The ancient Lebanese port city of Tripoli is possibly the last place anyone would expect to find an abandoned trove of futuristic modern architecture.
But weirdly, that’s exactly what can be found among its 14th-century mosques, arcades and schools. Even more weirdly, it’s almost always deserted.
These space-age buildings are the work of Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer, widely considered one of the founders of modern architecture.
He designed the 10,000-hectare site, intended as an international fairground, after a single visit to Tripoli in 1962. Construction, however, was halted at the outset of Lebanon’s civil war in 1975, and never resumed.
Despite some damage inflicted during the war, and Syrian army occupation of the site in the 1970s and ’80s, the structures still stand largely intact.
But few people visit beyond evening joggers and the occasional tourist, marveling at having struck Instagram gold. That needn’t be the case – enterprising local Tripoli Mira Minkara gives regular tours of the fairground.
CNN joined her to find out more.
So why’s it here?
An architecturally cutting-edge fairground attracting tourists and delegates from around the world over might seem like an anomaly in today’s Lebanon, struggling to hold its ground as violence and refugees from the war in neighboring Syria threaten to engulf it.
But in the 1960s Lebanon was swinging, a hotbed for intellectuals and jet-set starlets from Europe and the U.S., as well as the Arab world. And along came Niemeyer with his grand vision – and he didn’t hold back.
As well as Jetsonesque monuments, the Tripoli park includes an outdoor theater space surrounded by a moat-like reflective pool (a Niemeyer hallmark).
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There’s a restaurant at the top of a tower, a helipad, an experimental sound dome, a convention hall, housing for potential convention delegates – now the Quality Inn – and a “Sinatra in Palm Springs”-style home for the head architect.
The imposing structures stand empty, some in various stages of ruin, as modernist symbols of an ambitious, unfulfilled dream for a city whose poverty rates are now the highest in Lebanon.
The government made some additions in the 1990s, under the aegis of influential prime minister Rafic Hariri, to make the space more usable.
These include glass panels in the windows of the cavernous convention hall, and white plastic chairs in the open-air theater space.
Despite this, the only regular event taking place in the fairground is an annual book fair, says tour guide Minkara.
“I call it Lebanon’s modern ruins,” she laughs, on a sunset walk through the grounds. “We have so many ruins in this country, but these are the only ones that look post-apocalyptic.”
Here are the highlights:
“As you can see, it’s not really a gate,” says Minkara as we pass under the massive block of reinforced concrete that marks the entrance to the park.
The eight-meter-high structure gives viewers their first view of a giant concrete awning that Niemeyer called la grande couverture (the big cover), the arch, and some of the park’s other tall monuments.
Standing under the gate’s soaring roof, one gets the feeling of space rather than restriction.
“You feel there are no limits,” Minkara says, “which is contradictory to what we think of as a gate.”
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In the 1990s, the exhibition center played host to a number of events, like an annual African fair where Minkara would spend her pocket money as a teenager.
Now, dust and rubble sits atop drab gray carpeting that looks straight out of “The Office.”
However, the center’s 750-meter concrete awning, which curves so as to make the end always just out of site, is an attraction in and of itself.
The grande couverture is a testament to the architect’s fascination with limits and edges, says Minkara. “The site has no vertical abstractions,” she insists, to disrupt the aesthetic of limitless space.
Niemeyer was also inspired by curves found in the natural world – in mountains, waves, and “on the body of the beloved woman,” he’s reported to have said.
The architect designed la grande couverture to have a skylight shaped like a pointed oval, which some architects believe is a reference to a specific part of the female anatomy.
“This is just a theory,” says Minkara, “but it’s true that he was inspired by the female form.”
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Experimental Theater or ‘The Dome’
Niemeyer’s Experimental Theater is a huge dome with thick concrete walls rising at an extreme angle from the ground.
“It’s not easy to make such a form without concrete, so in the ’50s and ‘60s it was considered extremely modern,” says Minkara.
The dome was intended as a performance space. There’s a central stage powered by a hydraulic jet to adjust the height, as well as a stage behind the audience area to allow for a surrounding effect.
Acoustics, of course, are built in.
By way of its shape, the dome features a natural “whispering effect,” whereby people standing on opposite ends of the structure can hear each other clearly at a whisper.
Shouting produces reverberating echoes.
“This structure usually stimulates a lot of emotion in people,” says Minkara.
Basically a helipad in name only as “only very small helicopters can land here,” Niemeyer’s structure is shaped like a lotus flower, with a bright red spiral staircase leading from the landing surface to ground level.
Beneath the helipad, Niemeyer planned a subterranean space museum.
“It was the ’60s,” Minkara says, “they were invading space, everybody was obsessed with the idea of landing on the moon.”
But unlike the moon landing, this idea was never realized – the underground level currently serves as a storage area.
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This is the focal center point of the park. There’s a steep ramp leading up to the soaring arch at the top; from here it’s possible to see the stage, and the white seats which create a satisfying honeycomb effect.
The concrete stage with its sail-shaped sound amplifier (Niemeyer called it a voile acoustique, or acoustics veil), and the white seats added in the ’90s are perhaps the most photographed sites at the park; the arch is iconic enough to appear as a special Tripoli filter on Snapchat.
Like the Lebanese Pavilion, the stage is meant to be surrounded by water, separating the performers from their audience.
“In the 1990s, Russian ballets, Arabic singers, and rock bands played here – but that stopped when the assassinations began in 2003,” Minkara says, referring to the spate of killings that took the life of former prime minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, among others.
No one now treads the concrete boards of the stage except skateboarders and the occasional tourist.
The park’s only major departure from Niemeyer’s signature space-age design style, the Lebanese Pavilion’s arches were inspired by Lebanon’s traditional architecture, an amalgam of Ottoman, Islamic, and Venetian styles.
Niemeyer intended the pavilion to be a multi-level gallery space for exhibitions related to Lebanon, surrounded by a pool of water so the building’s arches would be reflected by the water.
The arches of the pavilion “are more stretched” than those of the Lebanese house, says Minkara, because concrete allowed a more dramatic curve than the traditional wood.
The effect is that while inside, one still has the feeling of being outside – a central theme to many of Niemeyer’s constructions.
The pointed arches also reflect the shape of the peaks of Mount Lebanon in the distance, pink against the setting sun.
Mira Minkara runs guided tours starting at $20 per person. Private tours start at $300.
Contact her at +961 70 126 764.
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Stephanie d’Arc Taylor is an American journalist who has lived in Beirut since 2012. She tweets at @SdArcT.