Resilient City

Beirut’s creative scene is thriving despite—or perhaps because of—a tough economical landscape. Veronica Simpson reports

Words by Veronica Simpson

To the untrained Western eye, Beirut is baffling, even menacing. Take the chaos and contradictions in the city centre, where one of the dominant features is a still-ruined relic from the civil war (which lasted from 1975 to 1990): the iconic 1965 cinema, nicknamed The Egg due to its distinctive curves. Designed by Lebanese architect Joseph Philippe Karam, its scorched and bomb-blasted remains are slap bang next to the new, Mohammad al-Amin mosque (also referred to as the Blue Mosque thanks to its luminous azure domes). Built in 2005, it stands right next to – and blatantly dwarfs - the late 19th-century Maronite Christian Cathedral of Saint Georges.

Are their adjacencies intended to symbolise the city’s once legendary religious tolerance, or yet more evidence of the virulent undercurrents that continue to destabilise this region? Laced around these landmarks are huge, multilane roads whose traffic moves at such a speed, and with so little regard for pedestrians, that they are almost uncrossable. Near the cathedral, a large archaeological site – which turns out to be nothing less than the ruined Roman city of Berytus – is slowly having its margins eroded by an illegal car park and abundant fly tipping.

Evidence of the city’s collapsed infrastructure is everywhere, from the bobbing sacks of rubbish that still ripple along the coast – though they have been cleared from the premium resorts closer to the city, where they clustered during 2015’s as yet unresolved waste crisis – to the great cats cradles of electricity cables that cluster over streets and junctions; the local electricity supplies are so erratic that anyone who can afford it has installed their own generator, which the less affluent are blatantly bumping off via their own, home-made rigging.

In the relatively peaceful past decade the city has become a sea of construction; cranes are everywhere. Yet for every not-yet-built tower block, there seem to be four or five abandoned projects, their pollution-stained hoardings still bigging-up empty developer promises: ‘a jewel in the heart of the city’. There is architecture of quality here – the city’s leading institutions and private developers love to employ starchitects, from Snøhetta’s proposed design for the Banque Libano-Française head office in Beirut to the speculative luxury apartments and resorts designed by Herzog & de Meuron and OMA. being transformed into an avenue of museums, with the seemingly laudable intention of ‘creating a place of encounter and exchange’. Between the caramel tones of the neo-Pharaonic Thirties’ Beirut National Museum and the Beit Beirut, built in 1924, which is reopening as a history museum, there are or will be several more cultural hubs, including Mim, a glittering high-tech museum (opened in 2013) showcasing rare minerals amassed by financial software magnate Salim Edde; BeMA (Beirut Museum of Art) designed by long-term Jean Nouvel collaborator Hala Wardé, which will be home to the national collection of modern and contemporary art; and the Beirut City Museum, Renzo Piano’s creation, on Martyrs’ Square, which will show off the city’s archaeological treasures.

Image Credit: Colombe Clier

David Adjaye’s 2016 gallery for the Aishti Foundation covers four floors, with a rotating display of Lebanese businessman Tony Salamé’s estimated 2,000 contemporary art works. For some reason, however, the building has failed to set the architectural or cultural press alight – partly perhaps due to its new typology, percolating high-end retail into the gallery programme. Salamé made his millions retailing luxury fashion brands in the region (where the living wage is less than $500 a month for most people, so it’s hard to see who’s buying all those Louis Vuitton handbags), so he clearly sees no conflict between this intimate juxtaposition of culture and commerce.

There is no evidence of enlightened planning anywhere, though the demarcation line left over from the civil war is gradually being transformed into an avenue of museums, with the seemingly laudable intention of ‘creating a place of encounter and exchange’. Between the caramel tones of the neo-Pharaonic Thirties’ Beirut National Museum and the Beit Beirut, built in 1924, which is reopening as a history museum, there are or will be several more cultural hubs, including Mim, a glittering high-tech museum (opened in 2013) showcasing rare minerals amassed by financial software magnate Salim Edde; BeMA (Beirut Museum of Art) designed by long-term Jean Nouvel collaborator Hala Wardé, which will be home to the national collection of modern and contemporary art; and the Beirut City Museum, Renzo Piano’s creation, on Martyrs’ Square, which will show off the city’s archaeological treasures.

For all its chaos, Beirut is filled with highly educated and cultured people – many of whom have studied abroad and are increasingly returning. A prime example is interior designer Maria Ousseimi, designer of the exquisite Liza restaurant (see Case Study). Now in her early 50s, she was born in Beirut and lived there until she was 10. Like many, her family fled the civil war to Europe and, after a Swiss boarding school education, she ended up with a Masters in international affairs from Columbia University in New York.

She made award-winning documentaries and worked in the war zones of El Salvador, Mozambique and Bosnia-Herzegovina before getting married and having kids in London, then returned to Beirut in 2002. ‘It’s a very inventive place, a very dynamic city,’ she told Departures magazine recently. ‘Plus, compared to other Arab countries, it’s a bubble of freedom.’ She fell into interior design by helping friends put their houses together but has now created three restaurants for celebrated Parisian restaurateur Liza Asseily, with the latest one, in Beirut, being the most spectacular.

Having established a big following for her modern Lebanese cuisine in Paris, Asseily returned to Beirut a few years back, and now uses her restaurant to celebrate and support Beirut’s design community. She programmes events and musical evenings, and champions Beiruti artists, both at home and in Paris. In a recent interview with Executive magazine she said: ‘I think the Lebanese [people] have a responsibility to get involved; when you can’t rely on government, you have to do it yourself. We have to stop complaining and do something.’ She has been an enthusiastic participant in Beirut Design Week (BDW), over the past couple of years.

BDW was established in 2012 by co-founder and director Doreen Toutikian, a Beirut-born social entrepreneur, who studied design in the UK and USA, and was determined to share with the Lebanese people the power of design as a social and economic activator – a movement that has grown exponentially in Europe and the USA in the past decade, but was less embedded in the Middle East.

She says: ‘In Beirut, 2012 was the year there was a lot of social engagement happening; we were right at the beginning of social impact, innovation and entrepreneurship.’ Now, six years down the line, there are still ‘always new initiatives happening, but…the social, economic and political things have been taking their toll on the country. We can’t be in denial of that. In the past few years of us being active, we’ve noticed a ridiculous waste crisis, the failure of our government to do anything about it, and a lot of young people trying to work with the system to help, with recycling or assisting. Many of them have been attacked or physically abused. But what’s always been good about Lebanon and especially Beirut…is that there are always people who are really trying hard to do something about the situation.’

Some of these people include the Save Dalieh campaigning group, who Toutikian flagged up in the 2017 BDW programme. They offered tours of the last chunk of natural Beirut coastline, a beloved piece of public space and home to centuries of fishing families; it is slowly but surely being appropriated (illegally) by developers to transform into high-end resorts that few normal Beirut civilians could possibly afford to visit.

Toutikian would love to see the evolution of public institutions that might support the creative industries, like the UK’s Arts Council or Design Council – or the British Council, which deploys Toutikian as a roving ambassador for design in the region. She talks wistfully of the growing practice of some enlightened European local governments, of harnessing the innovative energy and insight of their young people for the betterment of their cities and citizens. ‘That doesn’t happen in the Lebanon, it never has and it doesn’t seem like it will any time soon,’ she says.

But with the benefit of the BDW and the networks this event and its creators have helped to foster and sustain, she says: ‘We now have a lot more people who think of design as a problem-solving research tool and as something you use for social and research initiatives. Now we have so many co-working spaces, digital fabrication spaces, NGOs working with designers…this notion of using design as a tool has become much more vivid. Through BDW we have been able for the first time to get a large and diverse community to meet with each other and be part of the same community. For Lebanon this has not been easily done. This chaos and these struggles [in the city] create a lot of tension within communities…before BDW it wasn’t so common that an architect would meet another designer and say, let’s collaborate.’

For 2017’s BDW, one of the most inspiring projects was that of Paris and Beirut-based architect Annabel Karim Kassar, who is restoring one of the city’s few remaining Ottoman villas as a family home (see Beit Kassar case study). She opened up the still barely habitable but beautiful villa for tours and talks, and placed an exhibition along its street-level ground floor that showed exactly how she has proceeded to restore and revive the building, together with a fantastic team of experts and engineers drawn from Lebanon and Europe.

As a tongue-in-cheek gesture to the craziness of the city around her, she is calling her project Handle With Care. She told me: ‘I chose this title because I thought it was the best way to inspire people, as a contrast with the city around it. It’s like everything is destroyed, with such ferocity, such brutality. And there is no “handle with care”.’ She understands the desire to build, to create, to reconstruct, after the civil war, but to wilfully obliterate all the traces of civilisations that went before this one ‘is to lose part of who we are,’ she says.

Kassar is a prime example of another inspiring Beirut phenomenon – women taking a leading role in re-envisioning the city. Toutikian says: ‘Most of the social and cultural initiatives we are seeing happen in our city are being done by women, based in the city. In contrast to a lot of the cities around us, Beirut is a very open-minded place, and I think that just like every other place around the world a lot of the women are sick of men being the people who are most of the time in charge of these things, like big real-estate projects and corporates. Women really want to help make change happen; they are very entrepreneurial. That, I think, is something unique about Beirut that I don’t see so much elsewhere.’

Given the political instability that flared up around the end of 2017, is all this hard work likely to be jeopardised? Not so, says Mira Hawa, a design and hospitality marketing and project consultant, recently returned from living in Copenhagen and London. When it comes to Beirut, she says, ‘I think there’s never a good or a bad time, as such. I think there’s a resilience that’s part of the DNA that has taught the Beirut people to reinvent themselves and persevere in spite of everything.

‘But there is an allure now for people to return, there is a hunger. People realise they can bring their talent back home and still showcase it internationally.’

Case Study
Restaurant Liza

Image Credit: Marco Pinarelli

Having taken Paris by storm since 2005 with her upmarket Middle Eastern cuisine, restaurateur Liza Asseily hired designer Maria Ousseimi to create the first outpost in her native Beirut. Set in the second floor of an 18th-century palace, the 500 sq m space is filled with exquisite textures and craftsmanship. Part of the place’s genius lies in the preservation of the traditional layout of this former Abdallah Bustros Palace, with rooms arranged symmetrically on three sides of a central hallway, divided by ornate, Moorish-style interior windows.

A monochrome colour scheme, coupled with simple marble floors and tables, enabled Ousseimi to go to town on detail, texture and ornament. Italian artist Idarica Gazzoni’s wallpapers create a different story for each room; two existing papers from her Arjumand collection are joined by two bespoke wallpapers, one featuring the ruins of Beirut, the other inspired by the graphics from the region’s currencies. Bright and airy by day, the Moorish windows and glittering fixtures generate a silvery, layered glow at night, enhanced by bespoke lighting from architect Jan Van Lierde (JVL Studio). Polished brass tableware, decorative objects and a corner bar by Karim Chaya add a vintage touch, complemented by carved wood furniture by Orient 499, a chic Beirut boutique that supplies original handicrafts and designer items made in Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Morocco.

Client Liza Asseily
Interior designer Maria Ousseimi
Area 500 sq m
Completed 2015
Lighting Jan Van Lierde (JVL Studio)
Furniture Orient 499

Case Study
Beit Kassar

Image Credit: Colombe Clier

Against Beirut’s backdrop of rapacious development, there are a handful of forlorn relics from the region’s 500 years under Ottoman rule that have managed to escape both bombs and bulldozers. One of them is Beit Kassar, recently acquired by Annabel Karim Kassar, a French- born architect with offices in Beirut, Dubai and London. Kassar has already contributed to some of Beirut’s landmarks, designing an award-winning cinema and dining complex for the Souks Entertainment Centre, and restoring historic villas for private clients.

This latter experience will be put to good use in the restoration of her own 19th-century mansion, one of few left that retains any original features. Kassar is restoring it as a family home and has put together a crack team of conservationists, architects, craftsmen and engineers from Paris, Beirut and Germany.

Arranged over three floors, the 750 sq m home has a generous 700 sq m garden to the rear. It was built in 1870 for a wealthy family, when the ground floor was occupied by open-fronted shops rented out to merchants, while the family lived in the two floors above.

Kassar says: ‘The aesthetics of the Ottoman era – their scale, elegance and craftsmanship – permeate the consciousness of the Lebanese people. To allow this memory to decay is to lose part of who we are.’ She wanted this countercultural gesture – restoration rather than demolition – to be noticed. For BDW 2017 she prepared an exhibition along the ground-floor shop spaces, painstakingly itemising, through text, photography and film, how the restoration had proceeded thus far, with examples of wrought ironwork and decoration that she intends to preserve or replicate. Reconstruction will be complete by next spring.

A German engineering firm is restoring the mansion’s structural integrity, while local artists have been commissioned to restore the building’s extraordinary mosaic and painted ceilings, screen windows, frescoes and staircases. Kassar says: ‘We are not creating a museum; the completed space will be presented with an original take on modern living, with rooms arranged and furnished in a contemporary and surprising way.’

Client and architect Annabel Karim Kassar
Area 750 sq m (home) 700 sq m (garden)
Schedule Completion proposed for spring 2019
Historic renovation Nathalie Chahine
Architectural historians Dr Youssef el Khoury, Dr Ralph Bodenstein

Case Study
Beirut Makers

Beirut Makers collective are makers dedicated to digital fabrication. Unlike the majority of ‘maker’ workshops – which often hark back to an era of analogue craftsmanship, even if they use digital tools in order to speed up the processes or achieve economies of scale – this collective was formed in 2015 specifically to explore the way the precise language of computers can be harnessed to generate new forms or open up explorations in new materials. Now numbering 12 people, their aim is ‘to reveal the true nature of materials’, relishing the ease with which digital design allows them to stay in control of every stage of the process, from conception through to construction.

For BDW 2017, they were displaying a lampshade made from laser-cut metal; it comes in a flat sheet, as a kit, with the edges perforated so that it folds at the specified corners. Their products are elegant, quirky, and unashamedly 21st century, albeit informed by 20th-century aesthetics. This is true of their 3D-printed sunglasses and the Corbusier glass frames worn by moustachioed hipster Guillaume Credoz, who was manning the 2017 BDW stall. Credoz, an architect by training, had developed a new tile made from 3D-printed concrete, which incorporates 40 per cent recycled glass and construction rubble. He is also working towards a 3D printing process that will use 100 per cent recycled plastic – something of a challenge, given that plastic for 3D printing needs to be immaculately clean before it can be extruded.

Case Study
Beirut Design Week

Beirut Design Week 2018 runs 22-29 June
Beirut Design Week 2018 runs 22-29 June

Established in 2012, BDW is definitely ‘not about showcasing expensive crap you don’t need,’ according to co-founder and director Doreen Toutikian, who studied product and communication design in the USA and Europe, including a stint at Glasgow School of Art, before returning to her native Beirut and setting up this rapidly growing annual event. In 2017 there were more than 25,000 visitors at some 150 events in locations around the city. That year Toutikian kept the participants regional, rather than invite design superstars from Europe or the USA, as in previous years. This smacks of a growing confidence in – as well as a desire to support – the local offer.

The main location for BDW 2017, for the second year running, was KED, a Thirties’ metallurgical factory whose own refurbishment and resurrection are thanks to BDW’s parent, the not-for-profit education and research entity MENA Design Research Center. This new combined exhibition, studio and event space has been achieved with maximum ingenuity on a minimal budget thanks to a refurb by Architects for Change, and includes two roof terraces over its four floors, helping to ensure its popularity as both a work and event space. Toutikian’s goal is to use BDW to establish a strong network of designers and architects, showcase the best of Lebanese and regional design, and encourage the growth of creative economies and entrepreneurialism. BDW’s remit also includes bringing to the region cutting-edge design thinking. In 2017 that meant a critical design focus, both in a conference staged at the plush Sursock Museum, and in a speculative design exhibition within KED, asking ‘Is design a need?’

Reflecting on the impacts of BDW, Toutikian feels that there is now a real sense of Beirut’s own design community networking and engaging with each other. She also feels that young designers and students now have a voice as well as somewhere to show their work.

For 2018, says Toutikian, ‘the theme will be related to the city and citizen rights, and we are taking the social aspect to the next level by forming small working groups made up of designers from the BDW community, who will be key decision makers on content and programming for different parts of the festival. This way we really want to be a community-led initiative under the supervision and coordination of MENA Design Research Center.’

Case Study

The fine dining Kaléo restaurant in Beirut, designed by David/Nicolas
The fine dining Kaléo restaurant in Beirut, designed by David/Nicolas. Image Credit: Marco Pinarelli

David Raffoul and Nicolas Moussallem studied interior design together at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts, before heading to Milan to complete their Masters at the Scuola Politecnica Di Design. They set up their Beirut studio in 2011, honing their ‘retrofuturistic’ aesthetic over a range of furniture products, grabbing the spotlight at 2014’s Milan Design Week. Star products at that show included their bespoke Artichoke safe with Agresti for Wallpaper* Handmade, along with the Dulaita collection they developed for Nina Yashar’s Nilufar Gallery; they were singled out by the New York Times as ones to watch. In 2014 the pair also had their first solo show in Beirut at Art Factum Gallery, exhibiting items that were inspired by their grandmothers – combining Oriental and Western, antique and contemporary influences.

Their first industrial project at Maison & Objet in 2014, the Orquestra tableware collection for Vista Alegre, was given the Red Dot Design Award and the Wallpaper* Award, with the magazine going on to select them in 2015 for its Power 200 list. More recently they have designed a carpet for Moooi, a collection of furniture, called Monocle, which fuses contemporary and vintage through technologies and materials such as rosewood, marble, bent glass and bronze, for Carpenters Workshop Gallery. They also completed in 2017 a fine dining restaurant, Kaléo, in Beirut, where every detail – from the bar to the carpet hanging on the wall – was designed by them to create as sensual and immersive a setting as possible for the food. They are currently represented by the Carpenters Workshop (in London and Beirut), as well as Nifla of Milan, where they have become regulars during Milan Design Week.

Through their intense collaborative process, they produce more than 100 new pieces every year. Although they are based in Beirut, their furniture and tableware are made in Milan. Raffoul says: ‘We have built a team in Italy, having worked and studied there and here over the past five years.’ Says Moussallem: ‘It’s about access. We are using so many materials, we need to be able to access them all.’

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