Designed by Brazilian modernist Oscar Niemeyer, Lebanon’s international expo site has been abandoned since civil war broke out in the 1970s

Situated beneath an elevated concrete helipad, the museum was part of a planned permanent international fair designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyerin the early 1960s that was expected to accommodate more than 2 million visitors a year. The 100-hectare (250-acre) site’s 15 existing buildings also include a domed theatre, an atrium, an arch and collective housing. A 717-metre-long boomerang-shaped canopy was designed to house the permanent exhibition, alongside a separate, traditionally styled pavilion for exhibitions relating to Lebanon.

Niemeyer’s experimental domed theatre.
Niemeyer’s experimental domed theatre. © Wassim Naghi

Decades of neglect have endangered the fair’s structures and Naghi is leading the campaign for its restoration. In 2016 the basement ceiling of its atrium collapsed, in part due to mistakes made in the initial construction of the building.

The fairground, a major urban development project for the city, was part of a decentralisation policy adopted by then-president Fouad Chehab. Niemeyer came to Lebanon in 1962 and spent a month in Tripoli. “He was terrified of flying and travelled by boat,” says Nazih Taleb, whose consultancy developed the technical drawings and construction plans for the fairground. As well as the existing buildings, the preliminary sketches included a playground, a bowling alley, housing and shops.

Niemeyer, who designed some of the 20th century’s most iconic modernist buildings, is best known for his work on Brasília, a futuristic planned city built in the 1950s to serve as Brazil’s new capital. The Pritzker prize-winning architect, a communist, sought exile in Paris during Brazil’s military dictatorship, and designed the French Communist party’s headquarters. A defining feature of Niemeyer’s architecture was his use of curves on reinforced concrete, inspired, he said, by the female figure. But towards the end of his career, modernist development projects such as Brasília were criticised as examples of utopian over-planning.