Lebanon

School of Thought

Writer

John Burns

Photographer

Roland Ragi

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‘You can’t miss it from the street,’ says Youssef Tohme, describing the tawny series of buildings that make up Université Saint-Joseph’s Campus of Innovation and Sport. Standing on Rue de Damas, an arterial avenue cutting through the gut of Beirut, its crooked, pockmarked edifices strike a contemporary defiance against its more staid neighbours – the high-security consulates and cultural institutes that pepper the city’s busy Mathaf district.

The voids attract people from the street, like a magnet

‘It’s a landmark, architecturally,’ says Tohme, the main architect and chairman at Y.Tohme/Architects & associates, the firm that undertook the university’s extension in collaboration with 109 Architectes. ‘But a campus is a lot more than a building. What’s more important is that its presence is accompanied by lively public spaces.’

Behind its behemoth concrete exterior, the nature of the campus quietly reveals itself. Although comprised of three buildings that are, in turn, further divided into smaller units, campus life is shaped more by the empty spaces that these interlocking brutalist slabs both create and overlook.

‘We needed to create life, to trigger people to come inside and stay inside, to study and socialise, eat, play sports, everything,’ Tohme says. ‘These voids are very important – they are the heart of the building, they bring it to life.’

Voids, on USJ’s campus, are not void of purpose. The inclusion of empty space introduces a series of plazas and hollows, linked by chasmic walkways through the deep, shaded recesses in between buildings. Here, sheltered from the clamour of the Pierre Gemayel trunk road, which rumbles past nearby, students play cards, sunbathe or else simply watch the world go by during free periods, as one might in a park.

‘You always have people sitting around the water feature, in between the buildings, and on the staircase and roof,’ says Tohme. ‘The students identify themselves to the building. When you ask, they tell you, “Yeah, yeah, yeah – this is our building.”’

The architects not only managed to integrate a voluminous public space into an otherwise typically unplanned district of Beirut, but one that immediately connects to it. ‘At every stage you are linked to the city and what’s happening in it,’ says Tohme. A wide external staircase leads students from the plaza to a roof terrace, offering them a tabula rasa of the neighbourhood below and city beyond.

Elsewhere, buildings are interlinked with bridges so that journeys from one class to the next, usually humdrum trips lined by lino, become events of urban drama, with the cityscape unfurling below. By extending space vertically and playing with spatial continuum, the architects packed 60,000 square metres of usable floor space into a site ten times smaller.

‘When you enter the campus, it’s as if you have followed an extension from the street,’ says Tohme of the building’s aesthetic design. Although jarringly different to those around it thanks to the slits and piercings of its unusual façade, the site retains a sense of vernacular character.

‘Our challenge was how to give the building an identity – how to know that this building was in Beirut and not Amsterdam or Paris,’ says Ibrahim Berberi, a partner at 109 Architectes who was in charge for the construction of the project.

‘We wanted to basically use whatever vernacular architecture was in relation to Beirut,’ explains Tohme, ‘and link it into the heart of the building in a contemporary manner. So we took staircases, we took voids and masses and mixed them together.’ These locally inspired elements, carved out of the buildings’ somewhat brutal in-situ concrete, lend the site the earthier depth of feel of its surrounding environ.

The broken patterns that puncture the buildings’ façades and distinguish the site, too, not only play on the notion of a mashrabiyeh – already a staple regional architectural element – but whittle it down further to incorporate Beirut’s local particularities.

‘The campus is situated on the old demarcation line and, until recently, a lot of buildings in the district still bore the scars of war. The mashrabiyeh openings imitate, in a very stylised way, these scars,’ says Berberi, describing the way the seemingly random spacing of windows on the building’s south east side was designed to mimic bullet-ridden buildings nearby.

It seems, however, that day in day out, perhaps purposefully, the site’s monumental architectural features are tuned out, replaced by daily routine and the patina of the neighbourhood around it. ‘Everything is happening around you, and you forget about the buildings and their scale,’ explains Tohme. Sarah Haykal, an assistant professor at the faculty of economics, agrees. ‘Although the campus is huge from the outside, the rooms are small enough inside to create an atmosphere of intimacy, which makes it a pleasurable place to work.’

‘My favorite place is the open plaza with the pool of water. All of the students meet and gather there. It’s the liveliest place on campus,’ she continues. ‘The students are the heart of the site. During summer vacation and exam period, the campus feels deserted.’ Interestingly, Haykal says, the site also attracts USJ students who study at the university’s other campuses, who come to meet each other and mingle at the new complex.

Not only do students from other parts of town come to hang out, but so do the general public. ‘You feel compelled to enter the site. The voids attract people from the street, like a magnet. People who are maybe just having a break outside of the university will come and sit on the stairs, they’ll drink coffee, have a cigarette, chat and then leave,’ says Tohme.

‘It’s a successful public space, even if it’s in a private university,’ he says. ‘You have a space that is transformed by the students inside out, and by the city from outside in.’

This article can be found in Brownbook’s July/August 2014 Issue.

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