A battle of museums in Downtown Beirut

This story was originally published in The Daily Star.

The bottom of the dig would be filled with water, representing the Mediterranean Sea. Photo courtesy GM Architects

July 22, 2014

BEIRUT: Archaeological museums are a bit like buses, it seems. You wait ages and then two come along at once. At the Venice Architecture Biennale this summer are plans for an archeological museum, designed by Lebanese firm GM Architects. The curator, Rem Koolhaas, invited the firm to present a project on the theme of “Fundamentals,” for his exhibition “Time Space Existence,” now up at Venice’s Palazzo Bembo.

“I had the option of showing one of my [existing] projects or trying to think out of the box and create something from scratch,” GM founder Galal Mahmoud told The Daily Star. “We thought, ‘We’re not going to show a hotel in the biennale. It’s ridiculous. Let’s be architects and try and think of something that’s beneficial to Lebanon.’”

Mahmoud decided to design a museum that would showcase the country’s rich history, highlighting the successive civilizations to have ruled Beirut since the Bronze Age. Designs for the project, entitled the Museum of Civilizations, envisage a simple structure surrounding a dig in the center of Downtown Beirut.

“The problem I have with museums is that they have become architectural signatures,” Mahmoud said. “Usually they’re very bold statements that are not very accessible … [Here] there’s no architectural gesture. It’s just a promenade through time.”

The open-air structure houses a metal framework. Staggered platforms would allow visitors to stop and view the archaeological traces of each civilization, from the Phoenician period through the present day.

The bottom of the dig is to be filled with water, Mahmoud said, representing the Mediterranean Sea, while a tall white monolith rises from the base to tower over the surrounding area.

“We needed something to go back to the surface,” Mahmoud explained, “something that can become an iconic element within the city … We wanted a very pure white shape, which is the white sheet of paper, the future as you’d like to imagine it.”

The object, he continued, is to erect a tower whose windows provide patrons with appealing views of adjacent archaeological sites, allowing them to see their interrelationship.

These symbolic elements reflect the aim of the museum – to foster a sense of community.

“A main issue in this region now [is] that people don’t understand others and don’t communicate,” Mahmoud said. “When you see this, you’ll understand that we’re all more or less from the same origins. It’s not about being Christian or Muslim. It’s much deeper than that … When you know your history you become much more open. You become much more understanding. You learn to live together.”

The museum marks a departure for Mahmoud’s firm, which specializes in designing high-end tourism destinations such as luxury hotels and seaside resorts.

“I owe it to people in general to try and do something that is accessible to everyone,” Mahmoud explained.

The designs for the project have been on display in Venice since early June and were recently selected for display at the Singapore World Architecture Fair in October. Now, the architect said, he is ready to take the first steps toward making the Museum of Civilizations a reality.

Moving from architectural design to construction, however, tends to face nonarchitectural challenges.

The first involves location. The architect has not yet settled on a site for the museum, he acknowledged, adding that the Downtown plot earmarked in the renderings was “symbolic.” The first step in choosing a site, Mahmoud said, is to confer with local archaeologists.

When it comes to transforming Mahmoud’s concept into a reality, said Helen Sader, a professor in the department of history and archaeology at the American University of Beirut, finding a location where traces of successive civilizations lie one atop the other presents a serious stumbling block.

“He can reconstruct it artificially,” she suggested with a shrug, “but there is no place in Beirut, to my knowledge, where he can find a living example of it in a section.”

The oldest part of the city, she explained, is the Phoenician Tal area, adjacent the An-Nahar building in Downtown Beirut, where traces of Bronze Age occupation have been found. Substantial walls dating from the first and second millennium B.C. have been uncovered, but the site was abandoned after the Hellenistic period, around 30 B.C.

“After the first millennium the heart of Beirut moved to where the Parliament is today,” she explained, “so the remains are less telling and less substantial. You have to jump to the Crusader period maybe, because the Roman occupation was there but there is nothing left of it on site.”

A further problem is posed by the fact that the Phoenician Tal area was thoroughly excavated during the 1990s, leaving Mahmoud nowhere to dig.

“Excavation is like reading a book and tearing out the pages – you cannot reconstruct what you have excavated,” Sader clarified. “Once it’s excavated, it’s destroyed. That’s why documentation and recording are crucial if you want to reconstruct and understand what you have done.”

Informed of Sader’s views, Mahmoud replied that he would consider complementing existing layers with an exhibition of objects found in digs conducted nearby. “To recreate layers is a bit too kitsch,” he said. “I want to keep the rawness of the dig exploration.”

Funding for the project also remains hazy. Mahmoud said he intends to approach international organizations like UNESCO and the European Commission for support.

Sader doubts that such a project would be a priority for these institutions. She expressed further reservations, pointing out that there are multiple and pressing threats to Lebanon’s archaeological sites that require rapid responses. These should take precedence over “spending so much money on a virtual museum.”

“The National Museum still needs some money,” she continued. “What we really need now is to survey the country, to see where we have archaeological sites to protect in the future … What’s the good of having a Museum of Civilizations when the archaeological remains are gone?”

In search of another perspective, The Daily Star spoke with civil society activist Raja Noujaim, a lawyer and antiquities collector who helps run the NGO The Association for the Protection of the Lebanese Heritage.

Looking over GM’s designs, Noujaim noted that the idea resembles an old plan for an archaeological museum in Downtown Beirut, first proposed during Tamman Salam’s term as Culture Minister (July 2008-November 2009). The project, he continued, has been on hold for years.

Current Culture Minister Raymond Areiji, who has implemented a number of initiatives since February, told The Daily Star that the museum project had been revived earlier this month.

Areiji was unaware of Mahmoud’s design, he said, adding that construction on an unrelated archaeological museum in the Phoenician Tal area is set to begin in September.

“As far as I know there is one project,” he said. “It was decided six or seven years ago to build a museum for Beirut’s archaeological objects [with] a kind of archaeological park [next to it] … We should put in this museum and in this park a lot of objects which were discovered during the archaeological digs in Beirut over the last 20 years.

“There is a plan, a timeline, and we started it by signing the first document [two weeks ago],” he added. “So the second phase is in September we should put the first stone and begin construction.”

This project, which Areiji estimated will take three years to complete, has enormous financial backing. Kuwaiti donors have pledged $30 million, he said, an amount matched by Solidere. The Culture Ministry is donating the land for the project, which itself is worth a minimum of $60 million.

Pritzker-prize winning Italian architect Renzo Piano has agreed to design the building.

The minister said he was unable to share the exact details of the proposed location of the museum and gardens, but that the site was located close to the An-Nahar building and might include the Phoenician Tal site.

Based on the terms of reference issued by the ministry this month, he said, Solidere will now begin recruiting suitable museum experts to set guidelines for the objects to be displayed in the building and adjacent garden, which are to be taken from the ministry’s warehouses.

Presented with Mahmoud’s plans, Areiji said he was interested in exploring any cultural proposals, but added that “there is no room for two museums in the same area.”

In a subsequent interview, Mahmoud said he was unaware of the ministry project but that he intended to continue planning his Museum of Civilizations.

“I don’t know what this other museum is about,” he said, “because when I presented this project to Solidere they didn’t mention anything … I’m surprised that the minister doesn’t see that the more culture you have the better it is. All of Lebanon is an archaeological dig and there will never be enough archaeological museums and sites to showcase what we have.”

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