Category Archives: Space

NIEMEYER’S TRIPOLI

Inside Tripoli’s International Fairground; an abandoned futuristic vision that survived a 15-year civil war and served as a base of operation through a Syrian occupation.

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razilian architect Oscar Niemeyer—often described as a sculptor of monuments—was terrified of planes. When he came to Lebanon in 1962, he took the boat. At the time, the newly independent country was nicknamed the Switzerland of the Middle East. Beirut was the region’s financial hub, striving for modernity and international recognition. President Fouad Chehab encouraged the capital’s economic success, but tried to promote national unity and reduce social inequalities by counterbalancing Beirut’s dominance with decentralization.

The first beneficiary was the capital of the North: Tripoli. The ancient coastal city was considered highly strategic due to a number of reasons: it stood in close proximity to the Syrian border, and it had a deep-water port, direct boats to Turkey, and the remains of a railroad line.

Niemeyer was commissioned to create the structures for the International Fairgrounds, stretching over dozens of hectares of land, expected to be the crossroads of all regional commercial activities; a landmark for a modern nation.

Like many major urban development commission, the International Fairgrounds project was loaded with tension. Niemeyer brought his communist aesthetic into the design, favoring an open space that prioritized form over function. The Lebanese, in contrast, wanted a very functional center of business from which they could derive capital revenues.

In 1975, both respective visions for a grand future became casualties of the 15-year civil war that erupted and the nearly completed project was abandoned months before it opened.

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hen she was a child in the 1990s, Mira Minkara would watch her brother play on the dome that sat silently in an empty park. Behind it, a derelict arch, a concert hall and a helipad stood as stalwart artifacts of the futuristic vision that had once united Chehab and Niemeyer well before her time.

Like most of her peers, Mira knew nothing of the history of the dome. The ashes of war were still settling and the northern city of Tripoli was under Syrian occupation. A few yards apart from young boys playing football, the Syrian Army held an administrative block. It’s long been rumored that Lebanese prisoners were tortured and executed under their watch.

Years later, as Mira completed tourism studies with a special focus in the hammams and khans of old Tripoli, the city was racked with political assassinations and car bombs. At war with Israel and facing Islamic uprisings, visitors weren’t lining up for tours—they were lining up at embassies for a one way ticket out. Wrestling with the gravity of the times, Mira became committed to showing the people of the world her city should they ever return. After the ceasefire, she discovered quickly that what caught the attention of most foreigners was not any number of local landmarks, but an abandoned fairground. “For thirty years I walked past this place without paying attention to it,” Mira laughs, “but as more and more people asked about it I got curious.”

I’m sitting beside Mira on the road from Beirut to Tripoli, a willing participant in the local tour, intrigued by Niemeyer’s historical pursuit. A massive metal sign stretches across the highway to greet visitors: “Relax. You are in el-Mina, the city of waves and horizon.” The fairgrounds lie dead ahead.

“You need to experience the architectural promenade. This is what matters here: texture, landscape, harmonies,” explains Mira. The entire project is built around three elements: concrete—the flagship of modernity—water, and wind. The Fair opens on the Exhibition Hall, a curved structure, with a long, wide and flat roof. It was under this roof that participating countries were to install their respective pavilion.

“When Oscar Niemeyer started working in Lebanon it was a cultural shock,” explains Mira as we stand at the vast entrance. “He wanted everything to be opened like in Brasilia but we have a different idea of private and public space.” Open meant no fence, no entrance fee, no ticket booth, perhaps even no windows. The Lebanese insisted on having it their way but Niemeyer had his own plans. The architect’s solution for the ticket booth? “He hid it underground so that it wouldn’t ruin his esplanade,” replies Mira, pointing to a recess in the ground.

From the entrance, the Exhibition Hall seems infinite; no edges, no columns, endless extension into the distance. For the host country, Niemeyer built a separate pavilion. In this building, large open arcades with a view of mountains and sea bring the native architecture into view. Surrounded by a shallow pond, the Lebanese pavilion’s sharp angles become watery reflections as soon as the wind picks up.

Further on, we’re standing in the Experimental Theater; this is the dome of her childhood. “If it weren’t for concrete, this structure could not hold,” she explains. Her voice resonates off the walls, intensifying all senses as we step further into the enveloping darkness. The theater’s acoustics are impressive. A large aperture at the center was intended to hold a mobile stage which would turn, enabling the audience to see the performances from different angles.

Back in the nearly blinding daylight, we climb up a sublime ramp that leads under a gate towards the concert hall, surrounded by reflective pools. Chairs were added in 1996, and the space is now sometimes used for conferences and musical events. (As a teenager, Mira saw the French band Zebda perform here.)

The Master’s Villa, originally built to house the general manager of the fairground, is almost completely covered in vegetation. Nearby are the remains of a white-tiled swimming pool.

“I enjoy the nostalgia of this villa” Mira explains, “I close my eyes and I feel like I’m in Latin America, I try to image what could have happened here. It opens my imagination.”

Walking back to the entrance and through the administrative buildings once occupied by the Syrian army, graffiti covers the charred remains of fire on a wall pockmarked with gunshots. I pause to stare. “Executions,” notes Mira.

Moments later, from the terrace of a bustling restaurant, the fairground appears anachronistic, like a silent phantom on the outskirts of a bustling city. Fatteh is served, a traditional mixture of bread, yogurt, chickpeas and olive oil. I ask about Tripoli’s future.

Some rehabilitation projects have been put forward, including the creation of a theme park—something to rival Disneyland for the Middle East. Another proposal was to create a mega distribution center for Chinese products, but the investors were discouraged by political instability.

“Tripoli is a forgotten city, people are scared to come, even the Lebanese,” says Mira. “I hope I can change this perception because in reality, the city is full of life and has great potential.” She reminds me, in ways, of the men who came before her.

AEROTROPOLIS LOST

How the former outlaw haven of Pine Barrens, New Jersey flirted with and faltered on its planned reinvention as an unprecedented American aerotropolis, leaving behind a vital blueprint for the future of cities.

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t’s hard to know exactly when you enter the Pine Barrens. There’s no clear border; instead, it’s a slow immersion, suburbs and exurbs giving way to rural spaces, and those in turn transforming into something more primal.

The forests and wetlands of southern New Jersey were once home to colonial-era industry—a place where residents of the newly independent United States could find refuge after being cast out of their communities. It’s a region whose history brings together Al Capone and cranberry farmers, supernatural creatures and early American Quakers.

This vast wilderness contradicts the New Jersey cliches of suburban sprawl, shopping malls, and industry. It almost wasn’t so. In the peak of the 1960s Jet Age, the pines were very nearly paved over to make way for an airport designed for supersonic jetliners, along with a city that, had it been built, would now be the third largest in the state. The plan presented a newfangled concept that would attract renewed interest decades later, when author Greg Lindsay would coin the term aerotropolis to describe a metropolitan sub-region where the layout, infrastructure, and economy are centered on an airport which serves as a multimodal “airport city” with a commercial core.

In John McPhee’s 1968 non-fiction book, The Pine Barrens, the author meets “pineys”—as its residents are known—on the verge of being displaced by plans to create a supersonic jetport. This development would be “connected by a spur of the Garden State Parkway to a new city of two hundred and fifty thousand people.”

By the time that McPhee began researching his book, the concept of an airport in the Pine Barrens had already been floating around for a decade. Then as now, the New York metropolitan area’s airports were overcrowded; an additional airport would, in theory, relieve some of that congestion. A January 1960 New York Times article alluded to a planned airport site in Morris County, New Jersey, also noting that a site in the Pine Barrens was also under consideration. By August, opposition to the Morris County site had made the Pine Barrens site more appealing. An article in the Times contended that the more southern location—a 40-square-mile tract that sprawls across much of eastern Burlington and western Ocean Counties—would make it ideal for residents of New York, Philadelphia, and even Baltimore. The jetport would be four times larger than Newark Liberty, John F. Kennedy, and LaGuardia airports combined.

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or a handful of days in the summer of 2009, New Yorkers focused on a particular corner of the internet had cause to panic. A group, it seemed, was advocating for the building of a new airport right in the middle of where Central Park currently exists. To say that the image of one of the largest section of green space in the middle of an increasingly-developed city being paved over for a single-runway airport caused consternation in readers would be an understatement.

The airport plan turned out to be a hoax, but one that stung, tapping into deeper anxieties and feelings of inadequacy when flying in or out of the city. “American airports are commonly seen abroad as symptoms of some deeper malaise,” wrote Greg Lindsay in a piece for Fast Company about the hoax. As co-author, with John D. Kasarda, of the book Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, he’s a writer who’s spent a lot of time thinking about the subject. As he points out, there are aerotropolises being developed in nations abroad as we speak.

Before the end of this year, on a still-soggy tract that now lies at the creeping border of Bangkok’s suburbs, a new $4 billion mega-airport will finally open, forming the heart of a nascent city. When it’s finished, the erstwhile Cobra Swamp, now Suvarnabhumi (the “Golden Land”), will pump more than 100 million passengers a year through its glass portals, about as many as JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports combined. Within 30 years, a city of 3.3 million citizens—larger than Chicago now—will have emerged from the swampland.

Travel within the United States generally involves a separation between city and airport. There are plenty of reasons for this: concerns about noise and public safety come to mind. That same separation can make airports difficult to access. Portland, Seattle, and Chicago all have direct public transit connections to their local airports. If you’re in New York, however, traveling to certain airports from within the city can involve long waits in traffic or multiple transfers on public transit.

The headquarters of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission houses an archive of materials related to the planned city and airport, including several plans from consultants Herbert H. Smith Associates that date from 1962 onwards. The city, referred to simply as “New City” in the plans, was one of several proposals made in response to the question of developing the land around the airport.

Illustrations interspersed throughout the plan suggest a city both futuristic and anonymous, the kind of skylines one might see on display at a World’s Fair from decades ago. Aerial views show a modest skyline, with housing extending away from it. The plan features a dense “inner ring” surrounded by an industrial park, high schools, hospitals, a lake, and golf courses. Eleven miles away sits the jetport—convenient, but distant enough to prevent the sounds of takeoffs and landings from being overly disruptive.

Throughout the proposal, one finds passages that seem designed to boost the idea itself. “The New City concept offers a unique opportunity, unmatched in the country, to build a modern major city from a unified plan in a relatively brief period,” reads an introductory section. Elsewhere, an argument is raised to combat the notion that this idea is “a foolish scheme of wild-eyed dreamers.” The report argues that the plan, in fact, “represents a modest expansion of similar developments that are presently being effected.”

It can be difficult to read the descriptions of moving sidewalks and airports populated by supersonic airliners without feeling slightly disoriented. The day of the Concorde has come and gone, but to see charts and tables in the Pinelands Commission archives trumpeting a day in which direct flights from New City to Australia might take a handful of hours can fill a reader with regret at what never was.

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hile there was heavy and sustained opposition from local conservationist groups, there doesn’t seem to have been one decisive moment where the fates of the airport and city were sealed. (Of noted detail, the U.S. Department of Defense has since been revealed as one of the biggest land owners of the Pine Barrens, with 3,200 acres at hand.) Instead, references to it in news reports became less frequent over the years. A plan that had been taken as an article of faith by the residents who spoke with McPhee in the 1960s had become, by the time of a 1974 article, a “dead issue.” There are no massive cities or trans-Atlantic flights emerging from gleaming structures where forests once stood; New Jersey does not have its own equivalent to Brasilia. No aerotropolis–at least, nowhere in the Garden State.

The mythology of the Pine Barrens continues to trickle into the larger culture in unexpected ways: it gave one of the best episodes of The Sopranos its title and setting. It’s also home to the Jersey Devil, the state’s most famous cryptid, a possibly demonic creature that’s been the stuff of legends (and an X-Files episode) since the mid-19th century.

With or without New City, the region continues to grow, and it’s something that McPhee’s work forecast. Early in The Pine Barrens, he references “the great unbroken city that will one day reach at least from Boston to Richmond”—a nonfiction forerunner to the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis featured in the universe of William Gibson’s science fiction classic Neuromancer and its sequels.

But whether we’re creating cities in spaces that have never seen such structures, or extending metropolitan areas further and further afield, questions will need to be asked about what we’re willing to sacrifice to get to that point of progress, and whether the loss of singular spaces is worth the extension of more familiar ones. The allure of creating something new and better is hard to shake. At the same time, this is at odds with the desire to keep pristine stretches of nature viable and thriving. Decades ago, a clash between these two ideas was averted in southern New Jersey, but another manifestation of the same debate seems inevitable, and perhaps more decisive.

Image Credit: The Concorde supersonic airplane on the airport runway. ©Jean Gaumy/Magnum Photos. All archival photos courtesy of Ocean County, NJ collection.