For Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh, sustainable architecture should come from the ground of the city. “We need architecture that is anchored in its place and climate, not as an object that creates its own environment,” she tells The National. “I’m always relating the building back to traces of the past. I learn about the vernacular architecture and its relationship to the climate, and how to project that into the future”.
Her approach, which she has termed an “archaeology of the future”, has caught the attention of the architectural world, as well as Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. Within a month, Ghotmeh, 41, who lives in Paris, won two major architectural prizes. Last week, her Stone Garden building in Beirut was named Architecture Project of the Year at the Dezeen Awards 2021.
The discrete and slender concrete tower with residential flats was designed to fit the urban make-up of the city, while echoing layers of its history. “Stone Garden whispers the memory of Beirut, its history, its ground. It tries to offer an alternative way of constructing at height in a Mediterranean city and in a hot climate,” she says.
A facade of sand-coloured mortar with hand-chiselled lines evokes the eroded surface of Beirut’s prehistoric Pigeon Rocks on the city's shores. Their immaculate straightness appears at once futuristic and organic. “The facade was combed as we comb the earth before planting, as a body emerging and narrating the city,” says Ghotmeh.
Yet these lines are also a nod to craft and its potential for sustainable construction. “The power of the hand is presented as an act of healing. When we build by hand, we are more aware of the impact that we may have on the environment,” she explains.
Meanwhile, the building’s open terraces and urban gardens mimic the city’s scars from the civil war. “They transform the scars into moments of life,” she says, “Large windows play along the elevation of the envelope, they open to the city and house lush gardens, bringing nature at the heart of residences.”
The award’s jury praised the building’s “remarkable freshness and power". They said: “This project is really poetic − it is talking about memory architecture, which is a hard thing to do in a multi-dwelling project. It is going to give a new platform for a seed of ideas in Lebanon.”
And that’s not all. Since 2016, Ghotmeh has been among the architects involved in Hidalgo’s project Reinventer Paris, which aims to transform the city into the first green capital of its kind. For this, Ghotmeh will be designing a wooden tower that hosts a sustainable feeding programme in the district of Massena.
“Ghotmeh is present in the debate about the future of the city,” says architecture critic Kaye Geipel, who was a jury for the Schelling Architecture Prize 2020, which was awarded to Ghotmeh in November for her contributions to the field of architecture. “[She is] a weighty voice in the large-scale project of Mayor Hidalgo, who wants to make Paris a green capital and exemplary for France and Europe”.
Ghotmeh explains that her design approach stems from her upbringing in Beirut. “The city was like an open archaeology, it was always unveiling itself,” she says, “It made me think about our relationship with our ancestors, and the hidden cities that exist beneath us, but also the question of the ground.”
“In the past we thought about buildings as independent environments, climatised and full of glass that just sit there and ignore what’s around them,” she explains. “They could consume as much as they want. They don’t wear the traditions of their place. This is not sustainable, or durable or circular”.
When Ghotmeh began designing the Stone Garden in 2010, Beirut was a different place. “There was this beautiful creative community of designers, fashion designers, architects and chefs. It was a fertile and positive moment. The city’s identity had been developing with the works and voices of many artists and activists,” she recalls.
But today, the entire country is plagued by political deadlock and economic crises. Two of Ghotmeh’s projects in Lebanon, which includes a museum in the Bekaa Valley, have been put on hold. “The failed political system has been suppressing the extraordinary spirit of this city,” she says, “I remain hopeful that change will be possible towards a more just society and environment.”
Nonetheless, a string of projects in France can further push her ideas on architecture and sustainability. She is working on a vast workshop building, called Precise Acts, for the luxury brand Hermes. “It is a low carbon, passive building that will be a benchmark in contributing into an ecological transition in France,” she says.
In the same vein, Ghotmeh is developing wooden housing for athletes for the Paris 2024 Olympics. Her designs for the National Dance Centre in the city of Tours will explore the relationship between dance and architecture.
Yet her dream building, she says, would be a public space along the Beirut coastline that would serve as a universal playground for all ages.
“It would be a joyful public space. It’s a new typology for a museum in a way, that’s not about the collection, but rather the collection of relationships and community making,” Ghotmeh says. “I’m always excited to develop new typologies. How do you really build a public space that’s not just a piazza or the space between buildings, where people find joy?”