pure form, form pure


2 January 2019

The wide highway connecting Beirut to Tripoli crosses a landscape punctuated by a regular succession of shopping malls, variable density seaside developments, small villages and mountainous landscapes. As one moves further away from the capital, the strange familiarity that makes it so accessible and pleasant to Westerners vanishes, gives way to a harsher and more rugged backdrop.

We arrived there at noon, after a trip of about two hours.

One hundred and twenty minutes were enough to find ourselves amidst the Middle East of spy movies. The al-Moustaqbal party's omnipresent posters reminds us of this region’s’ religious denomination, a fact also underlined by much more radical attire than in Beirut.

The site of the Rashid Karameh International Exhibition Centre is located at the gates of the city. Karim, the driver who is accompanying us, presents our documents to the military personnel at the site’s entrance and learns from them which areas are accessible and those that we will be able to photograph.

The access from which we catch sight of the abandoned fairground is close to King Fahed Park. We drive through the forecourt, passing under a kind of gigantic arch, to park at the southern end of the immense cover of the boomerang-shaped canopy, which covers an area 750m long by 75m wide. In this space, Niemeyer had planned to offer the various countries the opportunity to exhibit in a new typology that was supposed to reinvent “the juxtaposition of independent pavilions of mediocre architectural quality” [1] so characteristic of international fairs.

A large graffiti of Oscar Niemeyer's face framed by an arch welcomes us. That's where we leave the car.

I headed back to the site’s entrance on order to walk the route the public would have taken. I follow the vast ramp that leads to the raised portico from where the entire complex can be seen. Set in a landscaped garden featuring water and cacti, the portico’s structure is quite imposing, concrete poured into wooden framework that evokes landscapes that would be highly atypical for Lebanon. From this standpoint, we can grasp the entire complex: in the space generated by the concavity of the curve, a series of counterpointed architectural forms appear, interlinked by gardens and bodies of water: the Museum of Lebanon and its square structure surrounded by pointed arches, the dome-shaped Experimental Theatre, the Space Museum and the Helipad, the Children's Pavilion and the water reservoir topped by a restaurant. In the northern part of the site, a ceremonial ramp leads to the outdoor amphitheatre crowned by a monumental arch, the site’s beacon.

The composition's most curious element is the main pavilion. Through its scale and geometry, the boomerang-shaped canopy stands out from all the surrounding landscape, infrastructural, and urban elements. This is probably explained by the project's history. Niemeyer had sought, as with Brasilia, to explore an urban logic and to use the fairground’s design as a springboard for a territorial composition.

In his memoirs, published forty years after the project was abandoned in the mid-1970s,[1] Niemeyer explains his approach at that juncture. A sketch that probably dates from 1962 shows that the fairground’s main exhibition space formed of an ellipse intersected by the highway that was meant to connect Beirut to the country’s northern regions. Between the fairground and the coast, the project envisaged an urban development consisting of “comb-like” metal bars, allowing for open vistas onto the Mediterranean Sea.

Nothing is detectable about this project today and Niemeyer's ambition to lay the foundations for the third urban core of Tri-Poli was soon abandoned. Following multiple compromises, negotiations, and deliberations, the highway was moved closer to the coast rather than along the fairground’s perimeter.

The ellipse’s outline, a lofty symbolic gesture that sets project's limits is preserved. Devoid of its original meaning, this geometrical shape now structures the entire complex on its 70-hectare site. Notwithstanding its size and centrality, the exhibition pavilion is, in my eyes at least, the least interesting part of the complex. This is perhaps due to the fact that it is the fairground’s most finished architectural specimen; perhaps because of its glazed facade, structural frame, inverted roof beams and all other details that characterize it that perfectly situate the building in the time it was under construction, namely from 1967 to 1975, and thus show, in a certain way, the limits of this off-the-scale gesture. Conversely, the site’s other structures remain incomplete, and thus are far more intriguing and mysterious. With each of them, the imagination is more easily stirred.







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Of the Lebanon Museum, for example, nothing remains but the perimeter wall, a raised central floor and what would have been the steel structure for the glass facade. These three elements produce a space where the various geometrical forms, shadow and light become the protagonists in a masterful dance. Here, framing is everything. Everything is light and dimension. The façade wall and the arches suffice to affirm an interiority and an exteriority, an inside and an outside. The multiplicity of paths, views and depths of field contribute to creating an unexpected sensory event.

From this space we advance toward the Experimental Theatre.

The dome is the most surprising element in the entire design. Seen from outside, it is "classic Niemeyer," comparable to his design for the French Communist Party's Headquarters in Paris through the impact of its shape and size. Inside, however, we discover a Brutalist work of art. Hanging randomly from the ceiling, the concrete vault’s steel frames alter the reading of this space from the domain of architecture to situate the visitor in a form of spatial performance: one has the impression of secretly entering an enlarged or even a gigantic Merz-like igloo. The sound also amplifies this experience’s performative character: an echo returns any utterance with a few seconds of delay and modulates sounds as though a thousand voices were being layered over the original sound.

The helipad is located just opposite the auditorium. This other concrete structure slightly evokes the works of Pieluigi Nervi. It has now been turned into a belvedere that is accessed by a spiral staircase from where the commanding view from what ought to have been a helicopter’s landing and take-off point is absolutely breath taking. Even more so than from the site’s entrance, we can here take measure of this vast empty space in the heart of Tripoli, to which the checkered subdivisions of the 1980s have been added. As soon as one feels the pressure of the urban fabrics surrounding the site, the utter strangeness of the existence of the International Fairground site becomes evident.

In the northern part, the monumental arch leads the visitor to the outdoor amphitheatre.

Flanked by a pit, the rectangular shaped stage hosts a proscenium of carved concrete in its centre. The stands, however, comprise white plastic seats that despite their interesting staggered arrangement signify little in this setting. At first, they reminded me of the seating arrangement in the stands at Naples’s San Paolo stadium. But above all, their industrial character, the clearly legible function, and the small size of the only elements that are not concrete, bring me back to reality, erasing the slightest trace of abstraction. The seats are the exit ticket from the spectacle of this world of dreamlike forms that I attended. Strangely, they weave a link with the site’s history and why this space has remained suspended in time.

While the fairground never went into operation on account of events that incited a bloodbath in Lebanon since 1975, paradoxically, unlike other unfinished projects in Beirut, such as the Murr Tower Hotel or the cinema at the Place des Martyres, no trace of bullets or bombs shells reminds us that this site had been transformed into a military base during the years the Civil War raged. The Fairground is not a ruin, but rather a frozen image. Besides, the perfectly manicured lawns and bushes cut in parallelepipeds clearly indicate that someone continues to take care of this image.

The Fairground is disturbing, and yet remains strangely powerful. First and foremost because the site breaks the mold with any form of urban “normality.” This is no wasteland, no construction site, not even an archaeological vestige. The Fairground has no function and currently serves no purpose. It does not respect any economic or productive rationale. This is a “useless space” and alone for that reason, the site has become a space of resistance. Its sheer lack of utility and use also amplifies this feeling of emptiness. And if the Fair site strikes us as being powerful today, it is also because it is a big void.

Now, emptiness by definition is somewhere laden with potential: the revelation, the transformation and the protection of these voids are equally strategies, projects, or actions that these spaces offer to those who visit them.

Something purely architectural makes this experience unique, though I do not believe it is related to Niemeyer’s imprint, of whom I have never been a fervent admirer.

From its beginnings, Manfredo Tafuri beheld two currents in the modern movement: “invariably we will find over and again the same dialectical opposition between those who seek to extend into the depths of the real in order to know values and confront miseries, and those who long to project beyond reality, to build new realities from scratch, to found new values, and to erect new symbols.”

Which is another way of saying that one could practically divide the moderns into two groups: “realists” and “surrealists,” and Oscar Niemeyer is unquestionably one of the major representatives of the “modern surrealists.” I, however, have always been more drawn to the architects and architectures of the first branch. Transgressing orthodox modernist aesthetic doctrines and overthrowing hegemonic cultural models, Niemeyer’s work privileged invention and affirmed spectacle, luxury, and pleasure as legitimate architectural pursuits.

Influenced, as were the Moderns of his generation, by the fine arts, the Brazilian confuses architecture and sculpture. The auditorium in the form of an open book at the University of Constantine, the egg-shaped dome of the Stade du 5 Juillet in Algiers, the “volcanoes” in Le Havre or the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro in the shape of flying saucer are all objects, carved monuments. These objects are not only offered for contemplation, but also for visual consumption.

The confrontation of these sculptural objects with a particular usage is a complex exercise, which I rarely find successful. The impossible dialogue between these geometrical shapes and everyday life is routinely expressed via the confrontation between the routine use of an object ––a chair, a table, a fridge as the case may be–– and the volume it contains.

Architecture-sculpture requires total control over the eventual and natural evolution of things, and these projects experience great difficulty adapting to change and to the passing of time.

The architectures on display at the Rachid Karamé Fairground are not subject to this confrontation, and thanks to their curious history have never been.

To paraphrase Louis Kahn; “Form has neither contour nor dimensions. (...) Form, is the "what", while design is the “how.” The form is impersonal. Design derives from a creator. Conception is an act linked to circumstances.”

As I see it, The International Fairground in Tripoli is Niemeyer's most impactful work precisely because it is no longer the act of a creator, but has become, through its very incompleteness, impersonal: a matter of pure form. My experience at the complex curiously reminded me of the “Great Cretto,” a colossal concrete labyrinth covering ten hectares by the painter Alberto Burri, erected in memory of the old city of Gibellina in Sicily that was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1968, erected in the 1980s and as yet unfinished. Rambling through the network of cracks that have become the alleyways