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Fairground in film: the failure of a promised metropolis
A conversation with Joyce Joumaa on her experimental documentary To Remain in the No Longer (2023, 38min), that premiered in Montréal, accompanied by an exhibition in the form of research notes at the CCA.

In 1962, Oscar Niemeyer was invited to conceive an international fairground in the city of Tripoli, Lebanon, which was never completed. كیفلانغرقفيالسراب / To Remain in the No Longer looks at how architecture operates in this failed state. By examining the precarity of the project site that remains to this day, the film reflects on the country’s current socio-economic crisis. In this interview, we talked with filmmaker Joyce Joumaa, recipient of the 2021-2022 Emerging Curator Residency Program at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, about using film as an architectural tool and what lessons can we learn from Lebanon’s Rashid Karami International Fair.

The film كیفلانغرقفيالسراب / To Remain in the No Longer will be presented at mudac - Museum of Contemporary Design and Applied Arts in Lausanne on June 10th, as part of the international research day The politics of ruin, featuring lectures, debates and films, within the framework of the exhibition Beirut. The Eras of Design. For more information, click here.

KOOZTo Remain in the No Longer was developed within the context of CCA’s Emerging Curator Residency Program, through which emerging curators are invited to propose and curate a project related to contemporary debates in architecture, urban issues, landscape design and cultural social dynamics. As an artist and filmmaker, what prompted your interest in the Emerging Curator Residency Program?

JOYCE JOUMAA I stumbled across the programme and was very interested in a specific sentence where the CCA mentioned that they accepted all sorts of proposals, including more experimental projects. Although I am not an architect, I was keen on pitching this specific project which, because of the site, had an extremely architectural dimension to it. I wanted to really use film as a curatorial tool beyond the space of the exhibition. In this sense, the film itself is hybrid in its texture and spans from black and white archival material to 16mm camera to digital film and ultimately found footage from the archives of Associated Press, upon which I then overlaid four specific narratives. The film is explored and constructed as both a tool through which to tell a specific story but which had to also exist within an exhibition. The project was always conceived of in relation to its ultimate presentation within the space at CCA.

I wanted to really use film as a curatorial tool beyond the space of the exhibition. In this sense, the film itself is hybrid.

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KOOZ What informed Oscar Niemeyer’s International Fairground in Tripoli as a site for your project?

JJ I grew up in Tripoli, specifically around the Fairground. I always felt a sense of alienation, both as a result of the inability to access the site but also in respects to its architectural configuration, as it sits in great contrast to the urban landscape of the city. I was interested in both revealing this contrast but, more importantly, using this architectural failure as a pretext to analyse and open up conversations around the multiple cycles of crisis which have characterised the economic, social and political landscape of Lebanon: from the Garbage crisis of 2015 leading up to the explosion in the port of Beirut in 2020. Moreover, the very fact that the project was never completed ultimately left a gap in the project’s documentation, to the point that Niemeyer himself never mentions it in any of his memoirs or letters. The building is completely foregone within publications on modern architecture in the Arab world.The project is thus a quest on how we can navigate failed projects within contemporary architectural discourse.

The project is a quest on how we can navigate failed projects within contemporary architectural discourse.

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KOOZ Specifically, you use film as a curatorial tool to draw a parallel between the decline of Lebanon's economy and social fabric and the architectural complex of the Rashid Karami International Fair. In what ways does film enable the unveiling of the site's complexities whilst unravelling a variety of individual perspectives?

JJ Film is an extremely effective tool to clearly visualise the precarity of the intangible economic, political and social crisis alongside the reality of built structures on the brink of collapse. Alongside William Albu, the cinematographer, we deliberately framed the structures so as to invite the audience to feel closer to the buildings’ details, revealing also the extremely present void. The feeling of the latter is counteracted by the presence of a particularly groomed landscape which, contrary to the buildings, is cared for on a daily basis by a team of workers. I sometimes think I could have made a whole film by juxtaposing shots of the “natural” landscape to the concrete architectures.

Film is an extremely effective tool to clearly visualise the precarity of the intangible economic, political and social crisis alongside the reality of built structures on the brink of collapse.

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Throughout the residency, I undertook eleven interviews with a variety of experts, and architects who have dedicated a good amount of their life documenting and studying the site. Four of these interviews made it to the film:

  1. Mike Azar, an economist, unravelled the economic perspective to draw parallels between economic and architectural vocabulary, with a specific focus and reflection on the notion of “collapse”;
  2. Abir Saksouk, an urban planner, analysed the site of the Fairground to reveal the impact of the project, realised at a time when the city of Tripoli was shifting from an agricultural society to an industrial one;
  3. Mhammad Tartoussi, a young photojournalist, situated the project in the present context of Lebanon, reflecting upon his participation in the failed 2019 revolution and the lack of job opportunities resulting from the ongoing crisis;
  4. Rania Rafei, a local filmmaker, added a layer of “affect” and personal narrative, establishing an interesting negotiation between my own perspective and that of the Fairground.
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KOOZ Originally conceived as an “economic locomotive”—intended to attract both foreign investment and an international public—the project for the fairground ultimately stalled due to a number of economic, political and planning reasons. In your opinion, what were the most significant motives for this? Was the project set to fail from the offset or was it tied to local mismanagement?

JJ Throughout the months of research, which were mostly undertaken at the Arab Centre for Architecture in Beirut managed by George Arbid, I discovered that the project's slowdown began in the 1960s, primarily due to local mismanagement, contrary to the commonly held belief that the civil war of 1975 was responsible for its failure. In fact, construction started in 1962 and could have well been completed by 1975 if political corruption and other issues hadn’t interfered. For example, the fact that the Lebanese government, contrary to Niemeyer—who had originally conceived the project as an open site—required the construction of a fence to close out the grounds. Ultimately, the project’s demise was marked by Lebanon’s proximity to Damascus and the fact that a fairground was to be constructed in the Syrian capital. It is quite ironic that the name of the Lebanese president at the time—who directly stalled and ultimately boycotted the project due to his affinities with the Syrian government—was then given to the Fairground. It now goes by the name of the Rashid Karami International Fair.

Ultimately, the project’s demise was marked by Lebanon’s proximity to Damascus and the fact that a fairground was to be constructed in the Syrian capital.

KOOZ How is the project explicative of urban planning policies common to those years? How does it explain the failure of the French model when applied to the Lebanese context?

JJ Throughout the early 60s, Lebanon was fully adapted to Western notions of design and architecture as well as to Western ideological thinking. The desire to expand as a means to step into “progress” was conceived with little critical thinking. Urban policies were being implemented based on foreign guidelines which, due to their “foreignness”, were not aware of the complex infrastructures that make up the local social fabric. As Abir Saksouk mentions in the film, this explained the failure of the French model—it had a different relationship to land ownership and to labour dynamics than the ones which characterised the Tripoli landscape back then. The site was shaped by Western modernism without any connection to how Lebanon could define its own notion of modernism based on its cultural and political specificities.

The site was shaped by Western modernism without any connection to how Lebanon could define its own notion of modernism.

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KOOZ Through both the film and your conversation with George Arbid, you discuss the notion of heritage within the context of Lebanon as a bureaucratic nightmare—which has made the rehabilitation and restoration of part of Tripoli’s built environment impossible—but also as an opportunity. To what extent will the listing of the Fairground as a UNESCO World Heritage Site both enable the site’s preservation but also signify its demise as a static monument?

JJ Abir Saksouk indeed refers to the issue of preservation within the city of Tripoli, explaining how many of the buildings are left to decay as the preservation policies dictated by the heritage body here in Lebanon are impossible to implement. Contrarily, George shared with me his hopes for the listing of the site within the UNESCO framework, he hopes that the UNESCO recognition will impose some pressure on the Lebanese government to implement concrete and sustainable preservation policies for the site. Moreover, the ambition is to catalyse local and international attention, economic funding and a proper conservation management plan.

The ambition is to catalyse local and international attention, economic funding and a proper conservation management plan.

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KOOZ Both George Arbid and Mousbah Rajab have acknowledged the possibilities of repurposing the Fairground site for the city and involving students in envisioning alternative uses for specific buildings and the entire complex. Your short-film concludes on a positive note, highlighting the potential of this public space in contrast to the privatisation of other areas in the city, emphasising that embracing new perspectives opens up new possibilities. What are your hopes for the International Fairground? How do you envision To Remain in the No Longer sparking fresh dialogues among citizens about the site's potential and its future?

JJ It is almost inconceivable to imagine a different future for the Fairground as long as it remains an unfinished folly. However, it is also impossible to accept that it will forever remain an empty site which does not serve the local community. I believe the Fairground should be offered to the local residents. An important precedent is the retrofitting of one of the pavilions into a wooden workshop, which already can be accessed by local craftsmen who work there to produce beautiful art deco furniture. The project, recognised with the Aga Khan award, is proof that it is not impossible to reimagine the site—it is purely a matter of politics.

Throughout Lebanon, the prevailing narrative and imaginary surrounding the site is one of pride because of its international modern associations. Nonetheless, I believe it is important to challenge this romantic narrative and ask ourselves: why did it fail?

Bio

Joyce Joumaa is a video artist based in Montreal. After growing up in Tripoli, Lebanon, she pursued a BFA in Film Studies at Concordia University. Her work explores the political phenomenology of language, post-colonial education and video documentation as a fictional archive. She is the recipient of the 2021-2022 Emerging Curator Residency Program at the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

The CCA’s Emerging Curator Residency Program aims to continuously rethink and re-examine the scope and the boundaries of “curating architecture.” Initiated in 2011, the annual program seeks proposals that use the curatorial project as a tool to foster ideas, to question relevant positions, to introduce new research themes, and to critique current modalities, with the ultimate goal of advancing new thinking for architecture and the built environment. For more, and to find out when the call for the next Emerging Curator Residency Program opens, subscribe here or visit the CCA’s website.

Federica Zambeletti is the founder and managing director of KoozArch. She is an architect, researcher and digital curator whose interests lie at the intersection between art, architecture and regenerative practices. In 2015 Federica founded KoozArch with the ambition of creating a space where to research, explore and discuss architecture beyond the limits of its built form. Parallel to her work at KoozArch, Federica is Architect at the architecture studio UNA and researcher at the non-profit agency for change UNLESS where she is project manager of the research "Antarctic Resolution". Federica is an Architectural Association School of Architecture in London alumni.

Interviewee
Published
08 Jun 2023
Reading time
15 minutes
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