Canceled: When the Future Looked Bright We Didn’t Wear Shades

In their golden years, the young Arab nations gave birth to aspiring modern urban projects. In a part of the world where the notion of nation-state has run bankrupt, it seems brave to revisit the ambitious products of this long gone Modern era. Those latent and inanimate structures bear great potential for recovery; it might be time to reinvent them.

The seeds of that modernist project arrived mostly from the European colonial powers. In the age of triumphant imperialism, great fairs and expositions marked the landscape of European capitals, glorifying the industrial might and the colonial ambitions of those nations. Following their footsteps in the 1950s, the capitals of newly independent Arab countries saw the flowering of “international fairs”. One such monumental edifice was set up in Damascus in 1955, Baghdad followed a year later, and the Tripoli International Fair was commissioned to Oscar Niemeyer shortly after 1958 when Fouad Chehab was appointed President of the young Lebanese Republic.

The Tripoli International Fair was an ambitious project, in line with the tendencies of the era. It covered 70 hectares of land in the capital of North Lebanon and accommodated in addition to the fair, museums, theatres, housing units and official accommodation, all punctuated by gardens and ponds. Construction work started in 1967 and was interrupted by the eruption of civil war. Although it had reached an advanced stage, its execution was never completed; the Fair buildings were successively occupied by the different militias controlling the city, sieged by the Syrian army, pillaged, ransacked, devastated. Today, the magnificent edifices remain dormant, desolate remnants of a nationalistic project gone bankrupt.

Based on the archive of the A.C.A. (Arab Centre for Architecture) which is the most extensive database covering the Arab world’s Modern Architecture, I propose to revisit this Modern Arab specimen. It will be studied in the socio-political and economical context that produced it in opposition to its present situation.

Students will be asked to bring forward a scenario of recuperation, demolition, addition… The aim of the exercise is far from being a fetishist approach to what once was. Instead it is an attempt to still extract meaning out of the manipulation of this phantom, while considering the bitter realities of its present socio-political and economical context.

Bernard Khoury will be in residence to teach on August 31, September 1, 17, 18, October 1, 2, 15, 16, 29, and 30, November 12, and 13, and for the final review in December. In addition, Professor George Arbid of American University of Beirut (AUB), Department of Architecture and Design, will join the class on September 24 and 25.