Beirut is a city of architectural collisions and contradictions. Buildings shelled out during Lebanon’s protracted civil war, such as the much-celebrated “egg,” a half-destroyed brutalist concrete orb, stand next to glossy new construction by the likes of Foster + Partners, Zaha Hadid Architects, and Herzog & de Meuron. Preserved 19th-century mansions endure while a Disney-fied mall overtakes the city center and Roman ruins sit casually in open-air excavations downtown. Though architecture, whether it acknowledges it or not, is always in dialogue with the past, that interaction certainly becomes more pronounced when you have thousands of years of built history to contend with.
Raëd Abillama, with whom I spent three days touring his architectural oeuvre, is not afraid to confront history. The first building I visit with Abillama, designed by his eponymous firm Raëd Abillama Architects, makes this abundantly clear. It’s a large private home situated near the city center painted in soft pink and originally built in the 19th century. He takes me through the subterranean garage-level entrance, and a few yards ahead of me in this highly contemporary catacomb is a floor of plate glass with a chandelier suspended above. As you approach the glass floor history quite literally comes to the surface—the tripartite glass reveals a triptych of stone sarcophagi, remnants from the Roman era. Builders happened upon them as they attempted to lower the foundation, which Abillama suspects was built on what 19th-century builders thought was bedrock but was actually a giant stone slab covering the graves. It became integrated, unplanned, into the home as part of what Abillama calls “the accident of the process.” Of course, the National Museum of Beirut was brought in to preserve the findings.
While we visit other grand single-family homes—many of which share similar characteristics, but as Abillama points out, trying to pin down a “Lebanese architecture” is a hopeless task—we also tour luxe new apartments. A high-rise apartment tower, Saifi 606, featuring large open spaces wrapped around a central stairwell and elevator bay, is mere minutes from some of the resplendent single-family homes we visited. Like the first home Abillama took me to, which featured a manicured enclosed terrace, these apartments also blur the boundaries of inside and out. The large floor-to-ceiling windows can slide back such that even corners disappear and the terrace bleeds into the indoor space. From here one has a view of Beirut’s delirious architectural irregularity with so many buildings in various states of completion: occupied, just-started, half-completed and abandoned, damaged, soaring high and laying low in all manners of style and scale.
Just 35 miles outside of the city, we visit a winery Abillama designed. IXSIR (its name coming from the Arabic word for “elixir,” the English word itself of Arabic origin), as it is called, is set on top of a mountain that rises over 3,000 feet just a few miles from the Mediterranean coast. While from above a rather idyllic stone structure set in the vineyards is all that can be seen, below something entirely different comes into view: an angular, geometric lair. However, this shift from light, quarried-stone arches to angular concrete zigzags hardly feels severe or jarring. This is in large part because of Abillama’s approach to built history. The original stone structure, constructed in the 17th century, was missing a large wall. Likely a former family home, the apocryphal story behind the damage revolves around a tradition of families having to destroy parts of their homes during feuds with neighbors. Abillama chose to rebuild this structure with reclaimed local stones, but not out of an urge toward restoration or historicization. For him, it’s about respecting the character of the structure, developing a “reinterpretation” without “falling into the trap of what’s been done.” He remains inspired by building methods of the past, and when they make more sense, they make more sense. However, this is precisely why the additional structure, which houses the operational components of the winery, looks anything but traditional. It’s a relatively independent structure from the 21st century with its own needs and, Abillama believes, it should be built as such.
This attitude toward the architectural past is clearly articulated in the massive hillside residence he designed for his brother Karim. The art-filled home retains a great deal of its original 18th-century structure inside and out. It also features concrete and glass additions and many other contemporary finishes that coexist without dissonance. Many questioned the wisdom of keeping the original structure—if you’re going to restore and add on, why not just destroy the original? But for Abillama, the old stones carry a story that can be witnessed from the present. “The original stones, even the way they’re placed on top of each other, retain the soul of the house,” he says. “There’s the soul of the people who put their sweat and their work and their talent and their knowhow embedded into the building and we have to respect that.” There is a deference to the history of work without a fetishization of the styles of the past. Abillama lets the building “tell a story.”
This approach, to some extent, informs his first foray into New York City. Raëd Abillama Architects will be both the designer and developer of a 19th Street lot, which they are calling Abi Chelsea. A great deal of permitting trickery was involved to keep the commercial space below and to be able to build the 10 residences above, and the demands of the relatively narrow former-industrial space guided much of the design for the elongated building with its bifurcated facade. Like Abillama’s work in Lebanon, the design is guided by listening to “what the site is telling [him and his team] to do.”
And it’s fitting that Abillama’s first building in the United States should be in Chelsea, a neighborhood packed with art galleries, given that nearly every place I visited with him was packed with all varieties of painting and sculpture. But when I asked whether he designs with art in mind he’s quick to say, generally, no. “I can’t design for art because it’s too personal,” he explains, “but still, you have to open up the possibility for tenants to feel they can take true ownership of the space. It’s about creating a great canvas, where you’re removing as much as the information as possible. Sometimes creating a volume can be enough.” He also described this approach as “atemporal,” which perhaps is the aptest description of his work in general—he’s actively respecting existing structures, acknowledging history, but without bowing to it, or by the same token, without obsessing over contemporaneity. He’s “respecting time passing by.”
Much like the built landscape of Beirut, it is the improbable amalgams and competing trajectories of time that give form to Abillama’s buildings. Witnessing and respecting built history is, according to Abillama, “a good reminder that we’re just here temporarily, and we should enjoy every moment of life instead of thinking we’re eternal.” For Abillama, each building is a thrilling memento mori.