Lebanese architect Fouad Samara speaks on the ‘fashionable architecture that’s plaguing our cities’
“I aim to produce inspiring architecture, void of any formulaic preoccupations,” said Fouad Samara, Lebanese architect and founder of his namesake practice. “Architecture has to provide an authentic and unique solution each and every time. This solution cannot be the fashionable architecture that is plaguing our cities and that has a very short cultural shelf-life.”
Having established Fouad Samara Architects in Beirut in 1997 after winning a string of international prizes, including first place in the open competition for a Canadian architectural exhibition, as well as first place in the Ile Perrot Housing Competition, Samara has long been committed to creating “an architecture of integrity”.
For him, each project must be relevant to its cultural, social, physical and economic context, without any stylistic or branding preoccupation. Architecture, he explained, should always aspire to reflect ‘l’esprit nouveau’ of the Modern Movement.
“Architecture has to be substantial and timeless,” he said. “And this timelessness can only be achieved by creating something that is authentic…My practice has developed a process-based approach to design that when applied to a site, brief and client, will produce a specific and unique project. There are no preconceived ideas or an established language at the start of a project. The architect is like an archaeologist, and [he or she] must work with the parameters at hand and discover what the project wants to be.”
In addition to running his practice, Samara also teaches final year design studio at the Lebanese American University’s School of Architecture and Design. A former lecturer at ALBA: University of Balamand in Lebanon, as well as a speaker at the A+P Smithson Symposium: Ideas, Impact, Architecture, he has also contributed to research on the work of Alison and Peter Smithson – influential Brutalist architects and theorists from the second half of the 20th century. His research has greatly impacted the development of his own design process, influencing the way his team reads history and landscape and interpret that into their work.
Guided by this design process, Samara’s projects are allowed to emerge and develop into “what they want to be”. According to the architect, the best compliment he ever received on a project was during his presentation of his design for the Assembly Hall for Marjayoun National College (MNC) in 1996, when a board member stated that the building appeared to “have always been there”.
Samara’s other projects include CASID, University of Balamand in Al Koura, Lebanon. Built in 2015, this project was designed to embody its role as a vehicle for dialogue between east and west, as well as with its immediate physical context.
Another project, Modulofts, built in Beirut in 2016, serves as a direct response to the continuously changing living requirements of the city’s residents. Inspired by the lofts of the 1960s and 70s in New York and London, and by the clarity of the traditional Lebanese house, the Modulofts aim to establish a new typology that creates a flexible, relevant and inspiring place to live within the city.
“There has to be a real understanding of the imagined use of the building and what we want the building to mean and inspire the users to be,” he said. “The brief that is therefore developed is not only a physical practical brief, but an emotional one. This is important in arriving at ‘why’ or ‘what’ we are doing. The ‘how’ is somewhat easier and more linear to arrive at.
“We must ask how this project contributes to and inspires its users, urban and social context, and the wider architectural discourse. There is a great balance to be had between addressing the specific and indigenous condition on one hand, and addressing and engaging with the wider global context on the other.”
Samara also shared his concerns about development in Lebanon. According to the architect, the Levantine country faces a number of challenges that impact the country’s quality of architecture and development.
“The majority of developments in Beirut are mostly unenlightened,” he said. “There are glimpses of hope, but this needs to come more from the discerning end-users who are becoming more demanding of the quality of their environment, as well as from enlightened developers. This should drive the need for better design and construction.”
Samara lists challenges such as lack of governmental support, meaningful public work programmes, open competitions and proper architecture journalism.
“Although we have a great president of the Order of Engineers and Architects [in Lebanon] at the moment, this is an anomaly, as this position is too often dictated by politics rather than merit.”
Fouad Samara Architects is currently involved in a number of projects in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and it has several projects near completion, including a 27-storey tower in Beirut and single-family homes in Jeddah.