Can conservationists save Oscar Niemeyer’s fairground in Lebanon?

A short piece in the Christian Science Monitor, following up on a visit to a modernist fairground relic in northern Lebanon.

By Frederick Deknatel, Contributor / April 20, 2010

Tripoli, Lebanon

An abandoned international fairground in Tripoli, Lebanon, designed by famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer – the architect behind Brasília and the United Nations Secretariat in New York, among other buildings – faces an uncertain future.

Nearly complete when Lebanon’s civil war began in 1975, the modernist international fairground was mostly abandoned throughout the fighting and the following two decades of reconciliation and reconstruction. A theater housed in an oversized concrete dome was reportedly used as a weapons dump by Syrian soldiers, who reinforced it with unsightly steel rods, still visible.

Named after Rashid Karami, a Tripoli native and 10-time prime minister who was assassinated in the last years of the civil war, the site is a forgotten, sprawling artifact of architectural modernism.

It tells part of the development story of the 1950s and ’60s, an era of political disruption and ambitious building projects.

Mr. Niemeyer had just completed his signature government buildings for Brasília, Brazil’s capital built on a savanna, when he accepted the commission from Lebanon’s government in the early 1960s. His 15 pavilions set amid an oval park expressed his commitment to reinforced concrete, from the ceremonial arch to the pyramid to the amphitheater, helipad, and curving exhibition hall.

Today the cracked, empty buildings get less attention than the grounds; a conservation group has restored the park’s flora and is now fighting for its architecture.

In 2006, the World Monuments Fund listed it as one of its 100 most endangered sites, in response to a failed plan to replace it with a tourist village based on Disneyland. For now, the maarad, or exhibition, as Niemeyer’s park is known locally, sits near the sea on the edge of the city, its only occupants curious visitors and residents out for a walk.

American University in New Cairo

CAIRO – In the desert east of the city, off the highway to the Suez Canal, is the new 260-acre campus of the 90-year-old American University in Cairo (AUC). It opened last fall at a price tag of more than $400 million, a quarter coming from USAID. University administrators and developers hope New Cairo will one day be home to some 2 million people. It’s a model of Cairo’s present and future urbanism, a profitable solution to congestion and overcrowding in one of the world’s largest and most polluted cities. Faculty and administrators are split on the changes.

“We should not immediately approve of this kind of transformation without asking about the wider context of privatization and how a university relates to society,” says Hanan Sebea, an assistant professor of anthropology.

In the face of Cairo’s crowded infrastructure, the development answers for years have looked to the possibilities of building elsewhere. AUC is keeping part of its old, eight-acre campus on Tahrir Square.

“Central Cairo is overloaded with lots of pressures that are beyond the capabilities of its infrastructure,” says Ashraf Salloum, the university architect who oversaw the large design team behind the campus. “If we want to really help the development of the city, we need to give the city space to breathe.”

AUC will be an “anchor for development” in this stretch of desert, he says. But are new, world-class facilities enough, even at the loss of a central urban site?

“Space is very symbolic, but it’s not only about infrastructure,” Ms. Sebea says. “Downtown, presence is very important, and it goes beyond fieldwork. It’s accessibility and the interest of the university to interact with society.”

Another recent story for the Christian Science Monitor.

In Syria, delicate preservation work is pushing against profit-driven speed.

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DAMASCUS, SYRIA – It claims to be the world’s oldest capital city, outlived only by Aleppo, Syria; and Jericho, on the West Bank. The proof is there, in Mesopotamian texts that mention Damascus and in a deep urban foundation of streets, houses, and sewers from every civilization, piled on top of one another.

The fairly straight street that cuts across Damascus’s Old City was once a colonnaded Roman road: the Via Recta or “Street Called Straight” from the Bible. After the Muslims conquered Syria, then ruled by the Byzantines, Damascus became the capital of the first great Islamic empire. At its peak in the 8th century, the Umayyad dynasty spread from North Africa across Asia, its center at the sparkling Great (Umayyad) Mosque, a former pagan temple, then a church, that claims to house the head of John the Baptist.

But it is the city’s more recent history that is reshaping contemporary Damascus. As Syria slowly opens its socialist economy to tourism and development, scores of traditional Arab houses from the 17th to 19th centuries have been restored and reopened as boutique hotels and restaurants in the capital’s UNESCO-protected Old City.

Three late-Ottoman era houses south of Straight Street – Beit Nizam, Beit Sibai, and Beit Kuwatli – that were once the residences of Damascene notables and later, European consuls, are at the center of an increasingly frenetic pace of development often motivated more by profit than good preservation practice. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), which promotes historic preservation and development projects throughout the Muslim world, has invested $20 million to restore and reopen the three houses as a boutique hotel.

Read the rest of my recent story for the Christian Science Monitor (which grew mostly out of my Fulbright research in fair Sham) here. Photo courtesy of the Aga Khan Development Network office in Damascus.

Syria: Where war hides history

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DURA-EUROPOS, SYRIA – Syria is Damascus to the growing number of Western tourists here. A short trip to the Greek desert city of Palmyra, about halfway to the Euphrates from the capital, is often as far east as visitors go.

Down the highway, however, where the Euphrates greens a strip of the rocky landscape, is a corner of the country less known for historical sights than for its proximity to war-torn Iraq. It is from here that militants have entered Iraq since the American invasion in 2003. The conflict has left Dura-Europos largely unseen by tourists.

But on a cliff overlooking the Euphrates less than 30 miles from Iraq, where Roman soldiers once watched for invading Persians, it’s possible to imagine life in the fortified desert city of Dura-Europos 2,000 years ago. Founded in 300 BC by Seleucus, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, it was a cosmopolitan outpost; first Hellenistic, then Roman – home to Greeks, Syrians, Christians, and Jews.

Read the rest of my most recent story for the Christian Science Monitor.

Syria: Iraqi artists, now refugees, struggle to pursue art in exile

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My recent story for the Christian Science Monitor (with more coming):

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

DAMASCUS, SYRIA – To support his art in Baghdad, Alaa Ismael opened an interior-design office in a commercial area near his house. But after the American invasion, customers dwindled as checkpoints choked the city.

In 2004, his office was burned and robbed by extremists. “They killed everyone, not only artists,” he said. “Jihadis would threaten us, calling us ‘kafirs’ [unbelievers] because of our art, because of the style or subject of our work.” While he was never threatened personally, “threats were all around.”

So Mr. Ismael left with his wife, sister, and nephews for Syria, where he has been for the past five years. He quickly shakes his head when asked about going back. His oldest daughter was an infant when they left Iraq; his second daughter was born here this year.

They all share the same apartment in a ramshackle hillside neighborhood overlooking Damascus. One of its rooms is his studio, where large finished canvases and rolled-up paintings are stacked, unsold.

Ismael is one of dozens of Iraqi refugee artists here, struggling to paint and sell his work to support himself and his family and maintain a semblance of his former life in Baghdad.

“Before the war, Baghdad was the cultural and artistic center,” Ismael said. “There were galleries, art schools, universities. There was movement.”

For him, more opportunities in art exist abroad now – through friends and fellow artists in the Gulf and Europe – than in exile here in Syria.

Omar and Alaa are but two of the dozens of Iraqi artists in Damascus right now. Skilled painters, some abstract, some based in Islamic calligraphy and stylized Arabic text, they were a vital part of culture and society of pre-invasion Iraq and now have an equal place among the millions of Iraqi refugees in the region and across the globe. Read the rest here.