As you enter the shell of Villa Tohme, a family residential project in the hills north of Beirut, you do so through a narrow, vaulting hallway. It feels so much like a blind that you half expect it will end in a wall with a slit for shooting your bird.
Just as this thought flashes across your mind, the hall turns abruptly to the right and you are suddenly – astonishingly - in an ocean of space and light.
Even unfinished, this sudden, generous sweep of space, from what will be the upper salon on your right, down a flight of broad, gentle stairs to what will be the lower salon on your left, is so powerful, that as you suppress your impulse to clap your hands in delight, you will momentarily wonder if you haven’t sprouted wings and taken flight.
Then you notice the roof. Or at least, the scaffolding that will hold the roof, once it is poured. Like the vast room you have just walked into, it slopes gently down to the left and up to the right, where it peaks at 3.6 metres. The sensation of motion frozen in stone (or in this case, concrete) is unmistakable. It’s like being on board an ocean liner, frozen in the weightless moment it crests a rolling wave. It’s thrilling and I tell Tohme so.
He ushers me towards the edge of the floating platform that will eventually be bound by a sweeping glass wall, and points to the horizon. Or horizons. Beyond the first one, formed by the forested hills in front, there’s the horizon of Beirut and finally, the horizon of sea meeting sky. Horizons are important to Tohme, not just because in this volatile country, they’re reassurance that one can always leave but because in a place as vertiginous and visually arresting as Lebanon, orienting a house to look in on itself is almost a sin.
“You know, you can design all our buildings in three lines,” he tells me, quickly doing a sketch on the back of a napkin he pulls out of one pocket that looks like an attenuated ‘z’ but is clearly the villa we’re visiting. “But really, they’re quite complex.”
The head of a small, eponymous practice, Tohme still flies under many radars but he likes the anonymity, valuing the freedom it gives him to work. And it is a choice. Trained in France, Tohme worked for a number of years at Jean Nouvel’s mega-practice in Paris, becoming project manager for the huge new museum on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island and doing the occasional project on the side, before finally leaving in 2008 to found his own studio.
Since then, he’s been quietly building a reputation. Lebanon, a country that for Tohme - like many Lebanese - is simultaneously muse and obstacle, has managed to delay projects that should have been finished by now, several of which will be coming to completion in the next 18 months. Then, from (relative) anonymity, Tohme will suddenly find himself everywhere.
One project already completed is Beirut’s Jesuit University campus extension, undertaken in collaboration with local collective, 109. A series of buildings, including sports and recreation facilities, lecture halls, teaching and administrative space, the project was conceived as a single carved mass. The result is that while each building is distinct, viewed as a whole, its voids are integral to the design, not functionless leftovers. It’s as if Tohme sat down and decided that in addition to sculpting stone – the complex is clad in tawny sandstone, which is pierced by windows, doors and a complex pattern of openings reminiscent of the punch cards of old – he would sculpt space as well.
“USJ was a call for us to stop creating objects, or a series of objects,” he explains, adding that too much architecture is about the effect it creates and not about the effect it has. “It was about making spaces for people to meet.”
Though dialogue is a word thrown around by many architects, Tohme appears to take the concept seriously. Not only are his buildings engaged with their surroundings – Tohme works on scale, material, function and orientation to find the solution that satisfies clients without sacrificing everyone else - but he’s also engaged in dialogue with his building’s users and developers.
Take the new apartment block going up in Ashrafiye. Designed with capital’s lack of vegetation in mind, Tohme has created a high-rise, high-end urban oasis. Many new developments boast terraces but what’s new about Tohme’s approach is that his gardens are functional. Eschewing the standard hangar-sized living room most people later fill with beautiful, if rarely used furniture, Tohme has designed gigantic terraces walled on three sides, enormous hanging gardens that serve as outdoor living rooms.
“I wanted to recreate the feeling of being in the mountains whilst being in Ashrafiye. When a terrace is 15m long, you don’t use it but when it’s 80m, you not only use it, you’re prepared to pay a premium for it.”
By deliberately leaving the far end of each terrace open, Tohme says he’s issuing an invitation to interaction to whoever builds on the adjacent plot, which he hopes will discourage the kind of towering blind wall now such a common sight in the city.
Tohme builds statements but his homes do not say “I am here, look at me”. Serene yet taut, they do not explode across the ground like a Hadid, nor are they as static as a Zumthor. Occupying the middle ground between entrenched and weightless, they capture that slow-motion moment of perfection, the ballerina as she gently inclines her head in allongé, then holding that position, forever.
Originally published in Bespoke
Photo © Youssef Tohme