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Oscar Niemeyer’s Permanent International Fair in Tripoli

Architecture

Oscar Niemeyer's fashion status was confirmed in 2000, when the Italian fashion house Prada threw a glamorous all-night party at the French Communist Party Headquarters, designed by Niemeyer (Paris, 1967-80, inaugurated in 1971), to celebrate the opening of its new boutique at the faubourg Saint-Honoré and the launch of its new Miu Miu line. Young fashion designers like Roksanda Ilincic claim influence from the Brazilian architect and at times Niemeyer's spectacular buildings are almost literally translated into dresses. Last January, the Belgian designer Dries Van Noten chose to present his autumn/winter men's collection in the same building, which he thought perfectly suitable for his 'fantômes-garçons' with their 'serious, pre-Cold-War look, inspired by the 1950s'. In 2007, the Lebanese pop-icon Haifa Wehbe starred in a commercial advertisement for Pepsi, staged on the grounds of the Rashid Karami International Fair complex in the historic city of Tripoli, Lebanon (formerly Permanent International Fair, 1962-74, partially completed), a major work of Oscar Niemeyer (1907-) with a turbulent history and currently in danger. In spite of the iconic status, popularity and worldwide acclaim of Niemeyer's architecture, today's Lebanese politicians appear indifferent to the historic significance of Tripoli's Modernist heritage, and unwilling to invest in the fair's potential as a public good in order to guarantee its integration in the daily life of its citizens.

This article was featured on Greekarchitects’ website (www.greekarchitects.gr) on May 29, 2010, written by Styliane Philippou.
 
Roksanda Ilincic, autumn/winter 2008 collection, left; designer dress featuring Oscar Niemeyer's Brasília Cathedral, right
 http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=azijUu1ga8I
Commercial advertisement for Pepsi starring Haifa Wehbe, staged in Oscar Niemeyer's Permanent International Fair in Tripoli, Lebanon
The Permanent International Fair of Tripoli was a bold and ambitious project typical of the period of the Welfare State, roughly from the late 1950s to the late 1960s, including the 'good times' of President Fuad Shihab's era (1958-67) that followed the 'crisis of 1958'. It was a period characterized by intense urbanization and modernization, administrative reform, political and institutional organization, considerable industrial development, a rapidly expanding and rationalized economy, markedly increased government expenditure, growing investment in education and significant social service improvements, and a 425 percent increase in public works. The inception of the Permanent International Fair for Lebanon's second-largest city was commensurate with the Welfare State's 'strong public sector involvement in all matters of building, public works, and civic projects...big plans, comprehensive concepts and infrastructure improvements on a large scale'. The current threat to the fair's civic role, its integrity and preservation is a consequence of today's 'era of privatization' and conspicuous lack of comprehensive civic visions. Today's commercial-interest-led urban projects are characterized by sharply contrasting attitudes towards public good and the socio-political issues involved in the production, use and transformation of urban public space.(1)
 
Oscar Niemeyer, Permanent International Fair, Tripoli (1962-74, partially completed, renamed Rashid Karami International Fair), Google Earth image, left, Oscar Niemeyer, Permanent International Fair, Tripoli, site plan, right
In 1962, the Brazilian ambassador Bolivar de Freitas invited Oscar Niemeyer, on behalf of the Lebanese government, to design the Permanent International Fair complex for the city of Tripoli. Niemeyer criticized the process that led to the selection of the site, arguing that it should have been preceded by in-depth study of the urbanization of the region in order to guarantee the organic integration of the fair with the future expansion of the city. He would have also preferred a coastal site. His proposal put forward an entire new city quarter, with the fair as its focal point, accommodating a culture and leisure programme. Between the fair and the sea coast he proposed zones for housing, commerce, sports, entertainment and tourism - the latter forming a link between the fair and the sea - paying particular attention to the problem of housing, which he saw as being debased and subjected to commercial interests.(2)
For the fair itself, Niemeyer 'rejected the common typology, repeated all over the world, with isolated pavilions', and 'returned to the ideas of nineteenth-century expositions'. His team proposed a 750 x 70 metres flat canopy - curved in plan - that would guarantee 'plastic discipline and unity'.(3) The pavilions of the various countries would be arranged under this 'single roof...economic and speedily built' and in the 'spirit of a pavilion...a mere shell to encase the exhibits'. This reinforced-concrete canopy of 'grandeur and simplicity' created a shaded space for leisurely promenade and was offset by a string of various reinforced-concrete forms amid verdant gardens, arranged opposite its concave side and linked together by 30,000 square metres of water pools. These structures clearly demonstrate Niemeyer's consistent pursuit of the full integration of structure, spatial and formal concept. Most prominent among them - 'in a commanding position' - is the Museum of Lebanon, a square colonnaded pavilion that brings to mind Brasília's Palácio do Itamaraty (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1962-70), while its pointed arches clearly reference Tripoli's historic architecture. The Museum of Lebanon is floating in a shallow, reflective pool, Niemeyer's ubiquitous instrument of narcissism that transforms his buildings into flowers conscious of their beauty. To the side of the adjacent large pool, under a white concrete dome is the Experimental Theatre, 'where the most widely varying performances will be staged', surrounded by lush vegetation. In this second pool, the helipad-crowned Space Museum is accessed via a long low bridge that stems from the centre of the curved exhibition pavilion and, further along its route, meets a large ceremonial ramp ascending to the open-air theatre, equipped with an acoustic shell. At the highest point of the ramp, marking the entrance to the theatre's elevated, open-air foyer, stands a smaller, concrete version of Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch in St Louis, Missouri, counterbalanced by a water tower with a restaurant at its highest point, affording 'a comprehensive view of the whole Fair'.(4)

Oscar Niemeyer, Permanent International Fair, Tripoli, photographs of model and preliminary sketch

Oscar Niemeyer, Permanent International Fair, Tripoli: Museum of Lebanon, left, and open-air theatre, right

Oscar Niemeyer, Permanent International Fair, Tripoli: Experimental Theatre and Space Museum
The main access to the fair is situated at one end of the 'great pavilion'. A vast ramp leads to the entrance portico, where the visitor is welcomed with a sweeping view of the entire complex. The adjoining structure was envisaged by Niemeyer as a 'Rest Centre' with 'lounges, reading-room, restaurant, lavatories, barbershops, beauty parlour and resting room, for the repose and relaxation of the visitors. The portico (reception, control, information and tourist services) marks the public entrance and, in the vein of Brazil's Antropofagist tradition, was conceived by Niemeyer to 'express, by the proportions and width of its spans, the architecture of today, enhanced in its details by the Arab tradition of [Lebanon]'. Between the entrance facilities and the Lebanon Museum, Niemeyer proposed a children's playground (not realized). The Housing Section was positioned at the opposite extreme of the 'great pavilion', closing off the composition. Administration services were accommodated in two separate blocks, parallel to the convex side of the long canopy. The Housing Section included a hotel and the Housing Museum. A little train would run 'all day long' between this point and the entrance portico. The Housing Museum focused on a comparison between collective housing and the individual detached house, for which Niemeyer provided examples. The primary difference between the two, he postulated, is that the former, 'upon which contemporary town-planning is founded [is] simple and built to a module', whereas the latter is characterized by 'plastic unrestraint...justified by the variety and individualization of the programmes'.(5)

Oscar Niemeyer, Permanent International Fair, Tripoli: entrance portico and Rest Centre

Oscar Niemeyer, Permanent International Fair, Tripoli: Housing Museum, left, and individual detached house, right
 
Oscar Niemeyer, Permanent International Fair, Tripoli: collective housing  
A Los Angeles Times dispatch of 1964 from the 'plush playground of the Arab world' read: 'Real estate values have soared as one glass-walled skyscraper after another has risen on the coveted coast in and around Beirut.' It reported on 'oil-rich traders' roaming the capital in 'air-conditioned Cadillacs' and billions of dollars of Kuwaiti and Saudi investments pouring into its 'stable banks' as well as on industrial Tripoli in the north staking its development on 'a world-class international fairground'.(6) The Permanent International Fair was almost complete by 1974. The onset of civil war, the following year, meant that this public site intended for cultural, recreational and commercial uses has never been part of the daily life of Tripoli's citizens. Until the early 1990s, it served as a military base for the Syrian army and, although it suffered destruction, its gardens are well maintained. Yet, the site lies closed off and deserted. A hotel has already been built at one end of the site, but Tripoli's residents are deprived of access to a major and desperately needed public amenity. On a recent visit I was positively surprised to find that the fair's basic structures remain largely intact and it is relatively easy to put the complex to use, realize the potential of the 10,000-hectare site, and allow it to fulfill its role in promoting what Lefebvre defined as the 'right to the city' - that is, returning part of the city's wealth and space to its occupants.

Oscar Niemeyer, Permanent International Fair, Tripoli: 'great pavilion'. Photographs by Styliane Philippou

Oscar Niemeyer, Permanent International Fair, Tripoli: Museum of Lebanon. Photographs by Styliane Philippou
 
Oscar Niemeyer, Permanent International Fair, Tripoli: Museum of Lebanon with views towards the Experimental Theatre, the ramp leading to the gateway arch and open-air theatre, and the water tower. Photographs by Styliane Philippou

Oscar Niemeyer, Permanent International Fair, Tripoli: Experimental Theatre. Photographs by Styliane Philippou

Oscar Niemeyer, Permanent International Fair, Tripoli: Space Museum, left, and ramp and gateway arch leading to open-air theatre, right. Photographs by Styliane Philippou

Oscar Niemeyer, Permanent International Fair, Tripoli: open-air theatre with acoustic shell, left, and gateway arch, right. Photographs by Styliane Philippou
 
Oscar Niemeyer, Permanent International Fair, Tripoli: entrance portico with Rest Centre. Photographs by Styliane Philippou

Oscar Niemeyer, Permanent International Fair, Tripoli: views of the various structures amid landscaped gardens and reflective pools. Photographs by Styliane Philippou
At the beginning of 2004, the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture of Tripoli and North Lebanon initiated the transformation of the Permanent International Fair into a 'tourist village destined to accommodate millions of visitors a year, based on the model for Disneyland'. Blatantly disrespectful of the project's original intentions and its architecture, the proposed scheme envisaged a 'program...of 60,000 meters sq. meters of exhibition space, 200,000 sq. meters of leisure and recreation space, a 170,000 sq. meter nautical center with pools, three international hotels, a "model Lebanese village" constructed on axis with the Lebanese Pavilion of Niemeyer [with] artisan shops, additional commercial and restaurant spaces, all of which [will] be connected by a "tourist" train'. On 21 June 2005, at a press conference in New York organized by the World Monuments Fund (WMF), it was announced that the Rashid Karami International Fair complex in Tripoli, once the pride of this industrial Lebanese port, was inscribed in the 2006 World Monuments Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites. The WMF expressed the hope 'that this listing may serve as a reminder that as Lebanon steadily mends its war-torn landscape, room should be made for sites of architectural importance of the recent as well as the distant past.' The decision was the result of the successful campaign launched in 2004 by Heritage Without Borders and the Lebanese Association for the Protection of Ancient Sites and Residences (Association pour la protection et la sauvegarde des sites et anciennes demeures APSAD).

Notes
1    See Rowe, Peter G. and Hashim Sarkis, 'Introduction: Projecting Beirut'. Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City, ed. Peter Rowe and Hashim Sarkis (Munich, London and New York: Prestel), pp. 9-13.
2    Niemeyer, Oscar, 1963, 'Foire Internationale et Permanente du Liban à Tripoli', Architecture d'Aujourd'hui 33, no. 105 (December 1962-January 1963), pp. 96-101.
3    Niemeyer, Oscar, 1968, , Quase memórias, viagens: tempos de entusiasmo e revolta, 1961-1966 (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira), p. 20.
4    Niemeyer, Oscar, 1962, 'Feira Internationale e Permanente do Líbano em Trípoli', Módulo 7, no. 30 (October), pp. 4-5.
5    Niemeyer, Oscar, 1962, 'Feira Internationale e Permanente do Líbano em Trípoli', Módulo 7, no. 30 (October), pp. 4-5.
6    Cited in Deknatel, Frederick, 2010, 'Beneath the Remains in Northern Lebanon', The National, 11 March, http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100311/REVIEW/703119984/1193

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