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Will the Rashid Karami International Fair regain its missed glory?

The Rashid Karami International Fairground (RKIF) has ignited curiosity and wonder since 1962, when famed modernist Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer, imagined its visionary design in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. Overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, the fairground was designed to house a permanent international fair capable of accommodating up to 2 million visitors a year, including a grand exhibition hall, a national pavilion and an outdoor concert stage. Although the construction began early in 1964, the RKIF was yet to be finished 10 years later, with successive interruptions in the construction and lack of funds. In the spring of 1975, when the Civil war erupted, the fairground was left incomplete and abandoned for years as foreign military control took over the area. Since then, the futuristic structures lay as deserted architectural sculptures in midst of empty reflective pools, despite a partial rehabilitation effort in the mid-1990s.

In many ways, the RKIF has failed to play its role as a national trade and economic driver, as well as a social and cultural catalyst for Tripoli. Nevertheless, the year 2018 marked a regain of national and international interest for the site and its cultural and architectural significance, with its nomination for the World Heritage Tentative list by UNESCO. Later that year, the RKIF was selected by the Getty Foundation for a “Keeping it Modern Grant”, and became the scene for events such as the Cycles of Collapsing Progress exhibition. The year after, UNESCO’s Regional Office in Beirut launched a project funded by the Getty Foundation, to develop a conservation management plan for the RKIF. The aim was to set an acceptable framework for a general conservation and development policy, essential prior to undertaking any physical repairs, restoration or development initiatives.

Eventually, the RKIF caught the attention of the Tripoli Special and Economic Zone, which decided to launch a Global Architectural Competition for their Knowledge and Innovation Center (KIC). The call aimed at developing an innovation and technology incubator on the RKIF site, intending to incorporate additional structures within the delicate fabric of the existing fairground.  It prompted UNESCO to advocate for the recognition of the site’s cultural significance and architectural value in any new development and to call for sensitive designs that do not jeopardize the complex’s integrity in case new additions were necessary. As a result, a specialized jury chose three proposals, for their ability to sensitively address the requirements of the “Knowledge and Innovation Center”, while preserving the architectural integrity and intended design of Niemeyer’s masterpiece.

Unfortunately, the recent incidents in Lebanon including the popular uprising and the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the unprecedented financial and economic crisis, brought a halt to the efforts to bring back life to the RKIF, doomed once again. However, UNESCO’s Beirut cultural team is determined to finalize its conservation management plan by end of 2022.  Meanwhile, it is crucial, alerts UNESCO, that the Lebanese State give due attention to this gem of modern heritage by securing the necessary funds to enable its preservation and rehabilitation.

“Given the high socio-cultural and economic potential of this national urban project, one wonders whether the RKIF will become a priority, asks Joseph Kreidi, National Officer for Culture at UNESCO Beirut. UNESCO calls for giving more attention to this national asset, and our office in Beirut remains committed towards finalizing its project with the Getty Institute by the end of 2022”. He adds: “We hope that a better future awaits the RKIF with the collaboration of all stakeholders and interest groups, towards the endorsement of UNESCO’s plan as a first step and then the elaboration of a master plan. This is crucial to avoid the fragmentation of the site and to ensure the sustainable development and conservation of this urban and architectural masterpiece”.