Raëd Abillama Architects Bridges History and Modern Design
Beirut has a complicated architectural legacy. With many of its historical buildings destroyed in the civil war that ended in 1990, the city has since undergone rapid redevelopment, including numerous master plans by international starchitects from Rafael Moneo (Beirut Souks) to Steven Holl (Zaitunay Bay). Yet a crop of young, contemporary Lebanese architects returning to their origins from overseas institutions after the war are also shaping the new Beirut. This melding of Lebanese tradition and western instruction amid the increasingly internationalized cityscape has cultivated a new appetite for architecture and design that is both contemporary and traditional, a way of building that is steeped in the cultural memory of the city but looks ahead to the future same time – and is far from nostalgic.
Raëd Abillama Architects (RAA) epitomizes this dynamic exchange between old and new in a globalized, postwar Beirut. Founded in 1997 after Raëd Abillama completed his master’s degree at Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, the small office quickly gained an international profile through residential projects and villas in and around Beirut, as well as IXSIR, a winery cradled in the mountains surrounding the city. With its first overseas residential project in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood slated for completion later this year, and with large-scale mixed-use, office, and institutional projects such as the Beirut Museum of Art and an extension to the National Museum underway back at home, it’s clear its approach has broad appeal.
Top: The office of Raëd Abillama Architects. Above: Welders at work in the ACID factory.
Photo: Géraldine Bruneel
Abillama is at his best when his firm can carry a project from its nascent design phase to final design detailing (and interiors too, please). The true extent of this full-service finesse becomes evident when I visit RAA’s self-built studio on the hilly outskirts of Beirut, where Lebanese limestone meets cool steel interiors. A glass-box entrance slots neatly into the rugged stone, revealing a cast-concrete staircase descending below ground and a spiral concrete staircase further inside that’s complete with curving metal balustrades which practically dance around the supple concrete. Another concrete addition, this time a conference room, sits parallel to the ocean on its own section of tiered limestone. I’m bowled over to learn that these fixtures are made about a five-minute drive up the mountain in his co-owned industrial design and production firm, ACID. Naturally, we go for a tour.
The IXSIR winery by Raëd Abillama Architects.
Photo: Courtesy of Raëd Abillama
The dazzling twinkle of welding sparks, shrieks of various machines, and sweltering 90-degree heat collide to form a total sensory overload. I stand back to admire a gargantuan bespoke folding fan-style metal wine cellar that makes the factory’s triple-height pitched roof look small. Turns out its not going to a luxury wine merchant but a private residence that’s clearly home to some serious sommeliers. Still, other prototypes scattered across the sprawling factory look more or less abandoned. The factory leveled out its 163-person staff about six years ago, according to cofounder Karim Chaya, and is working on an average of 72 projects at any given time.
The conference room at RAA.
Photo: Courtesy of RAA
“It’s a mixed blessing to have our factory right around the corner from the office,” explains Chaya. “It means we can bring over a drawing fresh off the designer’s desk and the prototype can be completed in a few hours or days, as opposed to waiting weeks or even months in London, Paris, or New York…but it also brings the temptation of constant tinkering, as a true open-air laboratory.” Chaya’s steadfast approach is tempered by Raëd’s love of change: Any material, measurement, or other technicality that can be improved will surely be pushed to its limit in the studio’s quest for perfection. “They call us Mission Impossible,” Chaya says with a twinkle in his eye.
Raëd, left, and Karim Abillama.
Photo: Courtesy of Raëd Abillama
A rendering of RAA’s planned Chelsea tower.
Rendering: Alexander Zahn
RAA’s bespoke furniture is best suited for the scale and context that nurtures everyday use: the home. All of Abillama’s residential projects celebrate the soul of the original building – the pastiche charm of mixed architectural styling through the centuries, the tactility of hand-chiseled limestone, sometimes, as in his brother’s villa, the preserved damage and memory lingering from the civil war – but bestows to each a serious glow-up with modernist fit-outs. These homes are interesting enough to stand on their own, but flourish through the presence of an art collection, as a sort of white cube in camouflage. “Generally speaking, art talks to us much more than architecture does,” says Abillama, which explains the near-ubiquitous healthy collections of art lining his many residential projects.
Karim Abillama’s home, designed by his brother.
Photo: Joe Kesrouani
A key example of one such art-activated architectural project is the villa that Raëd has designed for his brother, art collector Karim Abillama. Karim’s home – a handsome 18th-century villa made of spuma (a type of Lebanese limestone), ornate columns, arches, and corniche detailings – is also host to an impressive collection of modern and contemporary art, including work by Andy Warhol, Richard Serra, Louise Bourgeois, John Baldessari, Yayoi Kusama, and Carsten Höller, whose large psychedelic mushroom sculpture pounces on visitors when they first step through the door. Further inside, trendy terrazzo flooring is bolstered by a swanky elevator designed by I.M. Pei and furniture by Alvar Aalto, Gio Ponti, Charles and Ray Eames, and Axel Vervoordt – not to mention lighting fixtures by Olafur Eliasson. As quick on his feet as his brother, Karim only began collecting in 2010. Now, it’s impossible to imagine the house without it, according to his wife, Magda, who owns the concept store Ginette.
“Art connects the historical and contemporary life of the home,” says Raëd of his brother’s collection. “Pop art works especially well as a type of anecdote.” As the collection continues to grow, Karim’s house grows with it. Interiors are increasingly pared back, made more like a gallery, and furniture is kept free from the walls. While it might be true that the home of an art collector is never truly finished, Raëd’s architecture is as much of a process, and more than ready for the challenge.
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