Will Oscar Niemeyer's Surreal Architecture in Lebanon Become a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

The Brazilian architect's Tripoli International Fairground, an unfinished masterpiece, is now up for belated recognition

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A view of the concrete helicopter platform at the grounds of the Tripoli International Fair, close to the seafront of the northern Lebanese port city.
A view of the concrete helicopter platform at the grounds of the Tripoli International Fair, close to the seafront of the northern Lebanese port city.Credit: AFP
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

Though construction on it halted more than four decades ago, Lebanon’s Rashid Karameh International Exhibition Center (the Tripoli International Fairground), a work of brutalist design by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012), is attracting international attention. It has recently been proposed as a candidate for the UNESCO list and it is expected to be approved.

Oscar Niemeyer. Best known for his iconic public buildings in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital.Credit: Mondadori Publishers

The fairground is one of Niemeyer’s lesser-known projects; he is best known for his iconic public buildings in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital, which he also helped plan. In photos of the Lebanese project, it looks like a concentrated sample of Niemeyer’s unique brutalist-sculptural style – a surrealistic half-ruin that seems to have descended from the future right into the heart of Lebanon’s most ancient port, known for its glorious architectural sites. Those who attended a Unesco conference that toured the site last year described it as a “surrealistic fantasy.”

More than a remnant from the future, the fairground as it stands today is more of a symbol of a future never realized. Its construction was initiated in 1962 by then-Lebanese President Fuad Chehab. The 1960s were Lebanon’s glory days, and it was hoped that the project would serve as a bridge between the country’s different communities and as the hallmark of a modern state that sought progress and peace.

A view of the thin concrete arch at the grounds of the Tripoli International Fair.Credit: AFP

There were problems from the start. Construction was to be completed in the mid-1970s, but it dragged on because of corruption and technical difficulties, and then was finally halted by the Lebanese civil war in 1975, when the various militias took over its stuctures. After suffering widespread damage, the site was abandoned and neglected.

In the late 1990s, there were dance performances and concerts by both local and guest troupes there, but these were halted by the wave of violence that struck Lebanon in the 2000s and the assassination of President Rafik Hariri, in 2005.

The fairground comprises 15 structures of raw concrete in Niemeyer’s distinct style. There is a monumental entranceway from poured concrete slabs, an experimental concert hall in a domed concrete structure and an open theater, at the end of which is a tall concrete arch, a hallmark of Niemeyer’s style. There is also a hotel, which was recently opened, a helicopter landing pad, an observation tower with a revolving restaurant and an exhibition pavilion surrounded by a forest of pointed Islamic-Venetian arches.

The concrete dome of the experimental theatre at the grounds of the Tripoli International Fair.Credit: AFP

‘Modern ruins’

Lebanese officials are aware that the fairground’s “modern ruins” need rehabilitation, but those in the know cast doubt on the government’s ability to pay for work whose cost is estimated at $33 million.

For Israelis, who can’t visit Lebanon in any event, a much more accessible option is a visit to “Dreaming in Concrete: The Style that Built Be’er Sheva,” an exhibition at the Negev Museum of Art, situated in Israel’s very own capital of brutalism. The exhibition was curated by Hadas Shadar, Eran Tamir Tawil and Omri Oz Amar. Also, on November 20, Ben-Gurion University will host the Fourth Annual Conference on Preserving Heritage and Culture, which will deal with brutalism and its preservation.

Niemeyer (1907-2012) was the last of the 20th century’s architectural giants, someone who was equally praised and criticized. In his style, a unique subtype of brutalism, he is considered the interpreter and successor of Swiss architect Le Corbusier. In 1988, he won the Pritzker Prize for Architecture. He was close to the Communist party in Brazil and designed the French party headquarters in Paris. The city of Brasilia, which he helped design, is both a Unesco World Heritage Site and the subject of sharp design and social criticism. Niemeyer himself later expressed regret about the waste that had gone into building Brasilia, saying he had often wondered, “whether it would have been better to have spent all this money not on palaces but to improve the people’s situation.”

The stone pyramid during an exhibiton at the grounds of the Tripoli International Fair.Credit: AFP

Romance with Israel

Niemeyer’s reputation, influence and work extended beyond Brazil’s borders, mainly due to his long exile, during the period when the country was ruled by a military junta. He had a convoluted romance with Israel that ranged from mutual enthusiasm to disappointment and frustration. When he came here in 1964, at the invitation of businessman Yekutiel Federman, he received a reception that would not have embarrassed a king or a rock star. During his six-month stay in Israel, he created designs for a series of private and state projects, including the Nordia complex (now Dizengoff Center), the Panorama Towers in Haifa, the University of Haifa, Kikar Hamedina and Ir Hanegev, a city planned for Israel’s south. In the end, none of the projects he designed were built as Niemeyer had planned them; they were either not built or were redesigned by others.

A view of an arched structure in the grounds of the Tripoli International Fair.Credit: AFP

Though he came from a country as large as a continent, Niemeyer was appalled by the ideology of spreading out construction in tiny Israel and preached the advantages of high-rise construction. Even David Ben-Gurion, the ideologue of spread-out construction, went out of his way to please the master. At a meeting in Sde Boker, he promised Niemeyer, “Here you’ll be able to build to the sky.”

Niemeyer’s partner in his proposal for Kikar Hamedina, architect Abba Elhanani, said at the time that Niemeyer was a great designer, but a small urban planner. It is reasonable to assume that this was not the reason why his ideas were not accepted in Israel, since even without him, urban planning in Israel is “small,” to say the least. While none of his plans were implemented as written, Niemeyer opened the door high-rise construction in Israel, and although he was a communist, he accelerated the privatization of planning and real estate. He was also the forefather of the brise soleil, the “sun breakers,” later the slatted shutters, and for that he deserves a climatic thank you to this day.

Visitors take a selfie as tour The Children Pavilion, designed in the early 1960s by the late Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, at the Rashid Karami International Fair, in the northern city of TripoCredit: Hassan Ammar/AP

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