Tripoli's abandoned and 'dystopian' exhibition centre is slowly coming back to life

The architects behind the Niemeyer guest house renovation say the site has 'so many opportunities'

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On the outskirts of the Lebanese city of Tripoli lies a sprawling site that speaks of the country's promise and tragedy.

At 10 hectares, the Rashid Karameh International Exhibition Centre is one of the largest sites of its kind in the world.

Under the eye of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, a state-of-the-art complex was planned, with 15 structures including an exhibition hall, a national pavilion and an outdoor concert stage.

Construction, by local companies, began in 1964, only for it to be abandoned 10 years later with the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon.

The grounds, with the half-finished amphitheatre and hall, went on to become a destination for field trips for students as a celebrated example of Modernist architecture in the Middle East.

Nicolas Fayad and Charles Kettaneh were regular visitors as American University of Beirut architecture students.

Those early expeditions eventually laid the seeds for their celebrated rehabilitation of the Niemeyer Guest House, which won the 2022 Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

Lebanese architects Nicolas Fayyed and Charles Kettaneh talking to 'The National' about their award winning project. Photo: Christopher Wilton-Steer

"A good word to describe the site is dystopian. It was this space that has been left empty and untouched since the war," Kettaneh tells The National from the Aga Khan's award ceremony in Muscat, Oman.

"We would visit the grounds from as far back as 20 years ago and we found it beautiful and inspiring because it was a place for exploration."

While activity on the site was sporadic — although between 1995 and 1998 it did host several regional exhibitions — its stature as one of Niemeyer's greatest unrealised designs grew and in 2018 was included on Unesco’s World Heritage Tentative List.

By this time Kettaneh and Fayad had founded Beirut's East Architecture Studio, a practice renowned for their innovative and contemporary designs, including urban homes and office spaces.

In 2017, a request for proposal to renovate the guest house went out from Expertise France — a development agency run under the auspices of the French government — and the Association of Lebanese Industrialists. The pair jumped at the chance to contribute to a site that had inspired them since childhood.

"The client wanted to repurpose the guest house and make it a place to bring in artisans from the region to work on prototypes and network with other designers from Tripoli, Beirut and beyond so they can exchange ideas and techniques," Kettaneh says.

The Niemeyer guest house in Tripoli, Lebanon has been named one of the six winners of the 2022 Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture

Fayad says the project was immediately beset with challenges.

"The first priority was to save the building because it was structurally starting to decay due to weathering," he says.

"The second aspect we had to reconcile was how to actually intervene on a structure that was never completed. We had to understand how Niemeyer would have wanted it and that's where all the six months of research came into play.”

Informed by Niemeyer's established techniques, the pair set to work by adding flexible, transparent steel-and-glass partitions to complement the ceiling structure and conceal certain structural elements behind locally sourced plywood panelling.

Electro-mechanical features were included to increase ventilation and the amount of natural light.

The Niemeyer guest house in Tripoli, Lebanon. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture

Funded for an undisclosed sum by the European Union, the six-month project was completed by the end of 2018 and currently acts as the base of the Tripoli carpentry association, Minjara.

"That has been really beautiful to see," Kettaneh says.

"It is a platform where designers create products that [are exhibited] around the world such as in Paris and Belgium and sell online."

The Aga Khan Architecture Award jury also hailed the project's restorative powers.

The judges described the refurbished guesthouse as “an inspiring tale of architecture's capacity for repair, at a time of dizzying, entangled crisis around the world, and in Lebanon in particular".

Renovation of the Niemeyer guest house. Photo: Aga Khan Trust for Culture

Although it is fully functioning, Kettaneh describes the guest house as unfinished business.

"The place was initially designed by Niemeyer to have 14 rooms for accommodation, but unfortunately that was not part of our renovation scope because of the budget," he says.

"We do hope that it will be part of the next phase for the development because it’s not only important for us, as architects, to see the building fully completed, but it also benefits the space in terms of how it can be used.”

Fayad hopes the project and the award’s profile encourage other architects and benefactors to invest in rebuilding the fairgrounds.

"Times are very difficult now in Lebanon with economic meltdown and the Beirut port explosion, but we do hope this project can inspire others," he says.

"We do hope it is the beginning of other similar interventions at the fair because it remains historically untouched and it is so massive. There are so many opportunities and things to discover."

Scroll through the gallery below to see the winners of the 2022 Aga Khan Award for Architecture

Updated: November 04, 2022, 6:02 PM