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Tripoli's Niemeyer Fairground Recalls Happier Times Before Civil War


For all the conflict going on, there are still beautiful, strange places among the chaos of the Middle East. Fifty years ago, the country of Lebanon was a more peaceful and cosmopolitan place graced with the work of architect Oscar Niemeyer, one of the foremost architects of modern times. NPR's Alice Fordham went to visit a curious modernist relic of that happier time.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli is known for Arabic sweets, intermittent sectarian violence and oriental architecture, so it's a jolt to step into a park with kids playing around a series of sweeping, white, curved buildings.

MIRA MINKARA: This space, from there until the end, is the space of the exhibition.

FORDHAM: I'm on a walking tour led by Mira Minkara, a Tripoli native, at an international fairground. It was designed by the late Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. In 250 acres of blossoming garden, there's the exhibition space, a pavilion with tapering columns and undulating walls, and a vast, slender arch towering over it all.

MINKARA: He didn't like borders. He didn't like limits. The inside and the outside are all, like, mixed together and that's exactly what he wanted to do.

FORDHAM: It was finished in 1974, just as Lebanon's bloody fifteen-year civil war broke out and was never used for its original purpose. But the structures remain.

Minkara leads us into an underground space domed with smooth exposed concrete.

MINKARA: Basically, this is the experimental theater.

FORDHAM: It wasn't meant to echo like this. The acoustics were never finished. But artists and musicians like to record here. And a group of visiting children runs riot.

The fairground was also caught up in the civil war. When Syrian troops intervened, they used it as a base.

MINKARA: Actually, the tanks of the Syrians were all over here. And actually, the Syrians were living in these buildings.

FORDHAM: Minkara points out an underground space and a wall spattered with bullet holes.

MINKARA: They could do anything they want - probably down was the torture places, like where they took the detainee and tortured them, and this is the execution wall.

FORDHAM: Most of the visitors are Lebanese and say they were surprised by the scale of this little-known architectural wonder.

The tour group heads to a lively cafe for a hummus lunch. One of them, Yolande Farhad, says she was nervous to come to Tripoli because of the fighting that sometimes breaks out here.

YOLANDE FARHAD: It's interesting to come, but, really, I'm afraid to come alone.

FORDHAM: But she loved the fairground. Her brother, William, lived in the U.S. for 20 years and wishes the fairground were still in use, like the site of the 1961 World's Fair in Seattle.

WILLIAM: I was really brokenhearted, to be honest with you.

FORDHAM: The park isn't open to the general public, but the U.N. uses it for children's events. And last month, the city threw a festival there. Tens of thousands of people partied under that huge, graceful arch while fireworks burst into light above it. Alice Fordham, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.