Behind its austere concrete exterior, this university in Beirut recreates an idea of Lebanese public space in a city still healing after war
Lebanon is a narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean and the mountains, little more than 200 kilometres long and roughly 50 kilometres wide. A highway running north to south is the main arterial road; it looks like an American commercial strip. This comparison epitomises how the territory is seen today: as a succession of colliding opposites, a collage.
When the civil war ended in 1990, the political system fell apart, so the interests of individual religious groups, communities and extended-family clans have grown dominant. There is no broadly-conceived urban planning. Frenzied construction is everywhere, especially in suburban and mountainous areas unaffected by the war. The coastline is almost completely built up in places.
The conditions for construction projects are exceptional: there are no public tenders, no state-promoted housing policies − and no rules without exceptions. All that matters are land values. Construction is entirely dominated by large British firms responsible for both the off-the-shelf architecture and the large showcase reconstruction projects.
Local architects have little chance to grow and develop. Their work is mostly limited to villas for rich private clients. A handful of architects nevertheless seek to draw upon the thrilling architectural legacy of the 1950s and ’60s, and to reinvigorate a discourse on architecture and urban design that had all but fallen silent in Beirut.
This is especially true of Pierre El Khoury, Bofill student Nabil Gholam and Bernard Khoury (the last two trained abroad and opened Beirut offices years ago). Their works represent a profound, sometimes metaphorical or symbolic engagement with the experience of war.
This group also includes Youssef Tohme, who has studied and worked in Beirut and Paris; but this project, his debut, has entirely different dimensions of scale and scope. For Tohme, Lebanon is a cosmos of almost solely reflexive responses to external stimuli: destruction, rebuilding and isolation.
His conception of Lebanon is of a country that has grown through fractures and scars. In 2004, with Lebanese practice 109 Architectes, he led the design team of the new building for Beirut’s Saint Joseph University.
The project’s bold design, its unusual internal organisation and idiosyncratic Brutalist expression, initially elicited sceptical reactions from the client and the contractors. But he eventually won them over by integrating the city into the project, extending public space vertically, and rationally arranging services in the lower levels (including a four-storey underground garage).
‘Architecture has an especially precarious status here,’ says Tohme. ‘You must be careful, and always use clever tactics: show restraint, assert oneself, talk, say nothing. I fear the new generation of architects, trained abroad, will simply import ready-made images. We must act more prudently, especially now that Beirut is being built anew. In contrast to other cities, Beirut’s identity is very fragile.’
There is a strong dialogue between light and shadow within the buildings inner recesses
Tohme uses the USJ campus project to pursue key issues explored in his other projects: how can emptiness be formulated architecturally? What determines the relationship between people and built enclosures? Can different functions be superimposed?
Additionally, something unexpected − an almost, a maybe − is a common element in his designs. Tohme wants to take risks. The same is true of the material he selected for the USJ project: in-situ concrete; a substance that is both ambivalent and enables everything. ‘I use concrete to pose questions − not as a medium to obtain a certain form or aesthetic.’
USJ’s Campus of Innovation and Sport sits directly on the old demarcation line that divided the city during the civil war into
the Christian east and the Muslim west. The building complex appears monumental and open at the same time. A total of 60,000 sqm of usable floor area is packed onto a 6,000 sqm site, which, though built up to its edges, still manages to create new urban spaces.
It is the opposite of a freestanding building. In the middle of the high-security diplomatic quarter of the Rue de Damas, where nothing of the old urban structure survives, the building achieves autonomy without appearing monolithic. The deep recesses and rough edges incorporate the heterogeneous architecture of the immediate neighbourhood into the design. The university also required areas for variable use, and themes of appropriation and encounter are addressed in the ‘empty space’, an attempt by the architect to experiment with public space and ask what togetherness could look like in everyday terms.
The inner courtyard has the earthy feel of a cave sculpted by harsh winds.
In Beirut, this concept of public space can be read as a form of resistance, as the city effectively lost its public places as a result of the civil war. For Tohme, it is fundamentally important to address the continuing repercussions of this loss through architecture. In a society where all space is privatised, where the state has no control whatsoever any more, and where individual needs are the sole measure of things, how can one reflect on the basic requirements of a community?
Tohme places a public space at the heart of the campus. Here, on the border of interior and exterior space, an unusual sense of peace dominates: the otherwise ubiquitous noise of the city can only be heard in muted tones.
The court continues upward by means of an exterior staircase, designed to be wide enough for people to sit undisturbed upon it. This leads to the roof terrace, where you can stroll, play sports, talk in peace, or simply hang out − a place for everything, open to all. This three-dimensional public zone can be seen as a model for a spatial continuum without barriers. The opportunities for interaction and reflection this offers are precious in a city still traumatised by the past.
Tohme wants to encourage contemplation of the principle of non-exclusion. Volumes intersect, compete with one another, and/or overlap. A complex structure emerges, one that perhaps comes close to a new form of libanéité, of being ‘Lebanon’.
‘Working out such a spatial mood is a clear alternative to the obsession with architectural style that occupies international architecture,’ says Tohme. ‘The architectural output in Lebanon has become ensnared by questions of a formal nature and of superficially symbolic importance. The question of the spatial effect seems more fundamental and real to me. It is about the sensory experience, about the creation of a system of references, a system of emptiness resulting from the war. So I prefer working with the empty space than making purely visual stipulations. It is a direct expression of freedom.’
The relatively small lot sizes and the great importance the architect attaches to public space have informed the campus’s vertical organisation. As if one had thoroughly shaken up what was originally a monolithic block, the building is comprised of three parts that are, in turn, further divided into smaller units and interconnected via footbridges.
The first block, to the south, contrasts starkly with the others due to its facade cladding of lightweight polycarbonate panels. The block contains stacked sports facilities: on the ground floor is an open space, above which is the gymnasium, and above that the swimming pool. At the very top, on the roof, is a basketball court. In the second block, above the glazed auditorium and the café on the ground floor, are a music hall and seminar rooms, as well as a chapel at the very top. The ground floor of the third block contains the entrance foyer and a large lecture hall. Above these are the library and seminar rooms, a reading room and a rooftop restaurant.
The complex organisational structure, in which uses are repeatedly superimposed to create tensions between them, follows a constructive logic that deviates entirely from conventional layouts. There is no discernible pattern in the system of loadbearing walls and columns − with the possible exception of the grid in the lecture rooms. It seems as if the functional programme has been assembled into a seemingly endless spatial form that could just as well have already existed before. This impression − that the USJ might have always stood here − is reminiscent of the Brutalist architecture of Jacques Kalisz, or Lina Bo Bardi’s SESC Pompéia in São Paulo.
The inner courtyard is open to all in a spirit of sharing rather then owning.
Precisely because the individual volumes cannot be read in the untreated in-situ concrete of the exterior facades, you get the impression of a continuous public space.
In Beirut, where everyone swears by natural stone, exposed concrete is regarded as materia non grata. However, the solid concrete walls are slit, pierced and broken up, thus putting customary readings to the test. Here, the concrete becomes a material of ambivalence, a building material for a cast landscape that refuses to give the viewer even the slightest hint of functional assignments.
The architects have tested the limits of formwork and casting techniques, making us aware of the craft and technique used to form this supposedly industrial material. That these concrete walls, reaching heights of up to 25m, were cast in-situ at all is a testament to the virtuosity of a local construction company.
The south-east facade looks like it has been riddled with bullet holes. It is an intentional gesture, very close to aestheticising the horrors of war, but visually compelling nonetheless.
The concrete was poured in-situ, a testament to the skill of a local construction company.
This principle of experimentation and the lack of perfection from working in-situ also relates to the material itself. The exposed concrete does not have a consistent colour throughout. In some places it tends toward pink, as the quarry that supplied the white sand ceased operations during the construction and the sand then imported from Cyprus had a significantly more reddish pigment.
For Tohme, the resulting variation in the colouring reflects the economic reality in Beirut, which can always change in an unforeseeable way. ‘I have the feeling that with prefabrication, much of the emotionality of building is lost’, says Tohme. ‘That particularly becomes apparent at a large scale. The in-situ concrete tells much about Lebanon and about the conditions that prevailed during the construction.’
Vast shady hollows increase the depth of the building both physically and psychologically.
Memories of the civil war and architecture are constant companions. This building complex for a post-traumatic Beirut contradicts Yona Friedman’s programme for postwar Berlin, in which trauma would create a new awareness of the uselessness of the static.
For Youssef Tohme, the war has shown that the static and durable are not obsolete. The fundamental aim of his investigation is to discover how our world could succeed in enduring. Seen in this light, his architecture in the heart of the city is a defiant argument against war − and also against the current policy of reconstruction.
Architect: Youssef Tohme & 109 Architectes
Photographs: Joe Kesrouani