This article was originally published on Domus 1045, April 2020.
Defying the monotony of the city’s landscape where the pressure of fulfilling exploitation ratios and maximising real-estate profit has produced a pleth- ora of repetitive and banal residential typologies, Lina Ghotmeh has created a first building in her native Beirut that flies the flag of architectural experimentation. With the elegant and thoughtful design approach that characterised her previous work, Ghotmeh brings her careful craft for spatial experiences, building techniques and volumetric investigations to this mixed-use project and delivers a uniquely sculpted design.
It is no mean feat for this young woman to have defied the carefully guarded environment of residential building development in Beirut where a handful of – male only – developers controls the high-end residential market. Skilled architects are rarely given the appreciation they deserve as the spatial experience and its importance to living environments is all too often overshadowed by an apartment’s value as a lucrative financial investment. Had it not been for the unique story of the building commissioned by the family of the late and renowned Lebanese architect Pierre el Khoury, it is unlikely that Ghotmeh would have been given an opportunity. The family’s decision to develop the site of the once-successful office with a mixed-use building that would accommodate residential spaces for family members, an art gallery and a few apartments to recover the investment costs provided this unusual opening.
One should also credit the designers and investors who joined the project, several of them part of the network of patrons who valued the potential of this location.
Only 100 metres from Beirut’s glitzy downtown, the context of the building has retained many traces of the city’s rich history erased in nearby sanitised quarters. Historically the service backyard for Lebanon’s main port and its workmen since its extension during the French Mandate period, the neighbourhood houses customs-clearance offices that serve the country’s imports. Until recently, the neighbourhood was also known for its red-light district. Much of the architecture is made of drab concrete dating from the 1950s, constructed at a time when building heights were still controlled and with Modernist simplicity in uniform levels that replicate the same geometric patterns.
Behind Ghotmeh’s new building, an old residential structure hails from another era, designed at the turn of the previous century with small balconies and ornate white windows. Dilapidated and now abandoned, the building served as a motel during the civil war and its aftermath. In this context, Stone Garden comes as the latest addition to a number of scattered new developments appealing to a design-oriented clientele, including a couple of experimental restaurants, designer shops and a bar. With its 13 floors, the building stands out on the cityscape in more ways than one: it anchors an art gallery and a residential building in a service neighbourhood and prominently displays its earthy tones within a grey streetscape while infusing every floor with lush greenery. The playfully shaped facade openings break the dullness of a typical elevation with imposing planters, each with its own character mediating between the peaceful, calm interior spaces and the hectic intense realities of the city outside.
The building’s skin, which several reviewers have compared to the city’s broken-down, post-war landscape, is in reality a crafted thick material that initiates a dialogue between the building’s internal spaces and the city’s eclectic urban landscape. To achieve this, the design reverses the local practice of filling residual corners with flower planters. Instead, the planters are part of the story on each floor, an integral element of the architectural experience, designed in relation to their location in the building and to the surrounding street levels. The outcome is a crafted earthy mass of organic qualities, irregularly punctuated by wide deep-set windows reflecting onto the street the living experiences of each floor.
It seemed too simplistic for us to dig into the urban archaeology of Beirut or its relatively recent history of the war to explain the contribution of this design to the city’s contemporary architecture.
The building avoids the nostalgia of formalistic replications and the allegories of a violence that has never left the city
On the contrary, the building avoids the nostalgia of formalistic replications and allegories of a violence that has never truly left the city. Instead, it embraces the city’s eclectic, layered morphologies and sits its new, elegant yet unassuming presence on them. Views are far from the “pristine” frames of the rest of the high-end market that seek dramatic contortions to capture the small window of an imagined quiet landscape of trees, sand and sea.
Instead, the building embraces the industrial view of the port, the rhythm of the nearby highway and the messy views over nearby rundown motels. It opens its wide windows to connect the disparate, mismatching views of the city from every level and bring them inside to the centre of the rooms. These panoramas grant each unit its individual identity. The narrow width of the plot and its skewed geometry are hence turned to the designer’s advantage, allowing every apartment to become an epicentre of Beirut’s urban contradictions.
One needs to appreciate the rigorous work that went into the making of the facade in an artisanal and experimental way that defied the limits of the local construction market and its knowhow. Rather than resorting to the facade cladding almost unanimously adopted in buildings of this style, Ghotmeh worked with a group of talented young contractors and builders eager to innovate with the local means to hand.
What she describes as having started through “stripes drafted with a form on clay” turned into dozens of on-site experiments in which a cementitious earth mix was formed by the linear application of a customised stainless-steel patterned template. In this way, Ghotmeh defied the tendency of the building industry to rely on standardised materials, ditched the pre-set mould and embarked on a long process of trial and error that required the collective understanding of professional designers and construction workers before its final form materialised. Rather than pouring material into an assigned formwork, the envelope of the building was combed with a stainless-steel template. The outcome is a ribbed earth-like facade punctuated with green that gives a harmonious and tactile quality to the verticality of the building, distinguishing it discreetly from nearby buildings without clashing aggressively with the urban fabric.
One could undeniably reproach the architect for further continuing the gentrification of one of the last remaining affordable pockets in the city. In a process well known to urban researchers, the building follows the bars, cafés and designer spaces that opened a few years ago. Had it not been for some delays incurred during its construction, it would have met the deadline of a lucrative profit-making window before the recent market crash in Beirut. There is no doubt that the USD 4,000-5,000 per square metre of its asking price fit a pattern where the residential square metre of the city responds to the pocket of investors looking for secure investment in an age of financial breakdown rather than those of families looking for a city residence in a country where the minimum wage barely reaches USD 450 a month.
Yet the fact that the building was designed with a group of inheritors, landowners, and designers in mind saves it from the high vacancy patterns that plague the rest of the city’s high-end development. It grants its development justification, particularly as the researched design and the unique experience of its apartments afforded by the architect’s vision will encourage more than one client to choose this location as their residence, so long as they can afford it.
To sum up, Ghotmeh has responded brilliantly to the challenge of building meaningfully in a harsh context, showing that architecture can be meaningful despite market pressures and that it is still possible to reinvent Beirut again, embracing its contradictions and adding to its layers harmoniously and unapologetically.
Mona Fawaz is a professor of Urban Planning and Policy at the American University of Beirut.
Carla Aramouny is an architect and assistant professor at the American University of Beirut.
- Stone Garden
- Beirut, Lebanon
- Lina Ghotmeh; from 2016, Lina Ghotmeh — Architecture
- Structural engineering:
- CODE Consultants & Designers
- Electrical and mechanical engineering:
- AME Consultants
- Site supervision:
- BATIMAT Architects
- Habib Srour (vertical transportation), Clement Grinion (fenestration)
- RED Property Development
- Site area:
- 382 smq
- Total floor area:
- 6,413 smq
- Design dates:
- Construction dates: