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Son of the cedars
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Talking to Bernard Khoury
Talking to Bernard Khoury
The celebrated Lebanese architect talks about how Beirut is built
Tom Lewis, Special to NOW Lebanon , September 19, 2008
Architect Bernard Khoury (svenokey.sprayblog.se)
Lebanonís most prominent architect has quietly peppered the capital with buildings that have set tongues wagging across the globe since his return to the country in the early 1990s. Khoury sat down with Tom Lewis and talked about the built environment in Lebanon today and its effect on the national psyche.
NOW Lebanon: You have been hailed as one of the foremost architects of your generation, and your work appears in some of the worldís major cities. But the majority of your work is in Lebanon. Why?
Bernard Khoury: Because I like rough terrain I suppose! When I graduated from Harvard University in 1993, I had an idea of the sort of reconstruction projects I thought should be constructed in Beirut and Lebanon, and wanted to be a part of it. But I soon realized that the projects Iíd envisioned werenít going to happen, not in the public sphere anyway. So I looked into the private sphere and started working in the way I thought appropriate to post-war Lebanon there. Not that I think you can really book-end something like the civil war between the dates history lays down for you. I donít think you can say that the causes and motives at the heart of the civil war were absent beforehand, or have necessarily gone away today. Lebanon has a rich seam to be tapped into, and if it is, it can reap huge rewards architecturally. Sadly, it isnít delved into enough, and the resulting buildings often put a sort of false aspiration before an honest, creative reflection of the climate they are built in.
NOW: So how do you think architecture in Lebanon can respond to those factors?
Khoury: I look at the minutiae of each plot of land I build on. These personal histories become a major inspiration for the structure we eventually build. I think that by incorporating the stories of the land into a building, you get a true reflection of the landscape and context that sustains it and the people it serves. I really enjoy the process; so many of the buildings I started work on evolved dramatically as the truth of the context revealed itself. Many of them became, aesthetically, structures that were a huge departure from what weíd originally designed. I think, though, this response to context is lacking in much of the architecture that dominates many of Beirutís landmark reconstruction projects.
NOW: Why is that reflection of the reality of life on the ground in Lebanon absent in many of its post-war buildings?
Khoury: Well, I think the mentality driving the construction and reconstruction projects in the 1990s was often a hyper-capitalist one. The role architecture can play in forging a cohesive identity for a nation and its people was therefore lost sight of. Architecture is certainly part of the fabric of a country, but it has to reflect the way people work and interact and, to a certain extent, elements of the national character. Iím not interested in creating monuments for Lebanon, Iím more interested in the, what I call, modest interventions architecture can provide in society. By that I mean facilitating the ways people communicate and interact with each other in a building. In that sense, I see my buildings more as devices than as structures.
NOW: Do the hyper-capitalist buildings you hint at precipitate the interactions between people as you think buildings should?
Khoury: I think many of the buildings straddle a strange gulf between the past and the future. Iíve spoken a lot about the reconstruction of Beirutís Central District for example. This is a cityscape based on the past looking to the future. Whereís the present in it all? I donít understand this at all. A very packageable version of history has been created there, and I donít think this reflects the reality of Lebanon today, or its past or future personalities either. Itís a watered-down version of what Lebanon was, and I think that ultimately dilutes what it could be today and what it will be in the future. I suppose it says something about a fraction of Lebanonís character, but it isnít representative of the country as a whole or of the huge wealth of history, people and interactions that are inherent to the capital and the country at large.
NOW: What effect does this sort of architecture have on the communities that live around it?
Khoury: Well, in a way, I suppose it reflects the tendency to sweep things under the carpet here. The fighting in May proved that the carpet has to explode at some point. I think it encourages people to look at their surroundings in a skewed way, and I think that obviously has an effect on how people see themselves in relation to their environment. My project during my studies at Harvard looked at this, and, in many ways, it was a response to the plans that were under way to reconstruct central Beirut. I wanted to look at how Lebanonís built landscape could be reconstructed in a way that reflected the past it had been through, the present it now resided in, and the future it was to be a part of.
NOW: What did the project consist of?
Khoury: It was called Evolving Scars. We wanted to take a structure damaged by the war and restore it in a way that didnít deny or hide traces of the conflict it had been bound to. It was intended as a political statement, in opposition to the reconstruction plans under development for downtown. We planned the project as an architectural experiment. We imagined enveloping the structure of a damaged building in a translucent cell, which became a ďmemory collector.Ē The existing structure would then be demolished, piece by piece, and its debris inserted into the outer membrane. When the original structure had been dismantled completely, a new structure would have emerged. The project didnít imagine Beirut in a hypothetical future. It wanted to look at the process of demolishing and rebuilding and transforming damage into something else that was firmly rooted in the present.
NOW: Your most feted building, the BO18 nightclub in Karantina, celebrates its tenth birthday this year. It was a significant addition to the Beirut landscape when it opened in 1998 and received a huge amount of international attention. Has its significance changed in a decade?
Khoury: Well, when we built it, it was meant as a temporary structure, built only to last for about five years. Yes, it did receive a lot of attention when it opened, and it opened my eyes to the fact that you can never tell how a building will be received, or how people will interpret it, before itís completed. It was purposefully built in a loaded area in the cityís history, but I didnít expect, or particularly appreciate, the symbol it became in some quarters. A German journalist came to interview me about it a few years ago and his article painted me working in the foundations of the building, stumbling over corpses and skeletons. Articles like that fetishize the conflict and make it palatable to an outside audience, which pays little respect to the areas and people who suffered during the conflict. I think its significance probably has changed somewhat, but I think ten years shows that itís still a relevant part of the landscape, and that the disjuncture prevalent in a society that seeks to be entertained but has not yet healed its wounds is still something worth articulating.
NOW: Have you expressed this elsewhere in your work?
Khoury: We wanted the Yabani Japanese restaurant in Monot to be a direct comment on the area that surrounded it. The buildings adjacent to the plot were still desolate, with refugees and the displaced squatting inside. We wanted the contrast to be quite clear. The restaurant, like B018, is built underground. The idea of being taken underground and away from the reality above it into the bowels of a constructed environment was something we were keen to explore. I designed the dining area in the round, so that the focus would be on the central entrance hall, and that people would be focused on the act of dining and on the other diners coming and going, again ensuring that the reality of life above ground was absent from the experience. I suppose the Centrale bar and restaurant near Achrafieh is perhaps a counter to that. We enmeshed the original building in wire grills, so the existing features would still be visible. And with the retractable walls of the bar at the top of the building revealing the skyline to those inside, the relationship with the context was clear. My own house [NBK Residence], too, I suppose, does this. Itís constructed in a building my father built, but my wife and I wanted to make it relevant to us and to the way we live our lives. Our babyís crib is in the center of the living room, and the house is quite open, we didnít want to prescribe to traditional housing typologies. We wanted it to be a home that reflected who we are and how we like to live our lives.
NOW: Has construction in Lebanon, and the architectural aesthetic, developed since the ďheydayĒ of the 1990s? Are things better now, architecturally speaking?
Khoury: I think many of the skyscrapers that are shooting up across the capital are reminiscent of the developments unfolding elsewhere in the world. So many of them look like buildings in Shanghai or in parts of America and exude a sort of generic modernity. It's the same story, but there are architects and buildings that are changing things slowly. All we can do is intervene in the ways we can, I suppose.
Lebanon, Gateway to the Sun, Doorway to man's Spirit !