Interview with Architect Bernard Khoury

 

 

Interview by Jalal Toufic in Sahar Omran, The Long Overdue Guide to Lebanon's Restaurants, Beirut, 2006. Reprinted with permission. 

When I came back to Beirut, over ten years ago, I obviously was not expecting to be building restaurants and clubs—restaurants are not, or were not, usually the context of serious architectural investigation: they are things that are consumed, ephemeral; they are not made to last. Moreover, if you only work for the private sector you are not considered a good architect by the “serious” architects. I was maybe naïf to think that I could take part in the process of construction through supposedly serious architectural projects, ones that become part of a public debate—Beirut was not being rebuilt through such channels. So I ended up doing a lot of projects that remained on paper. I think that most of what has been built in the last ten years is disastrous, and I am very disappointed by at least the opportunities we have lost in that period. I am at war with those who are oversimplifying what this city is about.

B 018One has to judge every project according to and in the context in which it is built and in terms of its program and obviously the social context it is addressing. B 018 was a club that was addressed to the so- called post-war bourgeois society that I’m part of. It was a political project, not because it was interpreted later on as some sort of memo- rial—I don’t care at all about this interpretation. B 018 was a project that was very much about the present, about what it meant to build that particular program on that particular site at that specific moment in time. But afterwards we fell in the trap of its reinterpretation; it was turned into an overdramatic sort of memorial by certain people, and I don’t think that is what the project is about. It is a project that addresses the void of the city fabric in that particular area, which is in contrast to what’s on the other side of the highway. It is also about preserving that void. And it is about driving by that particular site on a Sunday at 5 in the morning and seeing life coming out of that hole. Notwithstanding that it is a club, and usually clubs are built to last for a very short time, and are not necessarily accountable for what they mean politically because they are not supposed to mean necessarily anything political, B 018 was a great context to address issues that were very dear to me at that time. So I realized after that experience that you could do a lot in the context of entertainment; if anything, you can actually do more than in the so-called noble programs such as a memorial or a library or a public housing project or a school, where you are working in a far more supposedly serious context, and there- fore are accountable, for what you are saying, to an institution. That in the context of post-war Beirut, a young architect could not really build anything outside of that context of entertainment says a lot about what such a society was able to produce in architecture and in many other things in the ten years following the war. Looking back now, ten years after I have started working here, I don’t think I regret coming back. If anything, I find more relevance in these situations and in this context than let’s say in a politically-correct situation where I would participate in a competition for a public library or whatever, because I don’t think that the public library or the museum necessar- ily reflects a political reality or a social reality, even in the West, because such buildings represent 0.1% of the built environment even in the most “advanced” societies. Look at France for instance, look at Paris as the model in the 1980s, under Mitterand; there was a big fuss about the big projects and the big competitions and architecture becoming a big public debate and so on and so forth. Even then, the city was being built despite us and without us, the architects. So after B 018, I did a couple of other entertainment projects, restaurants: La Centrale and Yabani. La Centrale also was a very important project for me because it was in proximity to SOLIDERE, and because we felt that we had something to say with regards to what it means to recu- perate an old structure—not only as a piece of architecture but also in terms of turning what used to be an old house or two old houses into a bar and restaurant addressed to a certain segment of the society in Beirut in that very particular moment in time. La Centrale was this sort of absurd monument for eating and watching and drinking and being entertained in a city that has no contemporary buildings that are institutional. We did things at La Centrale that I don’t think I would have been able to do outside the context of entertainment. In the initial set up, there was one single table that trapped the personnel inside it. They were inside an ‘H’ circuit; they could never escape it and never shared the space of the customers. Their only escape was through the staircase going down. The personnel were walking on a plane that was forty centimeters lower than the plane the customers were seated on, so that their eyes were never higher than the cus- tomers’ eyes. There was something very awkward about this situation. I think we went very far in that scenario—to the point that we were forced to change that set-up about a year after opening because we had overdone it a little bit. Nobody really told me why we had to change it; I think it made people really uncomfortable. I don’t think that my buildings are about torturing whoever occupies them because they are spaces of joy; they can be very pleasant spaces. B 018 works very well as a club. La Centrale works very well as a restaurant or as a bar. Restaurants are not just about serving food; it is interesting to see that for certain people Beirut can be mapped by restaurants and clubs: “Meet me next to x or y bar or whatever...”

You can count on your fingers—this applies even to the pre-war period—the number of buildings that were constructed specifically for institutional programs and that were articulated accordingly. You have a museum may be, an airport... just a few leftovers from the Chehabi period. Outside these very few exceptions, if you visit a municipal building you’ll see that it has basically the same typology as a residen- tial building. Beirut is this sort of cacophonous landscape of buildings that are a literal interpretation or reinterpretation of building laws driven by the goal of the exploitation of the available land. They are basically boxes with balconies that add up to 20% of the constructed area of the building, because the law gives you 20% for balconies. In the context of this sort of continuous cacophony of that same typolo- gy that is generated by the building laws, suddenly you have some- thing that doesn’t look like that typology and yet is not a church or a mosque or some sort of great noble building, but just a sushi restau- rant! Yabani is about the total denial of what’s literally behind the wall, because initially there was a building right next to us that was occupied by refugees and that had no windows, no tapwater, no toi- lets, no nothing. People were sleeping with their feet up in the air, right next door, right behind the wall where people were eating sushi for $50 a person. Now what do you do when you are an architect and you are confronted with a situation like that? You either refuse the commission—you would be chickening out; or you take on the situa- tion and you try to do something out of it: this is what Yabani was about. It was about assuming very visibly its absurd presence on that site. People may see it as an ugly building or as a cute building, but that’s not the point. It is a building that really assumes its impossible situation and its impossible status because it is a very pretentious building—erecting a building, a single structure for just a sushi restau- rant is not something you see often in a mature city. Usually restau- rants are given spaces within buildings; you very rarely erect a struc- ture just for a restaurant in quite a dense city like Beirut. So for this situation to happen is already something strange. So that makes it quite a pretentious move. The building’s mobile reception room trav- els vertically within a circular glass perimeter from the street level to the restaurant level below ground. There your only contact with the outside world is through watching the mobile reception room bringing patrons in and out of the building, and through the skylights. But what is literally behind the wall, which was the misery in the building next door, you do not see. So, however much the building is physically pres- ent and visible in the city, once you are inside it you are in complete denial of what is outside, of what is literally next door. To a certain extent, people are provoked by being so bluntly and so obviously detached and separated from what is literally next door, which they see when they arrive.

I think entertainment was a great field in which to experiment because it is not very serious to begin with, and because it is ephemeral. B018 is going to disappear at some point pretty soon, because it is on a site that’s rented. In fact all three buildings I have just talked about are not here to stay. They are on plots that were rented, so when the contract expires, these buildings will be wiped out. It is a difficult thing for me to accept, but I knew it before I started working on these buildings. And I think architects have to realize this: technically, a building cannot stay forever. This notion of eternal buildings that may have worked in antiquity no longer applies—naïve architects build without really realizing that their buildings have a lifespan. B018 is rusting away; I did it on purpose. La Centrale is about degradation: the metallic-mesh façade retains the chunks of plaster, which are slowly peeling off, and the exterior, being not protected, is decomposing. La Centrale’s façade illustrated our intervention on the structure: the beams that you see were in fact temporary beams that were there to hold the external skin while we voided out the building from inside— usually you remove those and you replaster the façade and you paint it in some sort of pastel color like they have done so many times at SOLIDERE. We didn’t do that. We kept the temporary beams and to accentuate that we put the metallic mesh all around the old ruined wall and we let it degrade.


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