Tripoli’s Elegy to Oscar Niemeyer

The fair is instead an empty shell. An outdoor stage, floating in an artificial lake, is solemnly observed by bleak rows of white chairs, endlessly waiting. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Rebecca Whiting

Published Sunday, December 16, 2012

Brazilian master architect Oscar Niemeyer passed away 5 December 2012 only days before his 105th birthday. His modernist works are now pieces of history, symbolic of another age, yet still staggering in their sculptural dynamism. His designs in Brasilia and the UN Secretariat in New York are recognized worldwide, but Niemeyer also left his legacy in Tripoli, Lebanon.

In 1962, not long after completing his vision for the new capital of Brazil, Niemeyer was invited by the Lebanese state to design an international fairground in the country’s second city. It was built to host a World Fair event, but construction stopped in 1975 with the outbreak of the civil war. For many years now, the fair, sprawling over 10,000 hectares has been left empty; a monument of architectural vision silent and unused, like a post-apocalyptic mausoleum.

Niemeyer’s modernist innovations were centered on a philosophy of form above functionality. In his work, beauty was paramount, as was a holistic cohesion between a building and its environment.

Niemeyer famously cited his inspiration as the landscape of his homeland and the curves of the women of his country. In the Tripoli fair, the curving forms he is known for found a new home as the structures mirror the mountainscape behind them. Homage to the shapes of the historic local architecture is also seen, though only in the tapered arches of one pavilion, intended to be the Museum of Lebanon.

The fair, named after former prime minister and Tripoli native Rachid Karami, who was assassinated during the civil war, is instead an empty shell. An outdoor stage, floating in an artificial lake, is solemnly observed by bleak rows of white chairs, endlessly waiting. With the futuristic shapes of the structures, it feels like a failed and evacuated human colony on an alien planet.

The well-tended gardens are an unusual expanse of green and proof that the fair has not been entirely forsaken. The windows of the enormous curving exhibition hall have been newly cleaned, revealing the empty expanse of a concrete court. The stillness, though a respite, is tragically sad as the site was so clearly designed to be milling with crowds, to be used and brought to life.

Security guard Omar Dundawee has worked at the gates of the fair for 20 years and remembers the time after the war when the fair was finally used, though it was short-lived. “Then [security] events kept happening in Tripoli and people stopped being willing to come here,” he explained.

“The whole of the North is economically blocked now. Nobody knows what will happen to the fair. In the future, God Willing, it will be used again.” As we spoke, flares from the shooting across the city could be seen in the twilight sky, accompanying the echoes of the gunfire. Amid the strife still regularly plaguing the city, the chances of it becoming a hub for international commerce soon seem all the further away.

The era in which Niemeyer came to Lebanon to design the fair was typified by grand building projects. Then president Fouad Chehab was pushing for economic and urban development as part of his bid to create a sense of Lebanese identity that superseded sectarian divides. Tripoli was chosen for the site as part of Chehab’s policy for equal development across the country, as opposed to allowing Beirut to continue as the sole financial center.

The optimistic and ambitious endeavors of the period came on the back of the previous decade during which Lebanon, then a newly formed independent state, had built itself to be the commercial and banking center of the region, constantly vying for modernity and international recognition.

The modernism that developed in Lebanon in the 1950s and 60s evolved its own distinctive character as it married local tradition with international progression in technology. Lebanese architects of the period created iconic structures that reflected the optimism and sense of achievement prevalent at the time.

It is said that Niemeyer’s invitation in the early 1960s might have been in part thanks to his lifelong commitment to communism. He was dedicated to constructing spaces that invited and inspired the public. As an idealist, his works capture an attitude of progress and confidence. He created shapes and spaces to awe and excite.

In a 2006 interview, he said in response to a question as to whether his beliefs are reflected in his work, “It is not with architecture that one can disseminate any political ideology. Nevertheless, I say that the important thing is not architecture, but life itself, the struggle for a better world; I manifest myself with indispensable clearness. I am a man like any other one, who struggles against social injustice.”

On coming to Lebanon to create the fair in Tripoli, Niemeyer felt that a more comprehensive study of the area should have been completed before the design phase so as to ensure that the fair would integrate naturally into the city as it expanded. He also put forward proposals for the surrounding area to be built up to provide housing, commerce, sports, and tourism, though none of these came into fruition.
When the civil war in Lebanon began in 1975, all works on the fairground were halted and just short of completion, the project was abandoned.

When the civil war in Lebanon began in 1975, all works on the fairground were halted and just short of completion, the project was abandoned. During the war, the site became a post for the occupying Syrian army. After the devastating war ended in 1990, the country began the long process of rebuilding itself. A cohesive vision for the urban development of the entire country was never reached and redevelopment projects were small scale.

In 1993 a board was appointed to supervise Tripoli’s fair, under the auspices of the Ministry of Economy and Trade. Bilal Zaouk, now president of the syndicate of civil engineers was on the board. “We refurbished the main exhibition hall and for a few years did hold small exhibitions there. The Syrian army still had a post on the site, but in a remote corner and their presence was hardly felt,” he said.

The board requested exclusivity so that all trade exhibitions in Lebanon would be held in Tripoli. They were denied this request and the Forum de Beirut and Biel were constructed in the capital, robbing Tripoli of a valuable international commercial role.

Zaouk said that several years ago proposals came from China to restore the site as a trade center in conjunction with plans to create a duty free zone for Chinese products in Tripoli Port. Again, security events at the time led to the plans being abandoned.

In 2006, the site was added to the World Monuments Fund Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites after conservationists campaigned to preserve it when Tripoli's chamber of commerce proposed turning into a tourist village theme park to be based on Disneyland. Its listing signifies the site’s historic importance, but does nothing to permanently protect it.

According to Zaouk, a new board was appointed to manage the fair a month ago. He hopes that the Ministry of Economy and Trade will see to the board having the money and backing to breathe new life into it.

Speaking on the fair’s future, architect and professor at AUB, Georges Arbid said, “Development should answer the current needs of the city, of the North and of the country. It could be destined for a variety of uses, programmed on short term, on seasonal and on yearly basis...A conference and consultation on the subject is crucial now, with planners, economists, architects, artists, ngos. It should be a collective effort, endorsed by many, including civil society.”

Arbid, who has long campaigned for the site to be recognized, felt that, “Besides the legitimate call for the preservation of the buildings and site, the idea should not be at all to freeze the place but to make it alive not only for itself but for the region that needs it badly."

Niemeyer’s composition in Tripoli is an architectural artifact, the futuristic grounds of a surreal vista of an era that never fully came into existence. It is a relic from visions of excitement and hope that as yet have not come to be fulfilled.

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