The House of Arts and Culture in Beirut

Location: Beirut
Architect: Alberto Catalano
Consultant: Gaia-Heritage
Budget: 20 million dollars

Georges Zouain is the mastermind behind Gaia-Heritage, a service and consultancy-based organization specialized in the management and economics of cultural and natural heritage. Gaia has been in charge of several high-profile architectural projects in Lebanon recently, the first being the House of Arts and Culture. Before creating his practice in 2002, Zouain was the director of the Culture sector at UNESCO. He has a doctorate in development economics and is a fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, as well as a member of the Association of Culture Economics International, the Architectural Association in London, and Transparency International.

Zouain’s experience with architecture and its heritage was accentuated after having worked at UNESCO for emergency operations, where he was involved in significant projects such as the King Faisal foundation and museums in Africa and Libya. “After 10 years, I learned the trade of dealing with architects and conceiving large-scale projects since my work meant I was obliged to learn a lot about architecture in relation to world heritage, in restoration works, in the research of modern architecture, in historic places, and in how to combine contemporary with traditional design. We are very much working in this realm at the moment.”

Gaia Heritage naturally went from being consultants for the Royal Diwan of Oman for the construction and installation of a National Museum to consultants for the conception and development of the House of Arts and Culture, after the Lebanese government accepted a 20 million dollar grant from the sultanate of Oman to build a cultural center in Beirut, specializing in the visual and performing arts. This initiative emerged from a cultural strategy developed for Beirut by Gaia, at the request of Solidere in 2005, which both the Minister of Culture, Tarek Mitri, and Prime Minister, Fouad Seniora, were aware of, according to Zouain.

This cultural strategy comprised regenerating downtown Beirut in terms of  renewing the sense of "life" there, which was lacking, without real leisure or cultural amenities attracting people. “Any person who works in urban economics understands that if you want long-term sustainability, you have to develop amenities. It is not about the event; the event dies after it finishes. So we suggested to use the first basin of harbor in order to establish an oceanographic, maritime museum. As a Phoenician country, Beirut always had an important role in navigation, especially in the 19th century because of the steamboats that needed a deeper sea harbors. We even discussed an exchange with Valencia, recommended a National library, a contemporary arts center, and also studied the possibility of locating this by the sea. Because of the positioning of Monot, Gemmayzeh, and USJ, we wanted to create a network.”

Zouain recounts how Minister Mitri at the time personally called him, saying, “Everybody tells me that you are the man, can you do this for us?” Zouain responded, “For you, yes, but it won’t be a cultural center…” What he wanted was an incubator, and based on research carried out for the cultural strategy, the proposal was that what was needed the most in Lebanon was a place that would cater for the youth and nurture local talent, providing facilities that the private sector could not give. This would allow the Lebanese to “project their skills onto the future and provide windows of opportunities” in promoting artistic and cultural production. When Zouain found himself and his staff stuck in their office in Paris during the Israeli-waged war against Lebanon in 2006, he decided that they would conduct a market survey to better understand what kind of cultural center was needed. After having studied over a hundred cultural centers around the world, analyzing costs and sizes and comparing them with the Lebanese context, a clear idea took shape of the form and function this contemporary arts center in Beirut would take.

The House was not conceptualized as a museum housing permanent collections, in the view of Gaia-Heritage’s members, but rather a space that could host temporary national, regional, and international exhibitions. Professionals and artist-practitioners would be invited to organize and lead workshops, conferences, and forums. Training sessions and equipment would be provided to boost creativity and exchanges. Zouain recommended developing a cultural corridor, along the same lines as those developed by Carlos Slim in Mexico, including a technological corridor, an arts corridor, and an education corridor, with the separation between each being not too large, so there is mingling, which satisfies town planners, because it is easy to implement. 

In 2008, Gaia-Heritage was finally able to launch an international architectural competition with the International Union of architects. 757 architect entries from 63 countries were received and 388 projects submitted. Albert Catalano’s project from Italy was the winner of the competition at $75,000, with TeknoArch, his Milanese firm, charged with implementing the changes suggested by the jury. Due to this know-how in the conception and organization of international competitions, and how to select jury, proceedings etc., Gaia-Heritage is also collaborating on a sustainable architectural contest launched by MAJAL, the Urban Academic Observatory afilliated with ALBA, which will help revive the debate on the different architectural approaches in Lebanon. The aim is also to favor the use of low-energy consuming materials and provide a carefully-thought urban integration of “ecological” buildings into the environment.

In terms of developing the artistic agenda for the House of Arts and Culture, Chérif Khasnadar, Chairman of the World Cultures Institute, who is an old hand of performing arts and knows the Lebanese context well, and Beral Madra, a curator of Turkish contemporary art who is very familiar with the whole region, are to direct the cultural programming. As for the more practical matters, Gaia-Heritage carried out an architectural feasibility study, to see if all spaces envisioned could be contained. Zouain admitted: “you know how architects like to expand their vision, before you bring them back to reality again.” The architectural plan was meant to house a flexible auditorium of 800 seats, a black-box of 300 seats, a movie theatre of 200 seats, exhibition areas, production and workshop studios for artists in residence, a multimedia library, and office areas.

The spaces that were built were meant to be flexible, multifunctional and easily manipulated or transformed into areas for conferences, rehearsals, or theatre, in order to build a real cultural infrastructure that is largely lacking in the county because of a lack of government supposr and public funding.  Furthermore, Zouain explains, “We want the visit to be a promenade, where you can always find something to do, at any time of the day. Technoark came up with a crazy idea of facing the Jean Nouvel Landmark tower. But how can we compete with that? So decided to be reduce the scale, and become more modest.” The House of Arts and Culture does indeed emerge from a bedrock, but by making it less underground, for more light and accessibility, the roof of the performing spaces became a promenade. We opened a pedestrian passage on the roof.” And the idea of simply walking from the seafront unto the roof and performing arts space is meant to show how an innovative architectural design, embodies the kinds of cultural ideas it intends to contain and stimulate, that of the mobility of spatial structures, an accessibility to all, and an open-ended creativity.

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