Maarad - Rachid Karami International Fair

Niemeyer in Tripoli

Maarad aka Rachid Karami International Fair

During his exile years, the famous modernist Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer got one commission from the Middle East: he designed 15 structures spread out on a 10 000 hectare site in Tripoli. These include an Exhibition Center, a Space Museum, a Dome referred to by Tripolitan children as ‘space ship’ in Arabic, a huge Arch, an Open Air stage…

The site, the Maarad, as locals refer to the Rachid Karami International Fair indeed bears much resemblance with Brazil’s legendary capital Brasília, which Niemeyer designed, capturing local aesthetics through what would become signatory organic shapes, rounded lines and concrete creations.

Syria opposed an international fair being established in Tripoli for fear it would compete with the Damascus Fair. Construction nonetheless went ahead, but stopped in 1975 at the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war and was never resumed. The Maarad was put on the World Monuments Watch List of 100 most endangered sites in 2006.

Like a drawbridge leading into a medieval town, visitors are pulled into the site once they’ve crossed the massive parking lot and the ramp ahead and gain an overview of the famous site, buildings peaking out between lush greenery.

The curved, seemingly endless (and deserted) Exhibition Center that stretches for 750m stands on the left. Niemeyer used no columns in the design of the Exhibition Centre.

Behind the Exhibition Center is what was conceived as an admin block, occupied by the Syrian army in the 1980s and 90s. The Syrians gutted the buildings. Now stray dogs roam the back areas of the massive site…

The Master House near the Quality Inn Hotel is situated at the end of the grounds, beyond the Open Air Theater and the Arch. The house made of stone and concrete was meant to harmoniously blend in with nature. As it stands, however, the swimming pool at the front is filled with rubble and overgrown, vegetation has taken over the building, though light still floods into some of the rooms as Niemeyer had envisioned it. The house was completed but the inside gutted by the Syrian army.

The Experimental Theater known as the Dome, features prominently in the collective memory of many 30-something Tripolitans as they’d try to sneak past the Syrian soldiers and then walk up and across the Dome, trying not to fall.

Niemeyer’s visit to Lebanon in ’62 was his first and only trip. Nonetheless, there is one building in which he veered from his usual style – the Lebanese Pavilion, which pays homage to the arched windows found in traditional Lebanese houses. (Empty) reflective pools – another Niemeyer trademark – surround the Pavilion, designed as an exhibition space.

The Maarad is a must for all architecture enthusiasts. You can gain access by going to the admin office of the building on the right as you enter and look for the person in charge on the ground floor. He will ask you why you want to see the site and will make a copy of your passports while you write your letter of motivation.

Alternatively, local tour guide Mira Minkara organizes great tours on a regular basis:

+961 70 126 764

Art Historical Attractions

Words By Nathalie Rosa | Photography Gray Robertson; Nathalie Rosa Bucher

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