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.

Niemeyer, International Fairgrounds Complex in Tripoli, Lebanon
(unfinished), designed in 1962. Prime Minister Rachid Karameh presenting
the model of the “modern urban core” composed of the fair complex along
with surrounding neighborhoods and extensions. Source: Arab Center for
Architecture (Archive).

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.

center of Tripoli with the cultural landscape of Abu Ali river at the
time when Oscar Niemeyer arrived in the city (exact date of photograph
unknown). Source: Archives of the citizens of Tripoli.

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]

Coffee shop in old Tripoli: Public space dominated by men (historic
photo, exact date unknown). Source: Archives of the citizens of Tripoli.

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.

Niemeyer, International Fairgrounds Complex in Tripoli, Lebanon
(unfinished), designed in 1962. Sculpting perspective vistas: sample
view of the architectural ensemble (Lebanese Pavilion, Grand Arch of the
open theater and experimental theater dome). Photo: Adonis El Hussein,

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.

imagery of Tripoli in 2018, with a diagram showing the historic
evolution and development of public spaces in Tripoli through the
centuries. Legend: 1. Great Mosque (Religious public space of the Mamluk
Islamic urban core since the Middle Ages). 2. “El Tall” Square
(Governmental public space of the Ottoman city, late 19th century). 3.
“Azmi Beik” street (commercial public space established during the
French Mandate after the 1920s). 4. Oscar Niemeyer’s Fairgrounds complex
with its giant modernist gardens (Secular public space designed in the

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
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.
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.
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
[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.
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.
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.
A concept which sees the city as a dynamic and continuously evolving
landscape: “Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape”, UNESCO,
Paris, 10 November 2011.
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.

LAHOUD, Adrian, Architecture, the city and its scale: Oscar Niemeyer in Tripoli, Lebanon, The Journal of Architecture, 18:6, 2013, 809-834.
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.

error: Content is Protected