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Volume 22, Number 4July/August 1971

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Building On Tradition—2

Written by Friedrich Ragette
Photographed by Burnett H. Moody

By  the late 1960's, the first uncertain efforts to merge the Arab world's scant architectural traditions with modern international design (Aramco World, May-June, 1971) had become a trend. The success of Minoru Yamasaki's fine air terminal in Dhahran encouraged the area's fledgling architects and their western consultants to reevaluate the "Arab" themes once common in the Middle East, but now losing ground to impersonal foreign imports.

In Lebanon the new trend developed just in time. Throughout the city of Beirut, demolition teams were steadily razing hundreds of old but still lovely, and de­finitely typical, Arab homes and replacing them in many instances with buildings about as "Arab" as the Pentagon. Unchecked, the trend might have distorted the character of the city forever.

In 1963, however, President Chehab took a small but important step toward reversing such developments. He com­missioned the design of a building for the promotion of Lebanese handicrafts. It was to be located on a choice site that was by the sea, yet in the touristic heart of Beirut.

To the architects, Jacques Aractingi and Pierre Neema of the CETA group, such a center had to be a wholly contemporary structure. But the President had expressed an interest in at least the pointed arches so typical of Lebanon.

Friedrich Ragette is Assistant Professor of Architecture at the American University of Beirut. The final article of this series will appear in November-December.

House of Lebanese Crafts

Considering these requirements and the beautiful view from the site, the architects decided on complete transparency—a space wrapped in glass and cantilevered over the sea, with the supports for the roof remaining as the sole structural elements. Ingeniously, they introduced a Lebanese character here by making the columns out of segments of pointed arches, arranged in an entirely new way. Each column consists of four sections which branch out to furnish four supports. Although it is only at the inside corners of the building that the supports combine to provide a true arch, adjoining columns together give the visual effect of pointed arches, even though these arches bend outward and are held together only by the roof slab on top. The result is a support of supreme gracefulness, of seem­ingly elastic gentleness, barely touching the plain fiat slab above.

Technically, the execution is impeccable. The supports are constructed of steel plate box sections, bent around their diagonal, and the tempered glass "wall" panes enter the ceiling and continue through the col­umns. Above, an inconspicuous penthouse is screened from the street by a low delicate wall, and a light, open stairway spirals around the central chimney.

Adminstrative Center, South Lebanon

In 1964 a Beirut architect, Assem Salaam, won a government-sponsored competition for a new administrative complex in Sidon, a city in southern Lebanon.

For Mr. Salaam it was an interesting problem: given the need for defenses against the sun, how to express the open and public character of a national administrative center which would include a governor's residence, a courthouse, offices for several ministries and even quarters and communication facilities for security forces.

For a solution Mr. Salaam went back to an age when all administrative functions were concentrated in the nearest fort. His building, in fact, includes a few features more characteristic of a fort than a modern administrative center: solid walls, windows suggestive of machicolations, slotted parapets resembling crenellations, and corner towers. But the whole, done in glowing yellow sandstone, is updated with slightly arched lintels, an irregular distribution of small windows and a judicious use of reinforced concrete.

The scope of the project allowed the architect to incorporate such basic local concepts as the arrangement of simple geometric masses around internal courts without, however, impeding circulation or ventilation. In sum, an altogether satisfactory reinterpretation of old Arab forms and a refreshing departure from the torpid monumentalism of too many governmental building.

American Life Building

To Irving and Jones, the Beirut architects who won the contract to design a Middle East heading quarters for the American Life Insurance Company, the problem of weaving Arab themes into contemporary structures was less pressing; Beirut is increasingly as much a showcase for international architecture as for Arab buildings. The result in this case, nevertheless, is markedly eastern.

Irving and Jones, working with Arkbuild, Beirut architects and engineers, had to create a structure that would have dignity, would suggest a discreet prosperity and would look well in a setting of pines just off the boulevard to the Beirut International Airport.

But the primary need was functional. The building had to incorporate the latest in climate control, illumination, sound-conditioning and communications, and offer unobstructed inferior space for flexible portioning.

The design that the architects eventually worked out has given Beirut one of its most handsome buildings. It is quietly elegant, impressive, attractive, yet very functional.

In order to avoid unnecessary internal columns, the peripheral supports were turned into a colonnade encompassing the whole building. But in bracing the top the architects seized the chance to introduce an emphatic eastern flavor by inserting a series of graceful pointed arches at the top and suspending a closely woven metal screen between the columns to shield the three upper floors from excessive sunlight. Executed in aluminum but tinted like bronze, the screen is clearly derived from the mashrabieh screens which long ago hid harem beauties from sight yet permitted them to see out and get fresh air.

This article appeared on pages 7-13 of the July/August 1971 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1971 images.