With two projects under construction in downtown Beirut, the New York–based practice L.E.FT has found fertile ground for exploring spatial politics, along with a creative freedom that can be hard to come by in the United States. “Lebanon is much more forgiving, bureaucratically speaking,” partner Ziad Jamaleddine explained. “Even though it is a very traditional culture in certain respects, there is still more room to experiment.”
The firm’s three Lebanon-born partners—Jamaleddine, Makram el Kadi, and Naji Moujaes—have used that freedom to probe shifting social boundaries, whether at the scale of the block or the international border. The Beirut Exhibition Hall, now under construction, is designed as a placeholder amid a stretch of reclaimed waterfront destined for redevelopment. To reflect the potential of its surroundings, the firm is cladding the exterior in a custom corrugated, mirrored aluminum. “We’re playing with the border between an uncertain interior and an uncertain exterior,” Jamaleddine said. “It will become an indicator of the urban growth around it.” At the other end of the spectrum, L.E.FT proposed an evacuation plan for the entire Lebanese population using a fleet of barges that, once they have entered international waters, double as refuges with social freedoms typically barred on land.
The three partners studied at the American University of Beirut before embarking on graduate training in the U.S. El Kadi and Jamaleddine then worked at Steven Holl Architects for five years before launching L.E.FT in 2005. Having completed several New York interiors and a series of boutiques for the Intermix apparel line, the three-person office is now collaborating with Holl on the Beirut Marina as part of the war-torn city’s ongoing reconstruction. The mixed-use complex is a set of sweeping, low-lying platforms that extend the existing corniche as an “urban beach.” A landscape-driven logic also informs the Baabdat Residence, scheduled to begin construction in Lebanon this year, with a spectacular rooftop roundabout that echoes the region’s agricultural terraces.
It is not in Lebanon but Norway where the firm has most inventively melded site and social program. Commissioned by the town of Holmestrand to connect its historic village with a clifftop addition, the architects proposed an urban armature along an existing pedestrian path up the hillside. Designed with Oslo-based Studio hp Landskap, the plan’s focal point is an elevator tower that links the two levels while serving as an infrastructural spine for apartments. (The town is currently seeking investors for the project.) Embedded within the slope are grotto-like cultural and commecial structures, while a series of villas lines the upper cliff edge. “We conceived it as a whole urban development that would be more economically beneficial for the city,” said el Kadi. “It’s a building camouflaged as a masterplan.”