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.
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.
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.