The Architecture of Revitalisation

EAST Architecture Studio was announced winner of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2022 for the Niemeyer Guest House Renovation project in Tripoli, Lebanon. SCALE look at this winning design which celebrates architecture through their thoughtful and research-based approach.

Panoramic view of the Rachid Karami International Fair, composed of curved and geometric sculptural buildings in dialogue with each other. The Guest House is a rectangular building visible on the left.

It is when architecture reimagines, repurposes and complements works of history that it brings about a real sense of creation. And in that sense the Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2022 for the Niemeyer Guest House Renovation project in Tripoli, Lebanon was an ode to architecture and its real purpose, especially in a country like Lebanon, with a rich past and a disintegrating present. EAST Architecture Studio is an award-winning collective practice founded by architects Nicolas Fayad and Charles Kettaneh, who gained international recognition through several impressive design accolades for developments in Africa and the Middle East.

The concrete diagrid covering the courtyards allows sunlight to enter the interior spaces without glare.

Last fall, EAST Architecture Studio was announced winner of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2022 for the Niemeyer Guest House Renovation project in Tripoli, Lebanon. According to the Master Jury Citation, “The renovation of the Niemeyer Guest House is an inspiring tale of architecture’s capacity for repair, at a time of dizzying, entangled crisis around the world, and in Lebanon in particular, as the country faces unprecedented political, socio-economic and environmental collapse.

Located on the outskirts of Tripoli – one of the oldest and most beautiful port cities, once renowned for its craft but today ravaged by extreme poverty, migration and lack of public space – the rehabilitation of the Guest House is part of the Rachid Karami International Fair (RKIF), the unfinished masterpiece of the architect Oscar Niemeyer.

The Guest House exposes an elongated profile with its 58-metre-long main facade and low height, set on a flat field amid lush high grass.

The award-winning project was particularly commended for its social relevance in the context of Tripoli, as well as its sensitive renovation approach and its timelessness, and sets a relevant benchmark for the renovation of modernist heritage buildings in the region.

View of the horizontal concrete structure with a windowless façade.

The studio operates as a boutique architectural office, working on projets of multiple scales and scopes.

“Projects emerge from the studio with optimism, translating visionary ideas into an architecture of the present – a reality that the team embraces, with a particular interest in intellectual pursuits and design research,” explain the architects.

SCALES engages with the architects to find out more about their Aga Khan winning project and their practice in general.

Defined by a series of lightweight steel and glass panels registering the ceiling’s rhythmic structural grid, the new flexible partition seamlessly connects all functions to each other and to the central courtyard beyond.

SCALE: How did this project that won the Aga Khan Award come to you? How important was this project for the firm and how did it help in in putting to test all your values in architecture?

EAST Architecture: We won a bid after responding to an RFP that was launched by Expertise France, a French agency for development that called for the rehabilitation of one of the Oscar Niemeyer designed pavilions at the Rachid Karami International Fair. Working on such a unique project came with great pride and substantial responsibility in equal measure. The urgency of preserving our modern heritage has become increasingly more apparent, a reality that we embrace at the studio.

The blank facades reveal a beautiful interior space lit by a square atrium.

SCALE: What was the focus in your design, was it to respect the architecture of a great architect or to do something equally identifiable?

EAST Architecture: It was important for our intervention to be reversible, while adapting the pavilion to contemporary needs and standards. The challenge was to first uncover the original design intent but also inject new life in the space. This was a difficult task in the absence of archival material and photographs. After an intensive three months long research phase we were able to catalogue some of the originally intended material applications and space allocations. From there, we were able to imagine the DNA of our intervention, composed of a flexible, demountable and light weight partition that segregates the spaces around a light filled internal courtyard. A custom-made lighting solution complements this addition, inserting itself in the ceiling structural grid, revealing a gap between the old and the new.

The Guest House’s operable glass doors can be opened or closed depending on privacy needs and the desire to access the courtyard.

SCALE: Tell us about some of your earlier works, that which has helped in putting the focus on East Architecture Studio?

EAST Architecture: Our studio operates as a collective practice committed to architectural design and experimental research. We create innovative built environments of different scales – from master-planning to interior design and adaptive reuse, engaging contemporary society and traditional culture. Our studio acts as an open laboratory continuously in search of new architectural typologies that reconsider the intersection between spatial experience, form, and technology while adjusting to changing social, economic, and political environments.

Since its opening, the Guest House has hosted several shows and promotes collaborations between established Lebanese designers and local artisans.

SCALE: How did both of you form East Architecture? Was it a coming together of similar ideas or of varying thoughts that helped in bringing in diversity to the Studio? Tell us what each one of you brings to East Architecture Studio?

EAST Architecture:  The team complements itself organically allowing for projects to emerge from the studio with optimism, translating visionary ideas into an architecture of the present – a reality that the team embraces, with a particular interest in intellectual pursuits and design research. Emphasis on history, culture and the territory are an integral part of the adopted design methods, defining an architectural response that engages with the challenges of our time.

Conceived as an open production laboratory, the workshop and its auxiliary technical spaces infiltrate the western wing of the building.

SCALE: How did the Lebanon crisis of 2020, affect the Studio? What are your thoughts on the urban fabric of the country? There are many architects who believed that Lebanon was already in a crisis much before when real estate was being sold without any respect to the history of the country? There is an environment that is governed by capitalist forces rather than spatial and environmental quality, some have said? How have you survived these phases of architecture in the country?

EAST Architecture: It takes a substantial amount of experimentation and research to really understand how a city like Beirut can rebuild itself after successive traumatic events. Learning from history, and embracing the underlying layers that compose the city and its failed attempts at rebuilding itself truly informs our attitude as architects and designers, learning from the past to better inform a tangible future. The erasure of entire neighborhood through time, in favor of a prevailing commercial therapy that only caters to a small portion of the Lebanese population leaves us with a sterile urban environment, in urgent need of recovery. We also find this unfortunate reality quite inspiring, as today’s Beirut – with all its complexities – still allows for emotion, imaginations and creativity to be fostered by so many conflicting sentiments.

Furniture from the Minjara workshop on display.

SCALE: What’s next for East Architecture Studio?

EAST Architecture: We are about the complete a living gallery for a Middle East art collector, a project we very much look forward to unveil. Many exciting projects are on the drawing board, such as a cultural institute for Amman.

All Images Courtesy East Architecture Studio