TRIPOLI: As we drive slowly across the paved walkways of the Rashid Karami Tripoli International Fair, tires crushing the weeds that have sprouted between the regimented slabs of stone, a pack of six large wild dogs comes bounding out from the shelter of a derelict concrete construction, barking furiously. The virulent weeds and wild animals that are gradually encroaching on this surreal space are just two of the signs that the site is gradually returning to nature. The Tripoli International Fair was conceived in the wake of Lebanon’s 1958 civil conflict, one of two grand projects dreamed up by then-President Camille Chamoun to unite citizens and discourage sectarian divisions. The fair was originally slated for Beirut, explains architect and urban planner Mousbah Rajab, but Tripoli’s residents protested and when Fouad Chehab came to power plans for the fair were shifted to the country’s second city.
“Before Lebanese independence, Tripoli used to have many networks with Syrian cities and trade with the whole region,” Rajab explains. “When independence came ... these networks were cut and Tripoli was obliged to reinvent its structure and its economy, so the idea of the fair, for the Tripolitans, was the equivalent of everything before independence.”
In 1962, the Lebanese state approached world-renowned Brazilian modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, who had just finished working on his best-known design, the planned city of Brasilia, which became his country’s capital in 1960.
Niemeyer’s design for the world trade exhibition space, which was conceived after a short trip to Lebanon, is instantly recognizable by his signature use of reinforced concrete. The monumental buildings are dotted at intervals around the landscaped gardens, their sinuous curves conspiring to complement one another from each new perspective.
The simplicity of Niemeyer’s building material was offset by the grand scale of his plans for the site, which was to include an enormous exhibition hall, a pavilion, a rotating restaurant in a cylindrical tower that emitted jets of water, an experimental theater, an outdoor concert space, a radical communal housing project, a space museum and helipad and an enormous monumental archway. Set amid 1 million square meters of landscaped gardens, these scattered building were to be surrounded with man-made lakes and carefully cultivated trees.
The fair was scheduled to be completed in 1976, but in 1975 Lebanon descended into the throes of a protracted civil war. Occupied by the Syrian army in 1976, the almost-completed fair became an unofficial military base, a camping ground for soldiers and militias who turned it into a detention center. Over the course of 18 years, the fair was looted, stripped of its furniture, generators, light fixtures, marble floors and even its electrical cables. The gardens were burned to the ground.
Today, the fair stands frozen in time. Its gardens have been restored to their former glory, but its lakes are empty of water, the concrete shells of its buildings weather-marked and forlorn.
The vast, curving edifice of the 40,000 square meter exhibition center curls protectively around the outer edge of the oval fairground. Half of it is encased in glass and filled with ghostly rows of empty plastic chairs, its floors covered with torn and filthy carpet dating from a brief period of use in the late 1990s.
Today, the space has once again become an unofficial military base: 300 soldiers from the Lebanese army have been stationed there as part of the Tripoli security plan, explains Mokbel Malak, who has worked on the fair site for 35 years. He is currently adviser to the board that was appointed to supervise the fair in 1993, on behalf of the Economy and Trade Ministry.
Inside the derelict pavilion, its soaring arches Niemeyer’s sole tribute to Lebanon’s traditional architecture, graffiti artists have scrawled slogans and drawn a topless woman on the walls. Around it, an empty concrete pit awaits the water that would transform it into an ornamental lake. The pump and filtration mechanisms are all working, Mokbel says, but it simply costs too much money to keep it filled.
The experimental theater – designed to house a circular, spinning stage inside a spaceship-like concrete dome – is a hollow shell. Long strands of kinked and twisted rebar hang from the ceiling like strands of hair. In the absence of the tiles that should line the ceiling, Niemeyer’s ingenious acoustic design means that the slightest whisper is picked up and reverberates eerily around the structure, echoing four of five times before finally dying away.
An enchanting place, the fair projects a sense of eternal waiting, transporting visitors back in time to a period just before the war, when Lebanon’s future looked bright and these structures now considered heritage buildings were at the cutting edge of modern design.
Between 1994 and 2002, the fair hosted a number of conferences and events, but since then it has gradually fallen back into disuse, despite numerous efforts to reintegrate it into the daily life of the city.
In 2004, the board appointed to manage the fair put together a proposal from a conglomerate of international, privately owned companies to turn the international fair into a Disney-style adventure park. The project resulted in outcry from heritage activists, who succeeded in campaigning to have the site added to the World Monuments Fund watch list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites on the planet.
As it happened, the plan fell through due to Lebanon’s turbulent security situation, as did a second initiative to transform the fair into a Chinese manufacturing hub.
Successive incidents of violence, such as the 2006 war with Israel, the 2007 fighting in Nahr al-Bared and the frequent clashes in Tripoli in recent years have prevented the formation of new plans, Mokbel says.
The board recently conducted a survey led by a Tripoli-based engineering film, he adds, which revealed that the full rehabilitation of the site would cost $33 million.
“As a public institution, the fair doesn’t have the money,” he says. “We are awaiting two things: permanent peace and finance coming either from the private sector or from the Lebanese government.”
“In this fair we see Tripoli’s economic future,” he adds.
“You can employ thousands of people, have many hotels and restaurants and receive visitors from Lebanon, the region and foreign countries every day.”
Others, however, are not convinced that revitalizing the fair for its original purpose is the right course to follow. Rajab, along with architect George Arbid and urbanist Joe Nasr, has been researching the fair and the possibilities for its future since 2005.
“We were convinced that as a fair it would not work,” he says, citing its enormous size and the competition from centralized sites such as BIEL and the Beirut Forum.
The problem, he says, is that the land was expropriated by the Lebanese government in order to build the fair, and according to the law it can only be used for its original purpose. A seminar to discuss the problem, organized for 2006, was derailed by the war, but now a new initiative is underway.
“A few months ago the Order of Engineers and Architects in Tripoli and Beirut had an idea,” he says. “In August they will have the national meeting of the International Union of Architects in Durban, South Africa, and ... the idea is to present the problem of this fair.
“They gave this project to [architecture] students and asked them to come up with an idea for this fair. There will be an exhibition [of their work] in June in Tripoli and in August they will chose five or six projects and send them to Durban.”
Rajab says the plan would then be to submit viable projects to the fair’s board and the ministry for consideration alongside proposals dreamt up by the board.
“In principle we don’t mind if private companies come here to work,” he says. “Our problem is how are we conserving and protecting the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer and what this proposed project is bringing to the city.
“What we don’t want is architecture that will disfigure the landscape. ... We have to know that any proposed project will create local dynamics, not only for Tripoli but for the region.”