Friday 21 December 2012


Oscar Niemeyer's unfinished 'Permanent International Fairground' in Tripoli, Lebanon

Heliport and Space Museum

Director's Residence

the International Pavilion

United Nations Syrian refugee centre in Tripoli, Lebanon

view of the fairground from the Quality Inn

Mural on abandoned building on Fairground, probably done when building was occupied by the Syrian army in the 1990s

unfinished section of the International Pavilion

Letter from Tripoli, Lebanon
Pablo Leon de la Barra
(a version of this text appears in the Winter 2012 issue of Spike Art Quarterly)

October 17, 2012

My dear friend,

I’m back in Tripoli.

This time I came by myself. I took the bus from the Charles Helou bus station, one of my favourite concrete buildings in Beirut (a concrete freeway with a transit station under it). The journey was quite fast, an hour and twenty minutes, and it was very beautiful, the sun was setting to the left on Lebanon’s sea horizon as we drove the coast up north. It’s amazing how people in Beirut complain about Tripoli being so far! An example of Beirut’s centralism, this in a country which you can cross from South to North, from the border to Israel to the border with Syria, in about four hours, including the stops at the military checkpoints. I thought it was important this time to come by myself, without the normal entourage, to try to be able to have a normal experience of Tripoli and the site, something which I haven’t been able to do in the last two visits. I think if we are inviting artists and thinkers to Tripoli, which is a great responsibility, they should be able to feel safe and move around as freely as possible. I also think about how art will engage with reality here, in a place where reality is so charged with meaning, and where reality sometimes surpasses any attempt of art to engage with it. People in Beirut have constantly told us that Tripoli is more dangerous, especially with the current Syrian situation and with the Syrian border being thirty minutes away. That we shouldn’t do something here. I remember when you first told me you wanted to do something in Lebanon, the country where all your grandparents and grandmothers were born before migrating to Mexico in the early XX century, escaping the rule of the Ottoman Empire. It was then that I suggested we do something at the International Fairground which had been designed by Brasilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1963, and which hadn’t been finished due to the Lebanese Civil War which started in 1975 and continued until 1990.

Once in Tripoli I took a taxi from the bus stop to the hotel. Telling the taxi driver I’m here to visit the fairground, he replies ‘Why are you visiting this buildings? They are old! They have never been used! They should be demolished!’ I’m staying at the Quality Inn Hotel. It’s the hotel that’s located inside the fairground, originally intended to be the housing building for employees of the International Fairground, a building which was supposed to be similar to a Le Corbusier’s Unite d’ Habitation, but now looks like a generic Holiday Inn. The hotel is the only chain hotel in Tripoli, a city which seldom receives foreign visitors o tourists. As it’s the only big hotel in Tripoli, it’s constantly used by locals for weddings. This night the entrance is protected by the police and the military. There is a wedding and a political rally inside. Since we started doing the research for the Tripoli project, I’ve been trying to understand Lebanese politics and religious sub-divisions, which for an outsider seem impossible to understand. The carpet in the corridors to the rooms is quite worn out, too many wine and cigarette stains from too many weddings happening at the hotel. The room’s furniture looks like from the 70s, although the hotel must have only opened after the war ended. From my room I can see the Niemeyer concrete buildings. My heart is beating. I’m so happy and excited to be here again.

I go down to the lobby and ask the female concierge what time can I visit the fairground, she says that the site is open early in the morning, and that I can enter from behind the hotel. I also ask her if it’s safe to visit the city centre of Tripoli. She responds ‘Of course it’s safe, do you believe everything you read in the media? We get the same images in television of drug violence in Mexico and I’m sure life is not violent all the time there!’ She is right, still, I ask her about the violence that happened a month ago, when a group of young angry men burned down the Kentucky Fried Chicken located two blocks away from the fairground as a response to the youtube trailer of a movie offending Allah. In the photos in internet newspapers, the ones who burn down the Kentucky and who are attacking North American imperialism, are wearing t-shirts with slogans written in English and with logos of American brands!

I decide not to wait until the next day. It’s already dark, I go out of the hotel and through the backdoor, which happens to be open, and sneak inside the fairground. I walk slowly, seeing the silhouettes of the different buildings, recognizing each one of them and saying hello to them like if they were old friends. After having visited the Niemeyer archives in Rio de Janeiro last September, I know much more about the project than the first time I was here last March. I can also smell all the vegetation which at nights feels so much more present. It feels like being inside a labyrinth of concrete buildings and vegetation. I imagine all the romantic activities which might happen or could happen at night inside the fairground. I also imagine which artists we could invite, and what works could be in dialogue with the different buildings that were built as part of the fair programme: the Experimental Theatre, the Open Air Theatre, the Space Museum, the Housing Museum, the International Pavilion and the Lebanese Pavilion. I remember what Raafat a young architect from what seems like a wealthy Tripoli’s family told me ‘Do not do an art event for the elite, do instead a big barbeque where you invite the whole of Tripoli to come for a picnic and you have local musicians playing music’. I also remember what a Beirut curator told us ‘We don’t want people like you who come and parachute into our context and leave afterwards, we have seen many like you come and go.’ I also think of a film done a couple of years ago by french artist Adrien Missika on the fairground site. The film is very simple, and it’s the kind of approach I would like for any artistic intervention that could happen in the site. Missika enters the Experimental Theatre and starts making sounds by moving the steel cables hanging from the unfinished dome’s ceiling. It has a practical economy of working with what is there, but also has humour: afterwards he goes outside and climbs the shadow of a palm tree cast on the dome.

The next morning I wake up at sunrise, from my hotel window I can see the fairground, the window produces a magnifying effect, making the buildings appear closer than what they really are, almost as if they were almost inside the room. It’s chilly inside, I go inside the fairground which is now called Rashid Karami International Fair in honour of prime minister Karami, murdered on 1 June 1987 by a bomb exploding in his helicopter. There’s an old man in his jogging suit walking his dog around the fair, further ahead two young men in shorts jogging around, then a group of three women with their head covered doing their morning walk. It is actually those who walk and jog the only ones who really use the place, apart from the few days a year when it’s open for a concert, the marathon, the book fair, or an awards event. I think of Ibirapuera Park in Sao Paulo, designed in 1951 by Niemeyer with gardens by Burle Marx, where the biennal and the Museum of Modern Art are, and how alive it is, always busy and people use it all the time. On the contrary, the International Fairground, although unfinished, is almost always empty. I also think of other Niemeyer buildings, especially late Niemeyer architecture, for example the Latin American Memorial Centre, and how the architecture there is rough and badly finished, very different from early Niemeyer buildings, and try to imagine how the fairground would be and how would it function if it had been finished.

I continue thinking on the history of the fair. I’m interested on the fact that in 1962, the Lebanese government through Amado Chalhoub, a Lebanese-Brasilian immigrant, invited Oscar Niemeyer who had recently completed the construction of Brasilia, the newly built modernist capital of Brasil. It is interesting that the Lebanese government didn’t invite Le Corbusier, maybe he was too old, too expensive, or too busy building Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab in India. More probably they didn’t want Le Corbusier who was a French man, as selecting him would mean continuing the French colonial influence on the country. Selecting Niemeyer would also allow for a South-South dialogue between countries not aligned either to the USA or the USSR. I think about this South-South dialogue, about the importance to reconnect and open Lebanense culture to other connections beyond the Middle East, with the Mediterranean with whom they share so much in common, but also with the Americas, where so many Lebanese migrated during different moments in the XX century.

In his memories Niemeyer complains that when invited to develop the site, he wasn’t allowed to choose the site, but was given the plot of land which used to be an orange farm. He would have rather the fair built closer to the sea. The original Niemeyer project also had a series of housing blocks around the fair, which fortunately were not built. The fairground complex was not built from tabula rasa, destroying previous layers of city, but does not connect to the city from which it feels separated. If you see the fairground on Google Maps, it seems like an oval crater or bomb happened in the middle of the city. As the next day an intelligent women from Tripoli tells me ‘People in Tripoli don’t know the history of the fair, so for them it’s not part of their history.’ I think of the dangers the fairground faced during the 2000s when it was in danger of being destroyed. I think of the two plans which fortunately didn’t happen, one of transforming it into a Disneyland kind of Middle Eastern theme park, the other one of renting it long term to the Chinese as a Chinese import centre for the Middle East. During the time many architects and intellectuals fought for the protection of the place. Due to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, both plans were abandoned, as the foreign investors thought it was not safe to invest in these projects.

I think the Fairground urgently needs to be recognised by the Unesco as a World Heritage site, as a place which needs to be protected from destruction, and as one of the only two examples of big scale International Brasilian Modernism in the Middle East (the other one is the University of Constantine in Algeria, which is much more inaccessible than the Tripoli Fairground). I think of the fairground as being already an open air museum/park, and which only needs for people to be aware of the history of the place. I think of the unfinished fairground as being a metaphor for many unfinished histories, for personal histories that didn’t happen and lives that were ended due the Lebanese Civil War. As such I believe the concrete buildings must remain unfinished, as they are now, as a memory of that specific period of time, as a monument of survival. In the same way the site must be used, be alive, open and democratic, and exist as a way of healing scars and trauma. The fair needs to be open and accessible to everyone, a space of freedom, a concrete oasis, an open air museum, a museum of itself.

At this moment I’m stopped by a security guard because I’m taking photos. Soon I realize that a small section of the big long curved partly finished building is occupied by the United Nations Refugee Agency as a registering centre for refugees. Inside are a series of rooms built with a wood structure covered with plastic subdivisions. It’s more real than a Thomas Hirschhorn artwork and doesn’t need press photographs of murdered victims to make you understand what has been happening in the region. The guard takes me to the fairground offices where I explain I’m not a journalist but a Mexican tourist staying at the Quality Inn and interested in Niemeyer. In the street, outside the centre, I can see old Mercedes taxis arriving from the border with Syria bringing exiled Syrian refugees to register to the centre before they go to the refugee camps.

The following day, Friday I have a meeting with a local NGO with whom if we do the project in Tripoli we might collaborate. The NGO has been working with children from the Jabal Mohsen area, a neighbourhood where since the civil war Alawite Muslims and Sunni Muslims have lived in confrontation. The conflict has intensified since the Syrian civil war, with the Alawite’s supporting the Syrian Alawite dictator Bashar Assad, and shootings between the two fractions being everyday common activity. The NGO mixes children and teenagers from both fractions, in order to erase ideological differences, and has them play, learn and do activities together, supporting them through their studies all the way to higher education in order to get them out of the poverty and violence cycle. We visit the main street in Jabal Mohsen, where snipers normally shoot each other, and where facades of buildings have framed photographs of Assad. Here the NGO’s director tells to me ‘See we are in the most dangerous area in Tripoli and nothing is happening! You can do your art event in Tripoli and everything will be ok.’ Today is Friday, which she tells me, is the most dangerous day, because after prayer, people get excited with the mullah’s words and afterwards go and commit violent acts, and she insists ‘You see, nothing is happening.’

A few hours later we are driving back to Beirut after lunch. The NGO’s director receives a phone call telling her there has been a terrorist attack in Beirut. Afterall, it is Friday! We soon learn it’s a car bomb, a block away from the hotel where I normally stay, near the square where your mother’s cousin, Bachir Gemayel was assassinated on 14 September 1982, less than a month after being elected president. We are back in Beirut, there’s lot of traffic to enter the city. The NGO director drops me in the street because she can’t go further into the city. I move to a new hotel, as streets are blocked. The next days the city is quiet without traffic, streets are closed by the military, shops are closed, there’s been some tires burned in some streets as protest. Through the news we have learned that the bomb was aimed in killing Wissam al-Hassan, a Sunni Muslim born in Tripoli in 1965 and head of the intelligence branch of Lebanon's Security Forces, this calms people a bit, at least it’s not a random attack against normal civilians, although many civilians did die. A Lebanese friend calls me Saturday morning and tells me I should leave Lebanon straight away, that things are only going to get worse. My flight anyway is on Monday morning so I decide to stay until then.

My dear friend, when you invited me to visit Lebanon last March you had the beautiful idea of doing an event on the 12 of December of 2012. An art and culture event which would make no distinction between religions, politics and nationalities and which trough art would bring hope to the region. Due to the current situation it’s difficult to do something there today. Many of our friends and guests do not feel comfortable about coming to Tripoli or Lebanon within the current situation. Any project happening there involves a longer term involvement of our part, we should aim for something that has a more permanent effect on the area. Still, I believe we must do as the people in Lebanon have done during the last 40 years, continue working in the project until it’s not possible to work on it anymore. As architect Makram El Kadi, from LEFT architects and architect of the Beirut Exhibition Centre told me when I told him about people’s resistance to doing something in Tripoli “Don't listen to negative opinions everybody is afraid of doing anything in Lebanon, so at the end, nothing ever gets done.”

In the same way as the International Fairground which was never finished or inaugurated and to which the international guests never arrived, our project probably won’t happen on the 12/12/12. Still, I keep the hope that it might happen in a different way in the future, with a different rhythm than most biennales or art exhibitions. Maybe whatever we do there will appear and disappear, or maybe it will only exist as a rumour.

Again I thank you for your invitation to think with you a possible project to happen in Tripoli and for sharing with me the beautiful country of your foremothers and fathers.

With love, always,


(see images of March 2012 visit to Niemeyer's International Fairground in Tripoli here)

1 comment:

  1. Leo esto a las 6:30 am en ciudad de México como si alguien me contara algo q soñó. Con esa dulce ilusión de algo q de alguna forma existió, existirá o existe.
    Un abrazo Pablo