Beirut is an ugly city. Well, at least that is what architect Assem Salam says about the war-torn city he spent his life living and working in until his death in 2012. He spoke to the BBC about how there is a jungle of grey concrete that towers over his garden, hiding what used to be a spectacular sea view. It is not the loss of the sea view that he mourned. It is not the commonplace nostalgia for the old and familiar that drives his bitterness about an extraordinary pace of construction in his city.
One of Lebanon’s most prominent modernist architects, Assem was a vocal advocate for, and active in, trying to improve Beirut’s built environment — his aim was to inspire the development of a unique and new form of Beirut architecture. His impressive projects like the Ministry of Tourism and the Khashoggi Mosque still stand as proof that the public sector and civil society are more effective at changing the character of the city. As a member of the Council for Development and Reconstruction during the visionary years, he brought his knowledge of post-War European reconstruction to bear on the processes of large projects. Like many architects of his time, he also excelled in reflecting the spirit of the times through contemporary furniture design.
“Of course all cities change, but change does not have to be so aggressive and so inhuman. Take London, for example” he says. “It has changed immensely since I first visited in 1942, but I can still take the same bus route as I did then, or walk the same streets. Beirut, on the other hand, has changed beyond recognition.”
Up until the late 1950s, there were few architects in Lebanon and the region. Those who designed buildings were architectural engineers. Along with Raymond Ghosn, Assem Salam, who graduated from Cambridge in 1950, founded the School of Architecture [today, Department of Architecture and Design] in the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture at AUB.
It was this generation of mainly European-trained architects that would help the region start differentiating between engineering and architecture. “In the early 1960s we started the School of Architecture at AUB and local architects began to emerge,” Salam had said.
Assem Salam was a major actor in creating a generation of architecture graduates between 1954 to 1979. Any graduate of that period will remember his remarkable sense of criticism during juries. In one glance, he would find the strengths and weaknesses of any project. His opinion was revered by other jurors as well as students.
Assem Salam and the Red Chair
So, it may seem flippant to celebrate his life work by looking closely at a red leather chair that Salam designed. His continuous fight to make Beirut, and more widely, Lebanon a better-designed country through architecture and interior design down to details of furniture. What interests me is how few creatives can move between these disciplines so freely and excel at so many of them. It was almost revolutionary to see this modern design aesthetic in Beirut, yet Salam and his peers were striving to move forward and creating an identity for Lebanon to proudly boast.
This red chair may be a simple red leather chair designed in 1955, but it embodies ideas that Beirut has been generating for as long as other modernists have been, yet in Europe we so rarely recognise their work and are not familiar with the names that hold so much importance to change in the Middle East. It is discoveries like this that make me realise how there is so much we are not aware of when we are led by the design press to feed our knowledge. When there is no marketing machine behind a design, we can often find little information about these.
How we find the long-lost icons of design in our past will forever be a challenge, so I encourage my fellow bloggers to help discover and share this work in the hope that we can mark a point on time for all great designers and architects who have, in some way, shaped our built environment and our interior designs.