A Man of the Present: Architect Bernard Khoury

April 21, 2013

By Sulafah Al-Shami

Bernard Khoury is a maverick of his time, perhaps best known for designing B018, a club resembling an underground bunker that was built on the remains of a refugee camp in Beirut in 1998.

The 44 year-old Lebanese architect is known for his cutting-edge designs, and is one of the few internationally acclaimed Arab architects. Khoury established his own firm, DW5, around the same time he graduated from Harvard with a master’s degree in architectural studies.

The son of two architects (his father, Khalil Khoury, he describes as a hardcore modernist), he set out to study architecture at an early age, by default it seems, and got his Bachelors from the Rhode Island School of Design.

“I hate labels,” says Khoury in his deep husky voice, accentuated by his French toned pronunciation. He is always seen dressed in black, and his blue bulging eyes give off a feeling of solemnness.

Khoury professes his love for speed and shows contempt for anything that romanticizes or is reminiscent of the past.

“I found it very odd to see Columbia University’s logo on a neoclassical building here in Amman, a building that was probably built, what, in the past 10 or 20 years, and this is a building [that is considered] respectful to the past,” he said in interview with 7iber last month, describing the university’s Middle East research center in which he was about to deliver a presentation titled “Knowledge, Mobility and Infrastructure,” part of Studio X – Amman Lab.


Photo by Hussam Da’ana


I want to believe that it is possible not to replicate Western modernity

Khoury wrestles with what he calls superficial representations of history in the region, which he believes often fit Western expectations of the Arab world. He criticizes Arab cities, including Beirut, for relying on “imports” to build contemporary architecture, and sees it is ultimately stemming from cultural and political bankruptcy.

“I want to believe that it is possible not to replicate Western modernity, I want to believe that in our part of the world we can live certain extremes that are not even possible in the Western world,” he says.

src-through-the-holiday-inn-medAt the Columbia Research Center auditorium, brimming with architects and architecture students attending his talk, Khoury presented slides of his experimental project “Derailing Beirut”, one of his radical attempts to overturn stereotypes and cliches of his city. A roller coaster travels through a predetermined course across Beirut, cutting through the notorious Holiday Inn (a vantage point for militias and snipers during the Lebanese Civil War), an enthralling and stomach-churning ride satisfying any tourist’s desire to ‘experience’ Beirut.  By agreeing to ride in the capsule, one becomes on the receiving end, and is fed the stereotypes and postcard images of Beirut, becoming a passive interlocutor.

“I like to think that I can contradict myself from one street corner to the other,” says Khoury.

Although Khoury describes himself as very much grounded in the present, he has often embarked on rehabilitating old structures placed under historical protection by authorities. One of those projects is Centrale Beirut, a building dating back to the early twentieth century, now a restaurant/bar in Beirut’s central district. Contrary to traditional rehabilitation schemes, Khoury refused to re-plaster the damaged facade, but instead reinforced it with non-interfering horizontal beams barely touching the decaying skin of the building. Khoury describes his intervention as violent; he “gutted out” everything that was inside and replaced it with an inner structure that was completely different. The restaurant’s bar hangs above the dining area like a cylindrical air shaft protruding from the roof. The bold industrial design of the bar contrasts with the crumbling facade and the renovation schemes implemented by Solidere across downtown Beirut. Khoury believes that his attempt at “picking up the pieces” was far more honest than his neighbors, whose formulation of history he describes as a “transvestite.”

“If it was up to me, I would’ve blown up the house all together, but I couldn’t,” he says.

But Centrale proved to be one of Khoury’s most celebrated and widely known projects. Despite his weariness of the idea of restoring buildings to their post-guard state, a practice that has come to define a good part of downtown Beirut, Khoury cajoled the authorities by keeping the skin of the building up without adding any make-up to it.

“It’s like I took you, gutted you out and put another animal inside,” said Khoury. “It’s a very weird and very surgical intervention.”

Centrale was Khoury’s refusal to deny the presence, “to say history is something that is in perpetual making,” and that his intervention on the structure is also part of its history.


Model for Centrale

Another similar project is a villa that is believed to have housed a brothel at some point, in the Saifi quarter of downtown Beirut. Khoury picked up the development brief for this project after another architect submitted the building permit. He did not change much of the permit, but rather proposed to rebuild it in a drastically different way than it originally dictated. Again, he kept the initial remains of the ruin untouched and refused to apply “any sort of makeup” on them. Khoury used a temporary steel bracing system to prevent further damage to the old decaying structure, as he did not want the new facades to overlap with the existing elements or attempt to replicate the existing structure.

According to an interview published in the New York Times in 2006, Khoury has been approached in the past to work on eight different projects in the area that Solidere was developing, but none of them were ever built. The Saifi villa was an exception.

“Our proposal was approved, strangely, by Solidere,” said Khoury. “I think they realized that this is important for Saifi, and if anything for BCD, to have another shot.”

Putting things into context

Khoury likes to navigate from one context to the other very carefully. Specificity, he says, is something he is obsessed with.

“What I mean be context is a very specific issue that one may find sometimes underlying issues below the surface, sometimes they’re way beyond architecture,” said Khoury. “This is not about syntax, this is not about an aesthetic, this is not even about technology, this is not about theory, this is about trying to deal with every specific context as intricately and specifically as possible.”

One such project is a villa in the Chouf mountains that he was commissioned to design by a client. The housing project was to be perched on the plateau of the cedar’s reserve, flattened in 1982 by Israeli military forces to serve as a makeshift artillery base. Although never realized, the project is an example of a particular scenario visualized through the client’s eyes and his desire of inhabiting the space, a situation in which Khoury developed an intense relationship with the context.

Khoury’s design for the residential project entailed minimal material intervention, highlighting transparency and the intermeshing of the structure with the surrounding environment. The circular façade sinks mechanically into the ground, transforming the interior into an outdoor terrace, open from all sides. Moreover, a reservoir collecting rain and snow water was designed for the house, and served as a spherical shaped winter swimming pool below the courtyard.

According to Khoury, the project was “impossible” for reasons that go beyond his proposal, describing the site as very sensitive and political. But again, this was Khoury’s aberrant attempt to materialize a client’s specific fantasy and express his relationship with the territory, departing away from the overused and romanticized red tiled roofs and triple arches characteristic of houses peppering the Chouf area.

893-4Out of approximately 122 projects Khoury designed, 62 were aborted.

Khoury’s designs challenge universal perceptions about how we as social beings should inhabit spaces. One home that Khoury designed for a client almost a decade ago completely disregards established housing typologies. The shower is in the closet, the bedroom is in the bathroom, and the room of the young son is a small wood cabin placed in the middle of the living room. Another proposed residential project undermines the concept of having a nucleus for the home. A longitudinal balcony stretching over the full length of the building creates an outdoor pathway, joining the bedrooms and the kitchen on every level, thus allowing navigation of the different parts of the house from the outside instead of the inside.

“Some projects may look unconventional for some people, [but] it’s not about breaking conventions,” said Khoury. “I think a project is a relationship with a client, a mutual understanding, and intelligence has to come from both sides.”

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