Article: The Value of “Negative” Space – the Modernist Public Space of Oscar Niemeyer’s International Fairgrounds Complex

Oscar Niemeyer, International Fairgrounds Complex in Tripoli, Lebanon (unfinished), designed in 1962. Photo: Drone footage provided by Chawki Fatfat, 2018.

Article: The Value of “Negative” Space – the Modernist Public Space of Oscar Niemeyer’s International Fairgrounds Complex
By Adonis El Hussein and Rola A. Saadi

Souce: Docomomo International

What is the role of unbuilt space in a modernist urban project? The studies surrounding Oscar Niemeyer’s International Fairgrounds Complex in Tripoli, Lebanon, have often overlooked this important question. A recent academic study,[1] which was aiming at a heritage value assessment in order to establish groundwork for a potential heritage listing process of the unfinished fair complex, did succeed in shedding light on Niemeyer’s socially oriented design approach for the fair complex in Tripoli. The study asserted that the open public space and landscape of the fair complex, which were planned as a “Modern Urban Core”[2] for the ancient city, were intended to play a very significant social role in the life of post-independence Lebanon.

The importance of “negative” space in modern architecture and urban planning seems to be especially evident in the numerous products of Brazilian Modernism. The example of Brasilia, which was envisioned by Lucio Costa as a modern utopia and experimented with new typologies of urban planning, is often cited in discussions of modernist urban planning and the focus on public landscape. Its masterplan emphasizes the monumentality of designed landscape and open public space through a “Monumental Axis”. Significantly, the Brazilian practice was not confined to the geographical borders of the country. Oscar Niemeyer, who was involved in the design of key public buildings for the new Brazilian capital, exported the Brazilian monumentality of “negative” space on his missions to the Middle East.

Politically initiated with the intention of serving as a pillar of social modernization and as a means of national self-affirmation in post-independence Lebanon,[3] the fairgrounds project was initially designed by Niemeyer in 1962 to host a world fair in Tripoli.[4] While inspired by the concepts and urban solutions implemented in Lucio Costa’s masterplan for Brasilia, Niemeyer was also able to adapt his Brazilian Modernism to the local context of the Arab Near East and create architectural solutions which he would later reuse in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The predominance of unbuilt area, monumental public space and landscape over the built structures inside the oval-shaped layout of the 700,000 m2 partially executed fair complex offer a sharp contrast to the dense medieval urban fabric of Tripoli’s Mamluk historic core. This interesting co-existence of contrasting urban realities in an Arab Near Eastern context raises the following question: What role do the modernist public spaces, gardens and landscape play in Tripoli and how can we now evaluate them? In order to answer this question, we must first understand the local cultural context in the ancient city and the history of its urban development.

As in any other old Islamic city with dense urban fabric and narrow streets, the primary public gathering space in Tripoli during the past centuries was the Great Mosque. It is safe to say that the concept of public space in Arab Near Eastern cities, under the Ottoman Empire, was inseparable from religion.[5] The rare manifestations of secular public space, aside from the 19th century El Tall square in front of the Saray (administrative center), were usually limited to coffee shops where people were able to express themselves, discuss various topics with other members of society or simply spend their time. Another important characteristic of traditional public spaces and streetscapes in historic Tripoli was their sharp gender segregation: women had separate entrances for mosques, were not allowed in coffee shops and were not able to walk freely in the streets due to regulations and social rules.[6] Although the regulations have changed with time, the primary spaces which were assigned for the use of women were the interior courtyards of homes, Mashrabiyas (traditional oriel windows covered with latticework), or balconies in later periods. During the French mandate (between 1920 and 1943), the function of public spaces in Tripoli shifted to the new commercial “Azmi Beik” street which reflected a more Westernized concept of urban life, but a truly secular and inclusive public space was still absent even when Niemeyer arrived in the city in the 20th century.

In the foreword of his published 1962 design proposal for the fairgrounds project Niemeyer emphasized the need to address the existing urban issues which he highlighted during his two-month stay in Tripoli: problems with the availability of comfortable housing, compliance with modern standards of living, high density in the historic center and extreme lack of open public spaces. The functional program of the fair complex, therefore, extended beyond the limits of an ordinary exhibition space. Two theaters, children’s playground, a sports complex, restaurant tower, cafeterias and bars, monumental public spaces with large water mirrors surrounded with Brazilian “tropical” gardens were all targeting the needs of the dense historic city and its citizens (in addition to national and international visitors). Niemeyer’s proposed open public space did not only combat the high density and rigidity of the city’s historic core: it introduced a new concept of civic space which contrasted with the existing gathering space typologies in Tripoli. Niemeyer’s project, in this way, offered an alternative to religious, political and commercial gathering spaces, replacing them with an immense secular space which took the form of monumental modernist gardens. The “negative” public space of the new urban core offered, therefore, both a functional and symbolic element which served the objective of social modernization in post-independence Lebanon and highlighted for all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, gender or beliefs, the path towards a new unified modern identity.[7]

Unfortunately, Oscar Niemeyer’s modern public space, like the entire fairgrounds complex, never functioned as intended: the stakeholders requested the Brazilian architect to build a perimeter wall around the boundaries of the lot for security reasons. As a result, even after the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1991, the public space has been closed to ordinary visitors and citizens except for special occasions. However, in order to imagine how the complex should have worked for the city of Tripoli, we may refer to one of Niemeyer’s next projects in the region.
A more faithfully executed and functional example of Niemeyer’s design strategy than that executed in Tripoli can be found at the university campus in Ain El Bey, Algeria. Taking into account a similar cultural and urban context, he designed the University of Constantine in 1969 using similar urban solutions for monumental “negative” space which, again, held both a social and symbolic function. “I was working for a different, fairer world that all would like to see materialize”,[8] he wrote regarding his work in post-independence Algeria. Targeting a “democratic revolution”, industrialization and education, Niemeyer was fighting the colonial legacy of the newly independent North African nation and addressing its deficiencies. As a result, and in an effort to create a university which would take into account the “socialist world in education”,[9] he designed a giant plaza for large gatherings – a modernist “negative” space which has acquired an important urban role in the old historic city of Constantine.

Both Niemeyer’s secular public spaces in Tripoli and Ain El Bey are tied to concepts of decolonization and social modernization, which makes them exhibit high social significance. Resembling the social dimension of heritage values derived from the Nara document of authenticity and Nara Grid,[10] this significance may be systematically described and documented. What makes the fair complex in Tripoli outstanding, however, is that it could be seen as part of a bigger whole: a conscious addition to the fabric of the historic city, in the form of a “modern urban core”.[11] The notion of “Historic Urban Landscape”, developed by UNESCO,[12] perfectly defines the urban heritage in Tripoli, where the major 20th century intervention is the continuity of the ancient Mediterranean city. By utilizing the above-mentioned tools, we may find sufficient argumentation which advocates the outstanding nature of the values present at the International Fairgrounds Complex in Tripoli and adds justification for a possible UNESCO World Heritage nomination for both the complex and the historic city of Tripoli combined.[13] The modernist urban ensemble of Rabat, inscribed on the World Heritage list along with the historic city in one entry,[14] could serve as a leading example.
Moreover, the intended urban role of the designed public space gives the site significant potential which must be leveraged: all the proposed urban solutions of the “modern urban core” are very relevant in present-day Tripoli and the utilization of Niemeyer’s originally proposed public functions (original concrete structures and landscape) could satisfy crucial demands of the contemporary city. However, the threats to integrity of the site have only been accumulating in the past years. The recent “Knowledge and Innovation Centre” competition, organized by the Lebanese government, has been seeking an architectural intervention which would occupy a significant part of the unbuilt space in the fairgrounds. The extreme underuse of the existing structures and the threat of damage to heritage values exhibited by the ensemble of Niemeyer’s sophisticated concrete structures and landscape make the idea of expanding the complex with new buildings seem very questionable.

It must be brought to the attention of stakeholders that the built and unbuilt spaces of the fair project are unique manifestations of modernist architecture and urban design in the MENA region, which carry a lot of hidden meaning beneath their abandoned exterior. Taking them both into account is, therefore, a pre-requisite to any conservation masterplan or any future interventions. Understanding and re-evaluating the modernist unbuilt space should help in developing guidelines for a compatible solution and proper functionalization of Tripoli’s “modern urban core” in its full potential.

About the authors:

Adonis El Hussein, born in Tripoli, Lebanon in 1993, graduated with a master’s degree in architecture from the Faculty of Fine Arts of the “Lebanese University”. In February 2019 he obtained an advanced master’s degree in “Conservation of Monuments and Sites” from RLICC, KU Leuven, Belgium. He is a practicing restoration architect and heritage specialist at ARTER Architects based in Brussels.

Rola A. Saadi is an architect with a master’s degree in “Restoration and Conservation of Monuments and Sites” from the “Lebanese University”, in collaboration with Ecole de Chaillot in Paris. She also holds a master’s degree in Archaeology from Lumiere- Lyon 2 University in Lyon, France. Being an experienced researcher, she works as a professor and course instructor at the “Lebanese University”, while pursuing a PhD in Archaeology at Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne University.

[1] Adonis El Hussein, Oscar Niemeyer’s Iconic Ensemble for Lebanon’s International Fair Complex in Tripoli – Heritage Value Assessment and Heritagization of a Modern Urban Core, Master’s thesis submitted at Raymond Lemaire International Centre for Conservation (RLICC), KU Leuven, Belgium, January 2019. Thesis promoters: Prof. dr. Thomas Coomans de Brachène, Prof. Rola A. Saadi and Prof. em. Luc Verpoest.
[2] As an extension to the project, which was left unrealized, Niemeyer proposed new modern residential neighborhoods radiating from the fair complex: social housing blocks with gardens in between, religious buildings, educational and cultural facilities, recreational zones, hotels and other services. According to this urban vision, the oval layout of the fair complex, along with the open unbuilt space, would have been the “modern urban core” and the new beating heart of the ancient historic city (Oscar Niemeyer, “Foire Internationale et Permenante du Liban à Tripoli”, Architecture d’Aujourd’hui 33, No. 105 (December 1962- January 1963, 96-101).
[3] Adrian Lahoud, “Fallen Cities”, Architecture: Representation and the Arab World, Columbia University Press, 2015.
[4] The World Fair in Tripoli never happened. Lebanese civil war halted the construction works in 1975 before they were finished. The complex is still standing unfinished, critically underused and in a deteriorating state.
[5] Eldem, Edhem, Daniel Goffman, and Bruce Masters, The Ottoman City between East and West: Aleppo, Izmir, and Istanbul, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 15.
[6] Shampa Mazumdar, Sanjoy Mazumdar, Rethinking Public and Private Space: Religion and Women in Muslim Society, Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 18:4, 2001, 302-324.
[7] Adrian Lahoud, op.cit.
[8] Oscar Niemeyer, Niemeyer par lui-meme : L’architecture de Brasilia parle à Edouard Bailby, Ballard, Paris, 1993, 21.
[9] Idem.
[10] The Nara-grid is a tool to indicate the multidisciplinary values. This grid identifies the ‘Aspects’ and the ‘Dimensions’ based on Article 13 of the Nara Document on Authenticity: Koenraad Van Balen, “The Nara Grid: An Evaluation Scheme Based on the Nara Document on Authenticity”, APT Bulletin,49(2), 2008, 39-45.
[11] Oscar Niemeyer, op.cit.
[12] A concept which sees the city as a dynamic and continuously evolving landscape: “Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape”, UNESCO, Paris, 10 November 2011.
[13] Both the fairgrounds complex and the historic city of Tripoli are on the UNESCO tentative list from Lebanon since 2018 and 1996 respectively.
[14] “Rabat, Modern Capital and Historic City: A Shared Heritage”, listed by UNESCO in 2012.

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NIEMEYER, Oscar, “Foire Internationale et Permenante du Liban à Tripoli”, Architecture d’Aujourd’hui 33, No. 105 (December 1962- January 1963), 96-101.
PHILIPPOU, Stylianne, Oscar Niemeyer: Curves of Irreverence, Yale University Press, 2008.
PHILIPPOU, Stylianne, “Oscar Niemeyer. The University of Constantine Modern Kasbah of Higher Education”, in Benno Albrecht (Ed.), Africa. Big Change Big Chance, Milan Compositori, exhibition catalog, Triennale di Milano, 2014, 176-177.
WILLIAMS, Richard J., “Modernist Civic Space and the Case of Brasilia”, Journal of Urban History, Vol. 32 No. 1, November 2005, 120-137.