BEIRUT: Noted American architect Julia Morgan once observed that “architecture is a visual art, and the buildings speak for themselves.”
Morgan’s opinion is likely to strike a chord with those more interested in the aesthetics of the urban fabric – the work of Zaha Hadid, say, or Bernard Khoury – than the engineering challenges of raising structures.
It’s a view shared by the editors of “The Master Architect Series,” published by Images Publishing in Australia. The series, which has been ongoing since the early 1990s, now contains over 100 books. This year, for the first time, the subject is the work of someone from the Middle East – Lebanese architect and jewelry designer Simone Kosremelli.
“A Lebanese Perspective: Houses and other work by Simone Kosremelli” is beautifully produced. Along with a foreword by Kosremelli’s former professor, M. Christine Boyer, and an introduction by the architect herself, the book contains an opening text by Sylvia Shorto, who teaches at the American University of Beirut.
Shorto also provides short texts accompanying each project, giving the background and concept behind the design. The main focus, however, is the color photographs of Kosremelli’s work, which dominate the 250 page tome, and which Shorto sensibly allows to do most of the talking.
Kosremelli is an interesting figure, as Shorto makes clear in her introductory text. Having studied architecture at AUB – apparently only the second woman ever to be admitted into the university’s architecture program – Kosremelli was studying in New York in 1975 when Lebanon’s bloody Civil War began.
She returned to Lebanon in 1978 and started up her own architecture firm in 1981, the first woman in Lebanon to establish her own practice. Supremely practical and down-to-earth, she worked throughout the Civil War, establishing two offices, one in east and the other in west Beirut, and keeping two cars – one on either side of the Green Line.
“A Lebanese Perspective” is the first monograph of Kosremelli’s work. It focuses on her houses, which, as Shorto explains, best demonstrate her characteristic love of traditional Lebanese architectural features.
Shorto’s text provides a useful overview of Kosremelli’s work, providing some technical detail (accompanied by numbered diagrams) for those with an architectural background. For those less in the know, she details the more general qualities which render Kosremelli’s work unique and worthy of note.
These descriptions of Kosremelli’s style give the layman an idea of what to look for – her use of local stone, her love of the Lebanese red-tiled roof and her tendency to combine traditional exteriors with complex, ultra-modern interiors that play with space and perspective.
As the title suggests, the majority of the book is given over to an exploration of 21 of her houses, followed by short sections on other projects – multi-unit dwellings, commercial, industrial and public buildings, and interior design. Shorto tries to pick out certain themes in Kosremelli’s work and show how they developed, though the book’s organization doesn’t do the reader any favors.
Though a section at the back provides a chronology of Kosremelli’s work, the main entries’ arrangement according to category makes it difficult to follow her progress. The book skips over her first two projects, for instance, opening with her third house – the Audi/Smith building in Faqra, constructed from beautiful, roughly hewn hunks of local stone in enormous organically shaped blocks, and topped with the distinctive red-tiled roof.
The book then lingers over Kosremelli’s fourth building, then skips on to her ninth, continuing to highlight what are considered her most interesting designs. Larger projects – such as the Les Créneaux Sports and Cultural Club in Ashrafieh and Kosremelli’s restoration of the war-damaged Melrose Building in Bab Idriss – are related to a section at the back, which gives the impression that Kosremelli’s more high-profile projects all came much later in her career than is in fact the case.
What the book does do well is to demonstrate Kosremelli’s talent for designing modern buildings, which retain a sense of continuity with Lebanon’s architectural heritage. The architect skillfully combines traditional materials – such as local stone – with the contemporary penchant for glass and steel to create buildings which bridge the sometimes seemingly insurmountable gap between Lebanon’s pre- and postwar architecture.
The photographs, most of which were taken by Geraldine Bruneel, are also rather special, ensuring that even for those without a particular passion for architecture “A Lebanese Perspective” will make a fine coffee-table book. The monograph is no less successful for being aimed at the layman. Those with an interest in Lebanese architecture will find it a fitting tribute to Simone Kosremelli’s 30 years of stunning work.
“A Lebanese Perspective: Houses and other work by Simone Kosremelli,” written by Sylvia Shorto and published by Images Publishing as part of the Master Architect Series is available in Lebanon from Librairie Antoine.