In 1963, the Lebanese government commissioned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer to build a permanent International Fair complex for the city of Tripoli. Niemeyer brought his signature tropical modernist aesthetic to the ancient city, building 15 concrete buildings across 250,000 acres of fairground. And in 1975, just as the sprawling complex was finishing up construction, Lebanon broke out in a bloody 15-year civil war.
The site was never used for its original purpose, and today–though it’s one of the largest works of Niemeyer’s career–it is little-known outside of Lebanon and architecture circles.
These days, the fairgrounds are still remarkably intact, though the buildings are empty and unused. It’s a strange spectacle among Tripoli’s ancient architecture and modern developments, says the architect and photographer Anthony Saroufim. For years, Saroufim, who is based in Paris but grew up in Beirut, had heard about the fairgrounds but never visited because of the political instability in Tripoli, a city effected by both the crisis in nearby Syria and the political divisions in its own country. This summer, he finally took the trip, and documented the lost modernist fairgrounds for a personal photo essay.
Saroufim says that the Rashid Karami International Fairgrounds are fenced in and typically guarded by security, but it’s easy enough to enter without obtaining permission beforehand. When Saroufim visited, the place felt like a ghost town except for a few stray tourists. A massive concrete archway leads to an open-air theater, where there are still rows and rows of plastic white seats. There’s a surreal teepee-like structure and a mushroom-shaped helipad standing above what was meant to be a subterranean science museum.
The architecture–concrete, otherworldly and “over-scaled” as he puts it–was built by Niemeyer to last. The architect, just a few years off from building the modernist city of Brasília with urbanist Lúcio Costa, envisioned a “modern and state of the art city quarter” that would draw tourists to the second largest city in the country.
On one end of the park, a huge concrete dome rises from the ground like a turtle shell and houses an experimental theater. Although, as NPR reports, the acoustics in the theater were never finished, Saroufim says they are incredible: “If you’re standing beside a wall and whisper, someone across the room can hear you like you are right beside them.” From time to time, artists and musicians will record there.
Though never used as fairgrounds, Niemeyer’s futuristic space museum is rumored to have been used by intervening Syrian troops during the Lebanese civil war. Saroufim says if the military was there, there’s no trace of it now. The city government still hasn’t found a way to put the complex to use, but tours and events are sometimes held there, and Saroufim says he’s heard that there are plans to host an art biennial at the fairgrounds.
Until then, it stands as a strange and fascinating symbol of utopian optimism from before the war.
[All Photos: Anthony Saroufim]