Interior Design - Identity in Lebanon
Dory Hitti, Modernist
The design firm Le Cercle Hitti has achieved an outstanding reputation and professional success due in large part to the talented and imaginative work of its chief interior designer Dory Hitti.
His style is subtle, simple, and elegant. He describes it as modern but not eccentric. He prefers clear, fine lines and basic colors with no patterns because he is against the idea of a home looking like a museum. He gives importance to both beauty and comfort, consistent with the products of Ligne Roset, Roche Bobois, and Rolf Benz from Le Cercle Hitti showrooms.
Hitti brings interior design and cultural tradition together through an interaction of patterns, furniture, and hierarchies of mass and void, enhanced by the clever use of color and form.
For him, furniture is more than just decorative or provocative; it is an integral part of the overall design. With this approach, Hitti has created warm and agreeable atmospheres in houses, apartments, beach and mountain chalets, boutiques, restaurants, and showrooms.
I use the word "modern" to mean the use of contemporary structural systems and materials that are as technologically sophisticated as the operations they are designed to house. Further, contemporary geometry is seen as more elastic than traditional geometry.
Hitti's modernism, however, is not slavishly bonded to an ideology and can also take advantage of traditional materials. He challenges orthodoxies to provide an architecture of dynamic, delight, and duality.
Bechara Serhal, Traditionalist
Architect Bechara Serhal believes that the foundation of his design work is his humane approach to life. He says the experience of architecture should not derive from the mere impression of form but from an understanding of how interior space is enriched by uniting with the outside environment.
Like the word "modern," the word "traditional" can mean many things. In the context of interior design in Lebanon, it represents pre-1950s methods, materials, styles, and architectural languages.
Serhal's first interior design project was his own house, of typical vernacular Lebanese style. The second was the Massabki Hotel renovation, encompassing several types of spaces: guest rooms, reception, pub, restaurant, and restrooms.
The combination of large and small spaces are designed to merge comfort and functionality and to provide a unifying thread between a variety of styles which the hotel acquired from its original classical construction in 1900 and its expansion in 1973.
The larger areas, the reception, pub, and dining room, have been repositioned around a central atrium, as have the smaller offices. The guest rooms remain on the middle and top floors; the service rooms and kitchens have been reinstalled on the ground floor.
An independent restaurant stands in the outside garden. The key to the project is its interaction with the garden landscape. Here, more than anywhere else, interior design is a happy marriage of nature and artifice.
This is the context in which we need to interpret Serhal's work. He injects his creations with an inner strength. His designs are shot through with recollection and homage, sentiment and a love of architecture, legacy and vocation. He stands with those designers who recognize their cultural identity and do not try to conceal it.
The danger is that a piece of architecture or its ornament can be misread if it suggests multiple interpretations. Much of the respect for traditional architecture rests in understanding its origins without which ornamental devices can become gratuitous and willful.
Bernard Khoury: Homage to Past and Present
In contrast to modernists and traditionalists, some young designers take modernist principles as only a starting point for their ideas. Then they rearrange the architectural ideas and distort, fracture, and reorient the elements to create an architectural language that challenges modern orthodoxies.
This is the case for American-trained Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury. He has created several experimental projects, including "Evolving Scars" in 1993, a proposal for the recuperation of war-damaged buildings in Beirut.
Beyond responding to the demands of an architectural program, the architect should recognize the cultural history of a building's context. That's how Khoury thought of his most important project in Lebanon: the new "B018", a nightclub known for its unusual music and strange atmosphere. The project quickly became a surprising reflection of Beirut's nightlife.
The site for B018 is near the port of Beirut. The highway that borders it is the main northern access to the city. Across the highway are densely populated urban quarters.
During the French colonization, this was the quarantine zone for the port. Later it became home to war refugees — about 20,000 Palestinians, Kurds, and southern Lebanese by 1975. In January of 1976, the Phalangist militia invaded the area and totally destroyed it.
The site witnessed atrocious scenes of persecution and massacre. During this time the only architectural element visible from the road was a wall with a long, narrow hole through which the militia snipers could shoot the passersby.
To respect the memory of the place, especially the void that ruled over the site behind the wall, Khoury developed an underground structure. The subterranean space is consistent with the original topography of the site, which was 10 feet (3 meters) lower than street level.
B018's sliding roof with 280 square feet (26 square meters) of mirrored panels is designed to reflect the exterior urban density to the inside, and the interior nightclub scene to the outside. The structure and panels are of steel. The five mobile panels (one flap, four sliding) are activated by hydraulic pistons. Conceived as a structurally autonomous cap, the roof's anchoring is imbedded under the circular concrete slab.
Inside the nightclub are chamfered block pedestals for mahogany-framed photographs of John Coltrane, Georges Brassens, Billy Holiday, Mohammad Abdelwahab, and other beloved musicians. One-, two-, and three-person seats are steel structures, covered with dark-stained solid mahogany, which open to reveal velvet upholstery.
Near the entrance is a long narrow window, positioned slightly lower than eye level, to commemorate the snipers' hole that once existed in the wall.
Khoury has declared: "The danger in architecture here (in Lebanon) is that everyone acts as if nothing happened. History is simplified." B018 refuses to participate in the amnesia that governs other Lebanese postwar reconstruction efforts.
Where Do We Stand?
As a student, I learned about the history of architecture, not only the buildings, drawings, and theories, but also the long line of prominent "Master Architects." This grand narrative is like a line of descendents, a paternal lineage in which something is passed on from the elder to the younger.
Along this lineage, the rare master architect is a gifted visionary, abstracted from all existential matter and cultural specificity. Distant from body and emotions — and from sociopolitical and economic circumstances.
These three Lebanese designers have not attempted to become the disembodied and untouchable master architect. They have succeeded in their professions because, each in his own way, he is just himself.
Victor A. Khoueiry is an architect and journalist living in Beirut.