Inside the Lebanese guest house that won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture

The renovation project in Tripoli will share the $1 million prize with five other winners from around the world

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In 1964, construction began on an ambitious permanent international fair in Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city. The plan, according to then president Fouad Chehab, was to turn the port city into an international economic hub to supplement Beirut's growth.

Named the Rachid Karami International Fair, after the country's long-serving prime minister, the 40-hectare attraction was meant to accommodate up to two million visitors a year and included a grand exhibition hall, a national pavilion and an outdoor concert stage among others.

Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, considered one of the foremost names in modernist architecture, designed the masterplan and it was scheduled for opening in 1969.

But progress on the large-scale project soon stalled, initially delayed by funding issues and then by the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. Following successive wars and an Israeli invasion in 1982, work on the fair was permanently halted, leaving the complex abandoned for years.

Part of the Rachid Karami International Fair designed by Oscar Niemeyer in Tripoli. Photo: India Stoughton

In 2018, following local initiatives to revive and protect the project, the fair was added to Unesco’s World Heritage tentative list. Since then, a number of projects have been funded by international organisations to renovate parts of it.

One such project, which involved the restoration of a guest house within the complex, was named as one of the six winners of the $1 million Aga Khan Award for Architecture on Thursday.

The first prizes were announced in 1978 with further ceremonies running every three years. It is the 15th time the awards have been held. The awards were instituted by the Aga Khan to reward building projects and designs that address the needs of communities with significant Muslim populations.

Scroll through the gallery above for more pictures of the Niemeyer guest house project

The exterior of the Niemeyer Guest House. Photo: Cemal Emden / Aga Khan Trust for Culture

Funded by development and aid agency Expertise France, the renovation project adopted a 1,500 square metre space within the complex and turned it into a design platform and production facility. Called Minjara, the space was inaugurated in 2018 and is meant to be a space for suppliers, producers and designers of furniture, an industry Tripoli was once famed for.

Lebanese collective East Architecture Studio was tasked with the project.

Co-founder Charles Kettaneh said much of the budget for the project was spent renovating Niemeyer's existing structure.

"The responsibility for us was to set a valid precedent that was respectful of the history of the fair, of the world of Oscar Niemeyer in our intervention so that it could be a good restarting point, a rebirth of the pavilion," he says in a video explaining the project.

Kettaneh's colleague Nicolas Fayad explains that it was important for the project to be "reversible". He adds how they could imagine the design "being completely taken away" if the programme of the building changes in the future.

The transformation of the guest house has further boosted the stature of the entire site and re-energised calls for its protection.

"The renovation of the Niemeyer Guest House is an inspiring tale of architecture’s capacity for repair, at a time of dizzying, entangled crisis around the world, and in Lebanon in particular, as the country faces unprecedented political, socio-economic and environmental collapse," the jury for the 2022 Aga Khan Award for Architecture said.

The Tripoli project will share the prize with five other winners, including two community spaces in Bangladesh, the Banyuwangi International Airport in Indonesia, the Argo Contemporary Art Museum and Cultural Centre in Iran and the Kamanar Secondary School in Senegal.

The winners were chosen from a shortlist of 20, which were whittled down from a pool of 463. On-site reviews by a team of experts were undertaken to devise the final list.

In the Gulf, Sharjah's restored Flying Saucer was one of the shortlisted projects, alongside the Manama Post Office in Bahrain and the Wafra Wind Tower in Kuwait.

An award ceremony will soon take place in Muscat, Oman, in conjunction with the Aga Khan Music Awards.

Scroll through the gallery below for pictures of the six winners of the 2022 Aga Khan Award for Architecture

Updated: September 23, 2022, 8:35 AM
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