Inside the dome of the abandoned experimental theatre at the Rachid Karami Tripoli International Fair, a group of teenagers whoop and clap, laughing as the eerie space fills with rolling, overlapping echoes. In this derelict auditorium, which was abandoned before the insulating tiles could be placed on the ceiling, the slightest whisper bounces back from every angle.
Rusted lengths of rebar hang from the roof like strands of hair above a huge depression in the centre, which was originally designed to hold a circular, spinning stage.
The Tripoli International Fairground is a surreal anomaly, a symbol of Lebanon’s grand pre-war dreams and its post-war economic stagnation. Set amid a square kilometre of landscaped gardens, close to the centre of Tripoli, it was designed by Brazilian modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer.
Conceived by Lebanon’s former president Camille Chamoun in the wake of the 1958 civil conflict, the trade fair was intended to unite citizens and overcome sectarian divisions, as well as to inject a new lease of life into Lebanon’s second city, which lost its historical trade links and stagnated economically after independence.
Niemeyer, a visionary, Pritzker prize-winning Brazilian architect known for creating avant-garde concrete buildings, was invited to Lebanon in 1962, just two years after he finished work on Brasilia, Brasil’s purpose-built capital city. In Tripoli, he designed a vast park filled with free-standing, sculptural buildings made from his signature reinforced concrete.
“I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man,” he once said. “I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves.”
This attraction is evident in the playful, experimental buildings he designed for the fair, which include the domed theatre, a circular helipad, a vast, gently curving exhibition hall, a pavilion featuring elegant Islamic arches, an outdoor concert space, a radical communal housing project, a space museum, a bowling alley, an enormous monumental archway and a cylindrical tower containing a rotating restaurant, from which jets of water would spray into a surrounding pool.
“I call this place the modern ruins of Tripoli,” says Mira Minkara, a native Tripolitan tour guide who conducts regular tours of the old city, alongside a contemporary itinerary including a visit to the abandoned train station, the modern seaside area known as Mina and the abandoned fairground. “It’s avant-garde even now, and it was very avant-garde in Tripoli in the 1960s.”
Set amid landscaped gardens and surrounded by reflective pools and fountains, each building is unique and self-contained, but together they create an immersive, futuristic landscape, complementing each other in different ways from each new perspective.
“The whole concept of Oscar Niemeyer is about not just looking at architecture but stimulating emotion, so that’s why when you go there… you feel it physically,” explains Minkara.
Construction was scheduled to finish in 1976, but in 1975 the civil war broke out. In the 15 years of violence that followed, the fairground was occupied by fighters and militia groups, who looted the furniture, generators, light fixtures and marble floors. Successive plans to put the fairground to use after the war ended in 1990 have ended in failure.
Today, the abandoned site is eerie yet magical. Its gardens have been restored to their former beauty, with neat shrubs and flowering trees set amid manicured lawns. Niemeyer’s fantastical buildings, frozen in time, are at once retro and futuristic. The pools where water should reflect the sky stand empty throughout the long, dusty Lebanese summer until the winter rains fill them for a few fleeting weeks each year.
The land on which the fair stands was expropriated by the Lebanese government. While it is not technically open to the public, it has gradually made its way into the lives of Tripoli's citizens. Occasional private events, such as wedding parties, as well as concerts and festivals held in the gardens, have helped to reintegrate it into the fabric of the city. Although security guards are stationed at the gates, they often allow curious visitors inside the explore the picturesque site.
“Even a few years ago, it was really a phantom space,” says Minkara. “But now it’s more fashionable for people to exercise, for people to have dogs, so people are realising they have this space where they can exercise or just walk and hang out.”
Minkara worries that without funding, Niemeyer’s visionary buildings will gradually crumble away. A storm last year caused part of one of the structures to collapse, she says.
A survey done by a Tripoli engineering firm on behalf of the fair’s board, however, revealed that the full rehabilitation of the site would cost $33 million, a sum that is unlikely to materialise any time soon.
In the meantime, Niemeyer’s surreal playground endures, a tragic testament to Lebanon’s history. With its beautiful gardens and experimental designs, it is one of the Middle East’s most fascinating and unexpected treasures.