Lebanese architect Youssef Tohme is interested in the new. "With the death of the modern movement there are no ideas anymore," he tells me from his Beirut office. "There is nothing universal so we need to rethink everything."
This is a dialogue that is particularly apt in Lebanon, a country with a tumultuous past. "Beirut is rethinking its own identity," Tohme explains. Lebanon's civil war ended years ago, but the scars and divisions linger, unexpectedly and violently resurfacing occasionally, such as following the assassination of prime minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 and the war with Israel the following year. "In Lebanon, we are now, for the first time, going through a phase where we are trying to create an identity for ourselves. We always had influences from other countries and tried to manoeuvre them in our own way and bring in exterior influences."
Tohme is a protégé of Jean Nouvel and was chief architect on the preliminary phase of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum, created by his Pritzker Prize-winning French practice. In January 2008, he opened his architectural studio in Lebanon, which also has a branch in Paris. He enthuses about a book on Swiss architect Peter Zumthor that he is reading at the moment, and cites both Rem Koolhaas and Zumthor as major influences on his work. His six-strong office has completed four projects so far.
Tohme is currently working on eight projects in Lebanon. These include private houses and villas, including one in the Broumana mountain resort, and, the largest, an extension project for the Université St Joseph extension in partnership with 109architectes, which is due for completion in early 2011.
"An interesting aspect of Lebanese culture is its mix," says Tohme. "It is historically a mixture of cultures and religions that is always trying to readapt. If we are tolerant and open, then we can create something exceptional, question ourselves, and understand each other." Tohme tells me the tension between these cultures is a humbling experience.
The space between
All projects created by the practice are marked by their preoccupation with voids. "There is a wider void in Lebanon," he says. "This is a result of, and reaction to, what is said and done in politics. What interests us is what is happening in-between."
The Jesuit University extension is designed around voids. "I try to position myself between internality and externality.
These two facts can create radical and extreme worlds." Tohme is not in the business of healing, just reflecting reality. "It is not a way of healing historical wars. A state of war is healed by no war, not by architecture."
For the Lebanese architect, architecture represents the world in which we live, so we are obliged to understand ourselves in relation to it. Its initial role is to question – "Architecture is fascinating because we can present and answer questions," Tohme tells me. "In Lebanon, everyone talks about politics but in architecture we can also respond to social and political questions in a non-aggressive way. It is a discourse. We are not against politics, but neutral to it."
Function with form
The private villa at the Broumana mountain resort provides a number of different functions that are realised through multiple cantilevered units, which are scattered across the plot like sculptural installations. All Tohme's designs are marked by the blurring of divisions between structure and sculpture, indoors and outdoors. Buildings are oriented towards the sea, the sky or the mountains, and Tohme seeks to involve his architecture with the immediate landscape. "Modernists were detached from the landscape, but now there is a comeback. This idea of the architect deleting themselves from nature, we are in-between. We want to create an exchange between architecture and nature. It is a relationship of exchange and respect.
"Imagine a house on a mountain after a natural disaster," Tohme says of the M-project, a villa half submerged into a mountainside overlooking the Beirut coast. The house is not only a continuation of the mountain but also a demarcation point of its presence. It is free from any structure, allowing clear views towards Beirut and the sea. "The house is suspended on the sloped side and completely open on the other like a sculpted jewel."
A series of staircases connect all levels together, generating at every instance a unique spatial experience in the function vs form relationship. Every space is a buffer zone for the next, introducing a succession of multiple experiences changing throughout a back-and-forth circulation process. "The functional spaces of the house such as the bedroom and the living areas are all cantilivered out in order to highlight a cascade of experiences on the site." At the rooms' private level, huge openings oriented toward Beirut offer a framed tabula rasa of the coast. "This shows the idea of the horizon and the duality between outside and inside," says Tohme.
"Lebanon is a long country facing the sea that has a very interesting relationship with the horizon because the Lebanese travel a lot and this horizon inspires travelling," Tohme says, believing this leads to stasis. "The problem with this horizon though is that everyone thinks they will leave. That is why we are never in a collective state of evolution. Everyone thinks they can be away."
Tohme compares the state of Beirut to the sculpture L'Homme qui Marche by Alberto Giacometti. "His skin is perforated and touched by everything, by what he lived and his experiences. This is Beirut."