Stone Garden Tower still stands today, despite the port blast in August 2020. According to Ghotmeh, only the winders were shattered - a testimony to the construction techniques used for the building. Image by Iwan Baan
Interview: Lina Ghotmeh discusses architecture as history’s great narrator
The Lebanese-French architect is known for several projects all over the world – and bridging them together is their ability to tell the stories of their sites.
Shortlisted for Tamayouz’s Women in Architecture and Construction Award 2020, in the Woman of Outstanding Achievement category, Lebanese-French architect Lina Ghotmeh views architecture as an act of resilience for more humane and ecologically built environments. Having founded her practice in 2006 in France, she has, ever since, brought together architects, designers and researchers from different backgrounds and cultures to build a better today and tomorrow.
Ghotmeh’s architecture dialogues strongly with nature. Spanning scales and geographies, from object design to museum architecture, with projects across the world, from France to Japan, the work of her practice draws on a historical and sensitive approach to architecture. Among her acclaimed projects is the internationally recognised Estonian National Museum, an ethnographic museum spanning 34,000 square metres, and Stone Garden tower in Beirut, a project completed in 2020 that reinvents local vernacular techniques. Her studio is also engaged in designing the highly ecological wooden tower Réalimenter Massena, which is dedicated to sustainable feeding in Paris. Ghotmeh is also an academic, who taught between 2007 and 2014 as an associate professor at the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture, and who has plans to resume her academic role in the coming year at Yale University. She has also lectured at the Royal College of Arts, the Royal Arts Academy, the Bartlett school, and the Cité d’Architecture et du Patrimoine.
Here, she speaks with Round City about her approach to architecture as a means to build deeper connections between people, and between people and their environments.
Tell us about your background and starting your practice. I was born in Beirut in 1980, just after the outbreak of the civil war. I grew up in this ancestral and multicultural city, and discovered its historical entrails throughout the years as they were constantly uncovered and unearthed, revealing the profoundness of this territory’s settlements.
I grew with the desire of reconstruction, and the idea of creation as an act of healing, bringing people together, as well as a way of imagining new worlds and ways of living. I was fascinated by archeology, biology, genetics and I had the chance to undergo my architectural studies at the American University of Beirut. I saw architecture as a field, nourished by other disciplines, that would enable me to materialise the knowledge I could continue acquiring from different fields. Architecture became my passion and I very intensely worked on my projects during my school years, submerged by what I discovered and learned in the school’s library.
Upon my graduation, Ateliers Jean Nouvel (with whom I had interned in 2001) called me back to work in Paris on a project Nouvel was developing in Beirut. I left Beirut in 2003 and arrived in Paris a week after that call. It was an opportunity for me to expand my vision and culture of architecture in a European city. A year later, I went to London to lead a project Nouvel was developing with Foster + Partners.
At the end of 2005, I wanted to start a project of my own. I found an open competition for the Estonian National Museum’s new building. I decided to participate and invited two colleagues of mine at that time to join me. In January 2006, we won the competition for the 34,000-square-metre project. I was 26 and it was the perfect opportunity to start my practice. As a young architect, I arrived in Estonia, Tartu, with the desire and persistence to build this ambitious project and make it a reality.
The site was amazing – it was full of stories and history, and I related to the tumultuous Estonian history and culture. I saw myself not only doing architecture but touching more closely on the human and environmental responsibilities of the profession. I delivered the museum in 2016.
Today my practice, Lina Ghotmeh – Architecture, is still established in Paris, and I am surrounded by an extraordinary team of 22 architects and professionals from all horizons, who maintain great human values and ethics above all.
What are the visions, goals or principles of Lina Ghotmeh – Architecture? How do some of your projects reflect them? I thrive for an architecture that can create and strengthen links between humans, as well as those between us and our environment and nature. At my studio, we try to create an anchored architecture, one that is deeply rooted in its place. I believe spaces should emerge from their place. Architecture should not impose itself – it is a generator of new relationships. It narrates history in its own way and is the physical manifestation of the energies of its surroundings, to which I try to carefully listen. I advocate for an architecture that takes its time, that searches for beauty and uses it as a means to better people. The sensitivity to materiality is part of this same quest.
Out of my fascination with the archeological sites of Beirut, and with the field of archeology in general, I think of the architectural design process as a constant dig: as architects, we find existing stories, stitch them together and bring them to life. This is what I call the ‘Archeology of the Future’. Humaneness, respect, ecology, nature, sensitive materiality – all of my atelier’s project are engaged and reflect these principles in their various scales.
Tell us more about Stone Garden tower in Beirut and its architecture. How you believe it contributes to its surroundings? Stone Garden emerges from Beirut, and from my perception and lived experience of the city and its built scape. It rises from the embedded collective memory that we share of the city. Beirut’s skin is hollowed and its gardens grow in the interstices of its ruins. It is a city that constantly negates its history.
Stone Garden attempts to materialise the memory of Beirut, creating a sense of belonging, of identity. It acknowledges the past of the city and traces it on the ground, transforming it into moments for new lives to happen.
As it emerges, Stone Garden Tower embraces the whole contours of its site, and translates the urban regulation into a built sculptural form. The building attempts to whisper its story to its neighbours as it sits in accolades. Its windows punctuate the façade in different sizes, inviting gardens of varying sizes to inhabit the architecture. Windows become photographic frames transposing the city into the dwellings. In a critique to the repetitive housing plan iterated within the city, Stone Garden attempts to offer its inhabitants unique dwellings at every floor of its height, allowing for individual expression and moving away from the prototypical commercial plan that dictates a set social construct of habitat in the city.
This project expresses its belonging to Beirut. It is, as such, an emergence; it does not sit in its place but wants to grow from its place. It measures and dialogues with the Mediterranean climate through the measures of its architecture and its envelop. There is a deep-rooted vernacular echo in that.
Its skin is hand-combed with an earthly plaster that I devised and developed with local artisans – a vernacular technique reinvented to bridge the past with the future. The hand regains its value in the making of the architecture and a more intense emotional realm shared with the citizens becomes possible. The building and its making became a kind of a collective healing process.
How did the August port blast impact the tower? Online, it looks like it’s still standing. We hope this is the case. The building stood almost unattained by the blast. While its carefully measured glass windows were fully shattered, the building’s shell, skin and gardens were unshaken. It was quite hopeful to see this building standing with its architecture untouched, unattainable in its dignity.
It made me realise that, having grown up in Beirut, I ended up conceiving a protective shield, a bunker, rather than a fashionable fully glazed, metal cladded façade. Aside from the fact that the architecture of Stone Garden responds with its measured windows to the Mediterranean climate in which it is set (questions to which I am very sensitive), the project acted as a resilient structure in the face of the explosion.
Do you have plans to complete more projects in the Middle East? The Middle East is a great part of who I am, of my culture. I would like to contribute to this geography and to the Arab world with my best architecture and thoughts. It is a very profound and beautiful culture that has to bring forward its specificities in terms of architecture and of course other fields.
I had three other projects ongoing in Lebanon: a rural hotel in a vineyard, a collection open storage museum and a mixed-use tower that have all been stopped due to the severe economic crisis in Lebanon. I am confident that these will see their day in the future. My atelier is also being solicited for other great projects in the area and we will surely do our best to make these outstanding.
Your museum design in Estonia was very popular – why do you think it resonated with so many people? The Estonian Museum tells the story of Estonia through its architecture. It links to a dismantled soviet military airfield and transforms the history of the site and deals with that of Estonia.
Its architecture, which maintains a relationship with this open platform, allows the institution to be a dynamic and creative one, and open-ended in a way. The approach allows architecture to not only become more urban, but also to become close to something that we can refer to as ‘land art’.
The museum is also the expression of many ambitions and dreams (those of Estonians and of architects). It expresses the power of ideas, as well as ideology and our capacity to make these real and tangible.
When people visit the museum, they are able to absorb its design and the poetics of its setting, from the strength of the site’s history to the memory of the planes and the generosity of its spaces. I am very touched when people appropriate what I attempt to communicate through architecture, as spaces become theirs. These are the precious moments of sharing in our experience as humans.
Can you tell us about some of your roles outside of your practice? I taught for seven years in Paris, and I will be teaching next year at Yale University in Connecticut. Teaching is a great experience. It is a way to share and to continuously learn; it is a great way to see the human potential for advancement through knowledge.
I also very frequently give lectures in various countries and institutions, which is a great way to garner feedback and exchange thoughts on methods of making with the public.
What are you working on now? I am developing a series of projects we won in competitions last year. Namely the atelier’s leather workshops for Hermès. This is a great project for which I am pushing my ability to combine poetic architecture with a highly environmental project further. It is a 6,700-square-metre passive building that is low carbon in its impact. We designed it with local brick hand-manufactured by a local industry that dates back to the 1800s. It revives its territory and dialogues closely with its landscape. The technical and mechanical aspects within the project are highly developed.
I am also developing wooden projects – sustainable low carbon projects that we won last year. One of these is a tower dedicated to sustainable feeding in Paris. I won the project ‘Realimenter Massena’ as a response to the city’s call for innovative projects that respond to climate challenges and the fast evolution of our use of spaces. The project aims to create an agricultural and feeding ecosystem based on a smart circular economy. It is a mixed-use building, and all functions are interrelated. It lives like a self-sufficient system.
An important cultural project I am leading is the new national choreographic dance centre of the city of Tours, while on an urban scale, I am working on the urban rehabilitation of an important site in the heart of Paris with Rogers & Partners – the Maine Montparnasse development.
We also work on smaller scale designs or stage scenographies. I believe that as architects we should cross scales with our critical design thinking. My research-driven design method allows me to intersect with different types of creative projects, as I always try to keep the depth in the thinking and questioning whatever the subject is.