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Nathalie Rosa Bucher

In the footsteps of the great Oscar Niemeyer

View from the ramp leading down the Open Air Theatre with the tour group.
Parking & entrance to Maarad lot seen from the street (Image courtesy of Gray Robertson)
Bullet-riddled concrete wall
One of the four kiosks at the end of the Fair.
Exhibition Centre
Niemeyer 4ever graffiti
Lebanese Pavilion in winter
Space Museum/Helipad, big Arch and Water Tower
View of site from the ramp, below the Arch
Empty and over-grown swimming pool in front of the Master’s House.
Inside the Dome, and a side view of the Arch

A stone’s throw from where Mira Minkara, a Tripolitan tour guide, grew up, the famous modernist Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer designed 15 structures over an area of 100 square kilometers. These included an exhibition center, a space museum, a dome, a huge arch, and an open-air stage. “The dome we actually called makuk el fada2 as children, which means ‘space ship’ in formal Arabic,” she recalled.

 

The Rachid Karame International Fair in Tripoli, or the Maarad, as locals refer it, bears a great deal of resemblance to Brazil’s legendary capital, Brasília, which Niemeyer also designed, capturing local aesthetics through what would become signature organic shapes and rounded lines in reinforced concrete.

 

Minkara, who has been organizing tours of Tripoli’s Citadel and souks for over 10 years, explains that following a childhood fascination, she, like most of her compatriots, lost interest in the Maarad. “Now I am proud that we have such a space in my city!”

 

Realizing there was demand, Minkara started organizing tours of the site in May 2014. Enlivening the tours with humor, insight and Tripolitan anecdotes, she has managed to raise awareness of the site, which has impressed locals and foreigners alike.

 

“It was my first time at the site,” said Adham Selim, a Beirut-based architect from Egypt. “It’s difficult to experience it from an architect’s point of view, as you inevitably look at it reflecting what you’ve studied and practice.”

 

“Oscar Niemeyer stands for an alternative modernism,” he continued. “To Latin Modernism, there is another side of the story – it’s not as orthodox. There’s a lot of political energy, going against the regime, the status quo.”

 

Like a drawbridge leading into a medieval town, visitors walk up a ramp leading to an overview, pulling them into the site, buildings peaking out between lush greenery.

 

The curved, seemingly endless (and deserted) exhibition center stretches for 750 meters on the left. “No columns were used in the design of the Exhibition Centre,” Minkara said. Meandering along the exhibition center, she points out a skylight at the far end: “Oscar was influenced by Brazil; its nature, organic forms, waves and human curves – he renders homage to sensual erotic features through the sky lights.”  

 

Behind the exhibition center is what was conceived as an administrative block that was occupied by the Syrian army in the 1980s and 90s. The Syrians gutted the buildings and used them for executions and torture. “A lot of people died here during the 80s and 90s – it’s a site of horror,” Minkara said. Stray dogs now roam the area.

 

Across the way are four kiosks that would allow visitors to enjoy refreshments under the shade of their low, protruding roofs. Most of the white tiles that covered the kiosks – all the rage in the 60s – have been broken and covered with graffiti.

 

The Master House is situated at the end of the grounds, beyond the open air theater and the arch. The house, made of stone and concrete, was meant to blend in harmoniously with nature. As it stands, however, the swimming pool at the front is overgrown and filled with rubble. Vegetation has taken over the building, though light still floods into some of the rooms as Niemeyer had envisioned. The house was completed but destroyed by the Syrian army.  

 

True to form, Niemeyer designed a bowling alley underneath the theater. “Typically communist,” someone quipped. Fidel Castro once dubbed the architect one of two communists left in the world – Castro being the other one.

 

“Oscar didn’t know the country when he came to Lebanon in 1962,” Minkara said. The only building in which he veered from his usual style is indeed the Lebanese Pavilion; paying homage to the arched windows found in traditional Lebanese houses. Now-empty reflective pools – another Niemeyer trademark – surround the Pavilion, designed as an exhibition space.

 

The experimental theater, known as the Dome, features prominently in the collective memory of many 30-something Tripolitans. “The Syrians would let us children in,” Minkara recalled. “From my home I could see my brother on top – it was a game to walk up and across the Dome. Everyone had bruises at some point.”

 

Niemeyer’s career spanned nine decades and the dome became an iconographic element of his work. Remaining true to his style, The Lucas Nogueira Garcez pavilion in Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo has one, and the National Museum, completed in 2006, features a similar dome, replete with with an outside ramp and a skylight.

 

Inside the Maarad Dome hang “spaghetti steel rods.” Untamed echos in the Dome inspire visitors to play music there, and local band Mashrou3 Leila did a series of recordings at the site.

 

 

Quo vadis, Maarad?

 

Syria opposed an international fair being established in Tripoli for fear it would compete with the Damascus Fair, Minkara says. Construction nonetheless went ahead, but stopped in 1975 at the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war and was never resumed.

 

Niemeyer himself criticized the process that led to the selection of the site. Styliane Philippou, in an article featuring original sketches, wrote that Niemeyer thought the site selection should have been preceded by an in-depth study of the urbanization of the region in order to guarantee the organic integration of the fair with the future expansion of the city. “He would have also preferred a coastal site,” Philippou added.

 

In the 1990s, the Maarad experienced a brief renaissance, hosting a number of successful fairs for which a significant part of the exhibition center was used.

 

Plans emerged around 2004 to transform the site into a Disneyland-esque resort, which alarmed heritage activists and others, and the site was subsequently put on the World Monuments Watch List of 100 most endangered sites in 2006.

 

“Only recently has there been enough stability in the city in order to be able to look into the betterment of all its government facilities, the fair grounds included,” said Marc Akouri, who sat on the board of directors of the Trade Fair Grounds between 2000 and 2009. Akouri suggests privatization is the best way forward to preserve and advance the entire site.

 

Despite its turbulent history, the Maarad is still able to mesmerize and inspire. Moreover, it has humane elements: Organic lines and shapes, ramp features and vantage points are designed to make us experience elation, make us feel connected, part of the environment, rambling around with the grand master at our sides.

 

 

*Tours usually conclude with an exploration of Mina, traditional lunch and a stroll along the Corniche. Return bus trip from Beirut and tour cost LL45 000. For more info consult Mira’s Tours Facebook page. Tours resume in September.

 

 

View of the site from the ramp below the Arch, Dome on the left, Lebanese Pavilion up front, Space Museum on the right. The new Tripoli was built around the Maarad. (Image courtesy of Gray Robertson)

  • KayStearns

    Growing up in Tripoli with Niemeyer's melange of ideas in the background, it was difficult not to fall in love with the man's style. But I only discovered this after leaving Tripoli and learning about modernism and brutalism as wider social movement representing ideals of their times. It was Fouad Chehab who wanted to diversify and grow Lebanon's various regions and de-centralize. So he proposed the international fair in Tripoli to host the world fair and continue to act as a hub of culture and commerce for Lebanon. Luckily, the site was near finished by the time the war erupted, and more luckily it was left unharmed in the civil war, meaning we can still enjoy this amazing piece of public art. However, local politicians have made a mockery of the site and have failed to utilize it to its potential. Niemeyer envisioned a public fair surrounding by social housing as part of the natural expansion of the city. Instead the area is now the most upscale in all of Tripoli. Still, thats good as the buildings surrounding the fair have more or less complemented the architecture. We need a proper plan for the maarad, something that doesn't touch its architecture, complements its original goals and serves the city well. When Forum de Beyrouth and BIEL were build, it was the final nail in Tripoli's fair's coffin. We should again battle to bring international exhibitions, concerts and events to Tripoli - but first, we should battle to win Tripoli itself. No one will come to watch a massive concert here if we don't sort our in house problems first....

    August 11, 2014

  • nathalie rosa

    Thanks for your comment, KAYSTEARNS-much appreciated!

    August 13, 2014

  • Ren

    Well said but will anything ever happen for Tripoli I hope in the not too distant future it will be appreciated and put to some use

    January 11, 2015