What is architecture if it does not understand its context? Architecture is shaped and curated by the area it lives in, showcasing the culture it embodies. The more of this identity it embodies, the more meaningful (and sometimes prominent) it becomes.
December of 2018 was a month of prosperity for Lebanese architecture: Hashim Sarkis was announced curator of the 2020 Venice Biennale and Lebanese-born Amale Andraos and partner Dan Wood of WORKac were selected to build the Beirut Museum of Art. The museum, a dynamic assembly of contoured geometries (not entirely unlike their work at Miami's Museum Garage) located in the heart of Beirut City, will house permanent and temporary exhibitions across 12,000 square meters. WORKac's winning scheme was chosen for its ability to “reveal the cultural possibilities of integrating art, architecture, and landscape within a dense urban setting and as a means to re-imagine how we can live, learn and share together.”
In an exclusive interview with ArchDaily, Amale Andraos and Dan Wood, founders of WORKac, discuss their design for the BeMA, the influence of art and the city on architecture, their firm, architecture education, and the unique qualities of Beirut and Lebanon.
Dima Stouhi: The project is very exciting, personally speaking, as a Beirut resident. The project has a very dynamic, playful design. Can you explain how it was developed? Was there a specific point of inspiration?
Amale Andraos: There were a number of inspiration points. I think the first was Beirut. Dan knows Beirut quite well, and of course, for me, it’s still very much always in my imagination. As an architect, it’s so vibrant...life always takes over everything in Beirut, and I think we’re both very interested in how modernism got translated and transformed in a more Mediterranean context. [We were also inspired by] the thickness of the building envelopes in Lebanon, where balconies were created to not only negotiate environment, but also to bring the life of the street up the vertical surfaces.
Rather than going for a 2-dimensional glass surface that we’re seeing more and more of in places like Beirut, we wanted to work with that kind of thickness and activation of the facade that negotiates public and private. That is more typical in residential typologies, so we thought this was an interesting way to also question the typology of the museum, which is often a very closed box where art and life are divorced. So, we thought, in this case, we can bring the museum inside out, and really transform it into that typology to create an art+life, art+city coming together.
Dan Wood: I think that we were also inspired by the mission of BeMA, to be an open platform and dialogue with the city and people, and try to open up what sometimes is a very closed institution to a wider audience and also being next to the university and in that area of Beirut, which is really changing and becoming something very interesting. Also, in comparison with the national museum which is a really traditionally-designed "temple of art", and I think it’s nice to have the ultimate temple.
Amale Andraos: While BeMA is an independent, private institution, it is located on a plot of land owned by Université Saint-Joseph and that impacts how the museum will function in the city. It’s great to be a part of the USJ campus. We’ve done a museum in a campus before and it’s very different. I think the mission of campus museums in a way, while of course still part of the city, has to do also with education, community outreach, and building communities, and I believe BeMA and USJ were aware of this so it was a great intersection of a number of questions for us.
DS: Speaking of the new buildings in Beirut, many of the submitted proposals, as well as many other new projects in the region, are choosing to go upwards, meaning skyscrapers and 40+ storey buildings. You chose not to. Can you explain why?
AA: We are very interested in the question of density. Urban verticality is important because land is limited. The moment you get into the realm of the high-rise you get into energy efficiency and etc. But at the same time, I think mid-rise can be quite dense. We were thinking of museums that we love, like the old Whitney Museum.
DW: We wanted to have the ability to have two very large galleries on each floor, one being a contemporary, changing gallery, and one permanent collection gallery, and to have a dialogue between the two. We tried to maximize the floor plan in a way that pushes the bulk down.
AA: It was an inside-outside driven dialogue. There is a kind of vanity with very tall skyscrapers. I think there are other ways to create a presence that is about the life of the city, and we felt for this project it was more appropriate for us to create an interior-exterior dialogue.
DS: Regarding the site, I posted the news of the project to my social media accounts, to see how the Beirut locals would react. The design is completely different than anything we’ve seen in the city before. The overwhelming question was: What’s going to happen to the site? Because it is a huge parking lot that currently serves [the adjacent] USJ, the national museum, the Sodeco offices, the General Security building… How will you find a solution to this in your project?
AA: Initially, part of the competition was the masterplan in its entirety, but now the museum has been given a more specific site. It is a really good question, and we have a good collaborative force with USJ and BeMA. This is really in the realm of the USJ. Our hope is that even though they are driving the masterplan - and they’ve done great with their campus - they are very aware that they now play an important role in defining that very crucial part of Beirut. We do know that no matter what, all on-site parking will be replaced many times over with a large underground parking structure, and we will have parking under the museum as well.
DW: With any university, what is a parking lot today is not a parking lot in 15 years. They are always expanding. What we are trying to do is make sure we make use of the space, and what will be built, but of it is a very urban place. In the past years, USJ has expanded but included more open shared space. They have invested a lot in architecture, with buildings that are really nice.
DS: You previously mentioned the project’s open space. There is another problem that Beirut is facing and it is the effects of heavy rain. Sometimes architects get so carried away with the design, and they want to create this beautiful relationship between interior and exterior with plenty of open spaces, that they tend to forget the reality of the site. For example, the ABC Mall in Verdun floods during every rainstorm, forcing shops and restaurants to shut down. How will you deal with this problem in your project?
AA: Our site is pretty bound, we won’t have that much open space around it. There will be a small plaza but it really is very small. Again, it’s great to hear those concerns, and hopefully, as we mentioned, once we collaborate and think of the whole site, I think we can co-produce new knowledge in Beirut, like how to deal with these issues through architecture.
We work a lot with landscape in our projects and there are many ways to mitigate these questions in softer infrastructure, rather than the hard infrastructure that people are still more comfortable within places like Beirut.
DW: In the building itself, 80% of the outdoor galleries are covered and therefore protected from the rain. We have many experiences here in the Northeast [US] with these indoor/outdoor situations and how to deal with the waterproofing, so we’re not too worried about that. But I do think it would be great to have rainwater capture and use a great water system.
AA: We have some gardens on the balconies and would like to use drip-irrigation and find sustainable ways to maintain the landscape throughout the seasons even when it’s very hot.
DW: We have used that in Batroun before. They have a lot of green roofs there and we used that system to collect rainwater.
DS: So the project is going to be a modern and contemporary art museum. How do you think architecture influences art and vice versa?
AA: I think that there are two philosophies with museum design, and we wanted to blur these two together and find a third way. We want to offer a gradient of galleries. On the one hand, you have very beautifully proportioned, white galleries on the inside, but they are also perforated to create a dialogue between permanent and changing collections, between the present, the past, and the future.
And then the galleries that are part of the thickened envelope have a very strong character, which we hope will provoke a reaction of people who produce art for those spaces. So, hopefully, it will be an invitation to the curators and artists to react and to choose how that conversation happens between art and architecture in old and new ways.
DW: It’s like Whitney on the inside, Guggenheim on the outside. We think of the outer galleries as rooms and they are fairly orthogonal so I think you can consider them as small galleries, but also you can think of them as a sculpture park. Once you say sculpture park, no one complains there that there aren’t any white walls, no one complains that there’s a tree near the sculpture. So, in a way, I think people are already used to thinking of art in a newer context when it’s placed in a sculpture park or in a public space. That’s how we have to think.
AA: In contemporary art production, there has been an increasing involvement with site-specific, urban interventions. Art coming outside of museums, almost becoming architectural, in its scale and intentions, and that would be also interesting to create a gradient of art practices.
Dan: We are always looking at art and are very inspired by the artwork. I think especially the new Lebanese burst of creativity is very exciting. So in that sense we get a lot of inspiration.
DS: Amale, thanks to architects and designers like yourself, Lebanon is gradually stepping into the “architecture spotlight.” What do you think is still missing, or slowing down Lebanon, in terms of global exposure?
AA: I think it is very exciting, there is a lot happening. There are a lot of talented people, both in Lebanon and outside, and I think this competition was great in highlighting some of us and many others.I would say a number of things... One is to start to work together more, and try to be more present. I was very excited to see a pavilion from Lebanon this year in Venice.
Architecture is always ten years behind art because we come into our own much later, also. So, even though we’re at the same generation with many of the artists that have emerged, it takes longer as an architect. So I would say all of us who are in a position to make noise and invite others and lift others up, we should do that, and then support education, teach more. I always tell my friends in Lebanon they should engage the universities, and I know many do. You have to give back and I think it snowballs. And now with Hashim Sarkis taking over Venice, it’s very exciting. The momentum is there. There is a lot that we can contribute to architecture.
DS: Speaking of education, what differences do you see between the education systems in Lebanon and abroad? I understand that you taught at AUB (American University of Beirut) at some point, and of course you're very involved in education now as the Dean of Architecture at Columbia GSAPP.
AA: The American system is quite different from the French system, which is I think traditionally where architecture programs in Lebanon come from. I think the British and American are somehow similar. I think the American mixes the professional with the artistic more, that’s my sense. French is still somewhat Beaux-Arts. The German system has a very strong, technical capacity. Ideally, you want to mix all of these together, and now that schools are looking at each other, there is more of a mix, which is happening and exciting. I think the main difference to be honest is that in the US, academia is often the platform through which emerging architects “cut their teeth”. So you get a lot of young people teaching, even though they don’t have a lot of experience.
There is a real conversation between practice and teaching. I know that in LAU (Lebanese American University) it’s quite dynamic...My understanding is that you have old and also young faculty, and that dynamism is what moves things forward. It’s not just about the scholarship, it is about the intersection between practice, theory, and history, and having people come in and come out. That energy is crucial.
DW: We taught at AUB probably 15 years ago, and I remember back then it was almost impossible for young faculty to come in at all. That is changing now.
AA: Academic institutions need to support the next generation, not just of students, but also practicing architects. I’m excited to see that the schools in Lebanon are quite dynamic now. I see the students applying to Columbia and its always great and we have great alumni in Lebanon, so it’s exciting.
DS: Absolutely. You both co-founded WORKac. What would you tell architects who aspire to open up their own firms at some point in their future?
DW: Don’t be too early, and don’t wait too long. I think they should go for it. There is a certain reticence to just go out and start a firm right now, I think for young people, this generation hasn’t gone through a recession yet. People are comfortable working right now and I think we should encourage people to start firms.
AA: I agree, and at the same time, what a practice is is changing. This new generation, when they start something, it’s not one thing but many things. And then they find interesting ways to assemble these things together. Like you-you write a little bit, you practice a little bit. And I think this is a way to redefine what is a practice.
DW: You can wait, I waited 10 years to open a practice. You can never get work until you open a firm. Then when you start a firm it appears, it just happens. People love to support young architects because they think they’re cheap!
DS: So you wouldn't say there's an age to aim for, to start a firm?
DW: The thing is you don’t have to worry about it so much, there is a minimum age to get a big project. I feel like we couldn’t have done the BeMA project when we started our firm. Maybe not even 5 years in. So you just have to find the level of your work through the practice.
AA: The nicest thing to say is that architecture is still one of the few fields that you get better when you get older, and so you have time and you can try things.
DS: Final question, and it is out of personal curiosity, what is your favorite thing about Lebanon?
DW: My favorite thing about Lebanon is the energy, and the complete craziness there. I always say to take a vacation in Lebanon you have to schedule a vacation when you get back to rest from all of it. There is a real energy, and there is something about the life and heat and passion that people have and hours that they keep, and the ability to not think about tomorrow too much, I think is really exciting, and you don’t feel that a lot in too many places anymore.
AA: I think the energy and the sense that “Life wins” somehow that the people’s creativity. I prefer using creativity to resiliency because sometimes it’s hard. There is this energy to live and I’m willful that optimism puts everything in perspective, and I admire that.
DW: My second favorite thing is waraa’ ‘enab.
DS: I was going to ask about the food! That’s always people’s favorite thing about Lebanon.
AA: The food too! Yeah, I know. We have two kids and they love Lebanese food.
DS: Do you cook some Lebanese dishes at home, or no?
AA: I don’t.
DW: Who has the time?
AA: But my mother is the typical old-fashioned. When she comes here she brings the mana’eesh and frozen kibbe, and waraa’ ‘enab for Dan, so maybe our children will pick it up.