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.

Beneath the remains in northern Lebanon – The National

I have an essay in this weekend’s Review section of Abu Dhabi’s The National based on a trip to an abandoned Oscar Niemeyer designed fairground in Tripoli late last fall. It’s great to share space in the always excellent Review — be sure to read Rajah Shehadeh’s review of Hillel Cohen’s Good Arabs and Robert Vitalis (author of America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier) on the slow improvement in writing histories of Saudi Arabia.

My piece begins:

The abandoned fairground in Tripoli is only semi-public and we had to badger the guard to let us in. He suggested we visit the newer, smaller, and bland public park across the street, built by the Saudis. But that park hadn’t been designed by Oscar Niemeyer in the decade before Lebanon’s civil war, so two friends and I insisted, answering questions about our nationalities and motivation. “We just want to look,” I said “and take some pictures. We’re interested in the architecture.”

This sufficed and we entered a vast concrete expanse, like an unmarked car park, that led to the ramped entry pavilion of Niemeyer’s unfinished Rashid Karami International Fair Complex.

Commissioned by the Lebanese government in the 1960s shortly after the completion of Brasilia, whose buildings were designed by Niemeyer, the planned permanent exhibition centre in Tripoli is an artefact of Lebanon’s pre-war prosperity, a reminder of a place once called the “Switzerland of the Middle East.”

A bright Los Angeles Times dispatch in 1964 from the “plush playground of the Arab world” reads like it was written from Dubai two years ago: “Real estate values have soared as one glass-walled skyscraper after another has risen on the coveted coast in and around Beirut.” It closes with a nod to Niemeyer.

While the capital saw “oil-rich traders” in “air-conditioned Cadillacs” and billions of dollars of Kuwaiti and Saudi investments pour into its “stable banks”, industrial Tripoli in the north staked its development on a world-class international fairground.

Read the rest at The National. Or see it in PDF form as it appeared in print. Photos from my visit; should be added to my dormant Flickr page soon.