Perhaps, like other avant-garde architects of his generation, Oscar Niemeyer imagined that by the end of the 20th Century, we’d all be airborne. Mini-copters and flying cars made so much sense in those pre-Oil Crisis, We’ll-All-Be-Nuclear-Soon years.
Maybe this is why, fresh from his triumph in Brasilia (where discerning diners could eat at Café Libanus and the best bar in town was the Beirute), when he sat down to design Lebanon’s new International Fair for the northern port town of Tripoli, Niemeyer’s eye seems to have been on the skies.
This is most obvious in the fluid, lotus-shaped helipad perched above the reflecting pool running down the middle of the site but a distinctly aerial quality imbues the rest of the fair. Whether it is the sinuous sweep of the concrete and glass exhibition halls, the St. Louis-style monumental arch with its sturdy legs and wafer-thin waist or the low-slung monumental gateway framing the entrance, each and every one of Niemayer’s buildings are so delicate they look like they might float away in a stiff breeze. Not only does the fair not look like it is of this world, it looks like it is barely tethered to it.
Tripoli’s International Fair was a direct commission. Niemayer was first approached in the 1950’s and work finally began in 1962. At a time when Lebanon was the most advanced country in the Arab world and the economic, cultural and political heart of the region, Niemayer spent a month at the glamorous St. Georges Hotel, the heart of freewheeling Beirut. He seems to have enjoyed his stay for he writes fondly of the hotel’s seafront terrace and of zipping up the coast to Tripoli in his 2005 book, ‘My Architecture’.
Building the fair in Tripoli was a political act. Then president Fouad Shehab may have been a little too keen on his secret services for the taste of some of his countrymen but he was one of the only politicians to not only understand but also to act on the understanding that there was more to Lebanon (or at least that there ought to be more to Lebanon) than Beirut. For Shehab, building this radical new vision of the country in one of its most conservative cities - even now better known for its Mamluke than its Modernist charms - made perfect sense.
When work halted in 1974 due to the unrest that preceded all-out war in 1975, the fair was not finished. In 1976, the Syrian Army occupied Tripoli. They looted the fair and turned it into a military headquarters and detention centre. By 1994, when it was returned to Lebanese control, everything of value, from window-panes and electricity cables, to its light-fixtures, furniture, air-conditioning systems, crockery and cutlery, bricks and Carrera marble floor tiles, had long since disappeared across the border. For almost twenty years, Syrian soldiers had camped in Niemayer’s buildings, building breezeblock partitions and punching new windows and doors through the walls. As a last goodbye, the fair’s huge underground storage depots were sealed and their entrances concreted up and the remaining gardens were torched.
This is probably why the Tripoli International Fair - now the Rashid Karame International Fair - is much less well-known than Niemayer’s later projects in Algiers and Tel Aviv. Ironically, the only photo of it that appears in his book is mislabelled, marked as Tripoli, Libya, not Tripoli, Lebanon.
Nevertheless, in an interview with a French researcher a few years ago, Niemayer said the fair was one of his favourite projects and when a Lebanese architect writing a book about the fair asked to interview him earlier this year, he readily agreed.
It isn’t difficult to see why he might have liked it so much. Though entirely different in scale and function, Tripoli’s fair is a bit of Brasilia in northern Lebanon and almost all of Niemayer’s trademark shapes are on display.
The central exhibition hall, a massive 700 metre long polyvalent space is an essay in weightlessness. Forty columnless metres across, ceiling 7 metres high, the entire weight of its cantilevered roof, which protrudes for 15 metres on either side, rests on columns so far apart and so thin, you wonder they don’t give way.
Even airier, the Lebanese Pavilion is a cube composed of bullet-shaped arcades that lean slightly outwards as they met the roof, and were originally wrapped around a cube of glass. Standing to one side of the main hall in a reflecting pool, it was a focal point of the fair and when lit up, it must almost have been visible from space. The Pavilion is Niemayer’s only direct acknowledgement of the location, an effortlessly elegant take on the traditional Levantine house.
The fair wasn’t all exhibitions and expositions. A million square metres in size, it was also designed as a public park. Leisure facilities included two theatres, a children’s crèche in the star-shaped pavilion on the city-side of the fair, a cluster of garden bars, a panoramic café at the top of a cylindrical water tower to one side of the outdoor theatre and an à la carte Lebanese restaurant by the entrance. Though all of these structures were built, none ever functioned.
The experimental theatre, still incomplete when war stopped construction, is now a vast dome festooned with rusting cables, where even the softest whisper is magnified into a roar. Entering via an underground passageway, concertgoers would have emerged under a ceiling hung with a constellation of acoustic panels and walked up a floating staircase to the low, circular tiers of seating. The stage itself remained hidden until the performance began, at which time it would have risen out of the theatre’s central well, probably on hydraulic pumps. Today all that rises there is rainwater, which turns the well into a spontaneous indoor pool each winter.
The outdoor theatre, reached by a ramp that passes underneath the fair’s tallest structure, the soaring Saarinen-esque concrete arch, sits on a more deliberate body of water. This separates the theatre from the fair and the audience from and the stage, leaving both afloat. The stage, a simple concrete podium topped by a curving canopy of a roof, was accessed via a tunnel, hidden in a way that first-time visitors might well have wondered how the performers were going to go on.
The most impressive structure, though, is the fair’s monumental gateway, a gargantuan 10 metre high concrete canopy that floats above a cactus garden at one end and a small glass box at the other. The box houses the administration, or at least all that is visible of it above ground level. Similarly subterranean, the ticket office lies at the bottom of a small ramp to the right of the entrance. Another ramp leads into the fair, rising just high enough for fairgoers to make an entrance but remaining low enough not to obstruct the view of those behind.
For now, the Rashid Karame is on hold, a victim of Lebanon’s cold wars – it is administered by a political faction at odds with the government and hence under-funded - and since last July’s war, it’s rehabilitation has taken a backseat to the feuding over the (eventual) reconstruction of Beirut’s southern suburbs.
There have been two attempts to sell the fair to investors; a Lebanese-American conglomerate that planned to transform it into an amusement park called Cedarland and most recently, to the Chinese government, which was looking for a location for a permanent regional trade fair.
Both proposals worried local architects and activists so much that some they banded together to form an ad hoc committee that managed, with a lot of hard work, to get the fair listed as an endangered site by both the Monument Watch Fund and Patrimoine Sans Frontières.
To fully appreciate the genius of Niemayer’s design, come on a sunny winter’s day when the reflecting pools are full of rainwater. Stand on the ramp under the ceremonial arch, facing the experimental theatre. The architectural mishmash of modern Tripoli to your left provides an essay in contrast and the citrus orchards that surrounded the fair are long gone but elsewhere, things are much as they were in 1962. The Mediterranean to your right is still a deep shimmering blue and directly ahead, the graceful, snow-capped sweep of Mount Lebanon is still dotted with red-roofed villages.
Had he designed it himself, it is unlikely even Mr. Niemayer could have come up with anything more spectacular. Then, as now, Lebanon itself provides the breathtaking backdrop for this vision of its future, which was then, as it will surely be again, as boundless as the bright blue sky.
Originally published in Wallpaper*
Photo Warren Singh-Bartlett