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French Version

Distinguished architect Pierre El-Khoury leaves a dazzling visual legacy

Obituary

Pierre El-Khoury, arguably Lebanon's most distinguished and prolific architect, died after succumbing to bone cancer on Monday. Like much of his sparkling career and his brilliant and rich architectural heritage, particularly his refined and delicate aesthetic sensibilities, he chose to part from us with a characteristic dignity.

As he nursed the debilitating pain of his affliction with gracious silence and fortitude, he continued to produce some of his most dazzling works.

None of his friends and colleagues, not even his most intimate and inner circle, knew he was ill. Though Khoury will be unable to take pride in his dozen projects currently underway, Beirut's skyline will become more aesthetically pleasing, dotted by his stellar architectural icons.

Khoury was part of a select core of Western-trained architects who returned to Lebanon in the mid-1950s, the second generation who matched the pioneering heritage of the "founding fathers." What distinguished Khoury's life and work was his more exclusive and purified perception of his career as architect. Except for a brief stint as minister of public works (1983-84), most of his creative energies were directed toward architectural projects. His prolific output (over 200 projects), let alone its diversity and refined aestheticism, is testimony to that.

"Sheikh Pierre," as he is often referred to in deference to his titled family lineage, was privileged by his schooling at the Beaux Arts in Paris (1957) and the tutorship he received at home. His father, Fouad El-Khoury, was a practicing architect and was part of that close circle of professionals French architect Andre Leconte drew around him during his time in Beirut.

This early exposure must have left an indelible mark on the young and impressionable Pierre. So did his training at the renowned studio of Gromort-Arretche in Paris. There he reinforced his devotion to classical architecture and grafting it to the vernacular of Mediterranean and Levantine elements and motifs. When tracing the conceptual genealogy of his work, Khoury always gave credit to the tutelage and mentoring he received at the atelier of that accomplished duo.

Indeed as George Arbid observes in his preface to Khoury's 2000 book that, "While the architecture of Pierre El-Khoury is resolutely Modern, one finds in his work a skilful mix of what he learned with these two masters and his buildings combine composition, order and rhythm with a tactile sense of the setting."Efforts to reconcile the two traditions were the most defining and constituent feature of his work.

So was his eagerness to harmonize the intuitive dialectics between the design and the site it is grafted into. His final products were never prefigured. Nor did he work from a template. Rather, he allowed the location and purpose of each project to define and shape the design.

He started modestly by building his own residence in Yarze (1959). The exquisitely modern house, with sliding glazing, transparent partitions and patios is reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright's celebrated Falling Water house in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, and nestles in perfect harmony with its wooded site. Early in his career, Khoury evinced a keen and abiding interest in places of worship. His first commission, a byproduct of his diploma project, was the Clarisses Sisters Convent in Yarze (1960), and won him his first award. His second project, another monastery on a solitary cliff close to Jezzine, also won a prize. In both, as in his subsequent projects, Khoury displayed an admirable proclivity to enrich the fascination of the original site. This is vividly seen not only in his monumental structures but also in the myriad of private residences he built.

His own restored 18th century courtyard house in Aramoun - an edifying retreat for himself and Nadia, the love of his life - is truly something to behold.

It is rather striking, if not anomalous, that Pierre should launch his professional career by winning bids to design diametrically opposed projects: Convents and monasteries (in Yarze, Aitanit and Jezzine) and the penitentiary complex for the Roumieh Prison. The latter, perched on the hilly slopes of lower Roumieh, was a massive undertaking designed with a team of specialists, composed of an interconnected set of structured triangles and hexagons.

Yet the most spectacular of Khoury's projects, is the "Basilica" of "Our Lady of Harissa," a monumental and daring structure that punctuates the sky atop the peak of the majestic mountain range overlooking Jounieh bay. With the assistance of Noel Abouhamad, the basilica took the form of a luminous ceiling with 60 concrete shells varying in height from 30-50 meters.

Khoury was always happy to collaborate. The Lebanese Pavilion at the New York Fair (1963) was designed jointly with Assem Salam and Michel Harmouch; the Byblos Center (1960) with Henri Edde; extension of Beirut's Airport with Assaad Raad and the Sabbagh Center with Alvar Aalto and Alfred Roth. He also worked outside Lebanon in various projects during the oil boom in the Gulf.

Khoury took keen interest in the preservation of Lebanon's architectural heritage - restoring houses in Baadarane, Aley, Aramoun and working with Amin Bizri (1965) to rehabilitate the Mir Amin Palace in Beiteddine into a luxury hotel. He was a founder of APSAD and was directly involved in proposing town-planning schemes for a score of towns and villages, and participated in the post-war rehabilitation of urban districts adjoining Beirut's city center.

One distinctive feature of his career merits special recognition. Throughout, he has always managed to attract and sustain a core of young and gifted architects with whom he collaborated. He was mentoring and generous in honing their talents and recognizing their single contributions. The following can be mentioned: Pierre Bassil, Joseph Faysal, Antoine Gemayel, Kamal Homsi, Jacques Abou Khaled, Semaan Khoury and Joe Geitani. Indeed, a score of the recent "post-modern" buildings which now stand out as distinctive landmarks in Beirut's contemporary architecture - ESCWA Office Building, BLOM headquarters, Dar an Nahhar, among others under construction - are all byproducts of such a supportive professional setting. Khoury, himself might not be at ease with the "postmodern" label. They are, however, emblematic of a bourgeoning trend in the direction of "monumental postmodernity" in that they offer, as Arbid argues, an "overstated high-tech exhibitionism ... and a trend towards hyper-futurism." At least the BLOM and ESCWA headquarters, much more than others in their genre, display some spectacular elements, by virtue of their combined translucent and opaque features.

One bemoans the passing of Pierre Khoury because, at 75, he was still far from the twilight of his career. Indeed some of his most recent projects are, arguably, the most inventive and eye-catching. It is in this profound and existential sense that spirited architects like Khoury are timeless and unremitting. They never die. Their visual legacy is always there to bewitch and enchant generations to come.

Samir Khalaf is a Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Behavioral Research at the American University of Beirut.

Beirut,07 25 2005
Samir Khalaf
The Daily Star
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