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Youssef Tohme: New Designs Replace Modern Architecture

Lebanon’s skyline is rapidly changing at the hands of its residents. While influence from abroad comes in the shape of Jean Nouvel and Steven Holl’s recent projects, a new generation of Lebanese architects is pouring their heart and soul – and a love of their country – into its landscape. Youssef Tohme is the latest architect contributing his talent to the place he calls home.

One of the most exciting and new architects in town is a man with a talent for filling empty spaces with the most creative structures inside out. The living spaces blend with the surrounding landscape.

With a working schedule of over 17 hours a day for the past 20 years, architect Youssef Tohme has created for himself a genre of architectural design that blends man-made construction with nature, to create a sense of continuity of the utmost beauty and design. Tohme studied and worked for the past two decades in Paris and only decided to move back to Lebanon three years ago to implement his unique architectural designs in a country that strives on controversy and organized chaos.

He believes that man’s respect and tension with nature creates a form of interaction and dialogue with it. “Each of the villas I have designed in Lebanon not only resembles its inhabitants, but is also one with its surrounding nature,” said Tohme. He believes that each design is unique and consists of a certain degree of risk. “It is always a risk to come up with something new. Both the architect and the client take a risk because the outcome is unpredictable,” he said. None of the 17 villas Tohme has designed or built in the past three years in the hills and on the mountainside of Lebanon resemble one other. Yet they all resemble his identity in one way and the client in another form.

Architecture in Lebanon is evolving because the traditional way of creating building spaces has changed. “We are not implementing the general idea of a beautiful house or building instead we are creating our own identity. A new identity.”

Driven to make his mark on the Lebanese and international architectural timeline, Tohme insists on making each structure a signature of its owner and a significant landmark of its surrounding, whether it’s a space in the heart of the city or a landscape on a steep mountainside location.

According to Tohme, “Times have changed from having an ideal stereotype or general idea to a more sophisticated individualism.” The psychology of Lebanon and its inhabitants plays a major role in identifying the living spaces that best suit these individuals. The horizon theme is the common denominator and is very visible in all the villas Tohme has created. The GBA-Project is a villa in progress occupying a space of 2,500m² in the Kaakour area. It’s a symmetrically open space that looks like concrete slabs protruding from the landscape. The interior has large areas of open spaces and a clear open view on the horizon of forested mountain.

Tohme gave an example of outstanding architects who defy modern and traditional designs, like Bernard Khoury. Tohme described Khoury’s buildings as those that stand out in their surroundings. “Now developers ask for something particular like Bernard’s buildings. He arranges space to create quality. It is not anymore the quality of marble or other material as much as it was before. It is the new generation thinking. The mass is changing in their thinking of architecture. It is no more about what can be sold as much as it is about selling a new idea.” True to his word, Tohme designed a building in Achrafieh with each apartment being 220m². This space is made up of a garden area of 100m². This gives the occupants the feeling that although they own an apartment in a building in the city, they will live in an apartment that is more of a villa surrounded by a garden.

Although it did not win The House of Art and Culture Competition, which is a 40,000m² project, Tohme’s submission granted him a lot of acclaim for its ingenuity and beauty of design. For him the structure reflects the culture in Lebanon. “We didn’t want the building to have any specific sociocultural and political identity instead we wanted it to reflect the current situation in Lebanon. So we decided to do something new,” remarks Tohme. The HAC project comprises two structures that dance between two cultures. And the important thing is the space between them, which gives the connotation that they are close but not one and there is always this space to keep them apart. Tohme sees that war initiates buildings to dance and war is a culture in Lebanon. People always refer to the previous war or the coming war or the war generation. The two buildings are enveloped in a fragile outer layer depicting the delicate situation people live with daily in Lebanon. It gives the impression that it is frail and could burst any time.

One of Tohme’s biggest projects being implemented now is the USJ extension buildings, designed in collaboration with 109 architectes. For him, it was a big challenge to design them and remain confined to a specific space within an already established premises. He was able to create a void within the campus that stands out with its unique architecture. This project was done to create a 60,000m² concrete block with artisanal design depicted with randomly distributed square holes.

Looking forward to the future, Tohme feels very optimistic with regards to real estate in Lebanon and believes clients and developers will gradually accept the “new” architecture designs that will dominate the future contemporary landscape of beautiful Lebanon. “In ten years, a new generation and thinking will be influential in the real estate world”, he predicts.

Architects like Youssef Tohme are changing the face of architecture in Lebanon and gradually their proposed new ideas are being welcomed. The modern movement of the past few decades characterized by the detachment of people from nature is being reversed now as they come closer to nature and feel safe within it. They look on to the horizon for the ultimate escape.

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Read full story in REAL's January issue




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