A workspace of calm in the heart of hectic Beirut

BEIRUT: Imagine going to work every day in an old Ottoman mansion with lush green gardens of olive, pine and palm trees, a pond of goldfish and a turtle. That’s exactly how around 30 Lebanese entrepreneurs will now be spending their days – in the elegant and opulent Sursock Palace gardens.

“This should be a space for the entrepreneur community by the entrepreneur community,” says Hala Fadel, chair of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Forum in the Pan Arab Region, which along with Bader Entrepreneurs is behind the initiative.

Named Co-Working +961 after the location’s country code and having opened at the beginning of this month, the initiative is the first of its kind in the Arab world.

“Living in Lebanon is stressful to begin with, and starting a company is more stressful,” says Fadel, who has initially arranged a five-year lease for the premises, nicknamed the Kiosk.

“Everyone with a different idea should feel attracted to come and make it happen.”

Fadel, who attended the University of California Berkeley as an undergraduate and started her own telecom company while doing her business degree at MIT, says she was inspired by the Googleplex in northern California, the sprawling corporate headquarters of the world’s top search engine. There, the environmentally friendly office buildings are surrounded by tall green trees. Employees are encouraged to bicycle around the facility instead of drive, and they are given extra time to work on their own creative projects.

Although Sursock is a much smaller space in the middle of Beirut, its striking beauty and serenity sets it apart from the rest of the city. The high-ceilinged rooms of the Ottoman villa, originally a Turkish bathhouse, are embedded with marble and wooden mosaics. The grassy courtyards have small picnic tables for informal meetings and brainstorming as well as a pingpong table for recreation. The house’s small garage has been painted and equipped with a table and chairs, a nod to how tech giants such as Amazon started up in a garage.

Co-working spaces are a relatively new phenomenon, having started in the United States and Europe around 10 years ago. The idea is to bring together those who might otherwise be working with distractions at home and give them an office environment where they can find focus and routine and exchange ideas with others. Among the most popular cities for co-working are the technology hubs of San Francisco and Berlin.

Over the past couple of years, the Arab world has seen a number of co-working spaces open their doors – from Morocco to the Gulf. So far, Beirut has three – all centrally located: Alt City in Hamra, Beirut Digital District in Bashoura and Cloud 5 in Downtown Beirut. Lebanon’s latest addition to such collaborative working environments is certainly its most elaborate, maybe even by global standards.

“I went to New York and San Francisco last month, and this is by far the most beautiful co-working space I’ve seen,” says Abdallah Absi, head of Beirut’s Entrepreneurship Club, who was chosen to manage the space. At Co-Working +961, he will be running his new business, Zoomal, a crowd funding platform for the Arab world.

As he worked with Fadel over three months to put together the co-working space, he says he made sure to assemble a diverse group of tenants – working in video production, Arabic editing, online health content and Web development – with the aim of allowing them to exchange their services with one another or commissioning them at lower prices compared with what they would find outside the space. All of this will be done at the highest possible Internet speed in Lebanon.

The entrepreneurs are each paying around $250 a month, a fee that varies depending on their schedules and locations on the premises – a relatively good deal given the real estate and services at their fingertips. In addition to the office environment, those using the space will have direct access to mentors and funders from MIT Enterprise Forum and Bader, both of whom have relocated to Sursock for at least the next year.

And what palatial workspace would be complete without designer furniture to fit in with the theme of a relaxing creative environment?

Interior designer, Nabil Gholam, furnished the space inspired by the colors of the villa, neutral tones of unpainted wood and metal as well as onyx lamps.

Gholam describes his work on the project as “understated” to the point that people shouldn’t even notice the furniture. Instead, his aim was to make his pieces functional and flexible, allowing people to easily move them around.

“You don’t have to sit behind your desk in a formal way,” he said about the entrepreneurs whose furnishings he designed. “They’re dealing with creativity and they’re trying to think outside the box.

In the spirit of the entire space, he said, “I wanted to give it a certain freedom. I wanted it to reflect the people who work there.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 12, 2013, on page 2.




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