fact that this void today appears like one of those “reversible spaces” which Barthes talks to us about, whose “content is irrevocably dismissed”, and which are produced in “a pure significance, abrupt, and as empty as a fracture”?

When Oscar Niemeyer disembarked in the port of Beirut in the month of June 1962, he was, at the age of 52, the much-acclaimed architect of Brasilia, the new capital built by president Kubitschek in the middle of the country, on a windy plateau in the very heart of the Cerrado. For Niemeyer, however, that journey was especially signifi cant, because it involved his first commission abroad, beyond the American continent.

At that time, Lebanon was enjoying what is traditionally and with hindsight known as its “golden age”. At the end of a mini-civil war lasting a few months, caused by confl icts over Lebanon’s Arab policy and the imbalances between the country’s regions, the head of the army, Fuad Shehab, was appointed President of the Republic in the autumn of 1958. To reconstruct national unity, he was keen to rely on a State with bolstered prerogatives, and he duly tried to introduce a policy of socio-economic development for the country that was in line with the major tendencies of the day. That policy would be based on studies by a French agency, The Institut de Recherche et de Formation en vue du Developpement [IRFED], headed by Father Louis-Joseph Lebret. During the postwar years, this Dominican friar, an heir of social Catholicism, had undertaken many studies to do with the situation of working-class families in France, at the same time as he took part in the debate on the definition of a land development policy. In the 1950s, he had been involved in several developments in South America, and in Brazil, in particular. Summoned to Lebanon by the new powers-that-be, he embarked on various in-depth inquiries which revealed the scope of the country’s social and regional inequalities, aggravated by the “lethal” development of Beirut. He combined a strategy based on economic planning with a concern for a more balanced development between the country’s different regions, to which end he drew up a table of amenities and facilities aimed at strengthening regional centres.

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