With the exception of politics, Lebanon is the embodiment of the ‘out with the old, in with the new’ mentality. Whether it’s fashion, food or art, Lebanese people seem to jump at the opportunity to give their country a westernized nip and tuck. It’s the year 2016 and Lebanon’s ever-changing skyline is getting more and more plastic surgery, wiping away the wrinkles of its senior buildings. Sure, we might get excited about shiny, new skyscrapers and pretty lights, but we fail to realize that our country’s identity is slowly fading away.
Yet, some people are still holding on to Lebanon’s original architectural beauty. Architect Antoine Maalouf, a lively man with a vibrant mind and a colorful vocabulary, sits with me in one of his latest creations, Salon Beyrouth, a vintage-inspired restaurant-bar tucked in one of the quiet streets of Clemenceau. He expresses his frustration with some people’s denial of Lebanon’s rich heritage and voices his devotion to preserving our country’s landmarks in the new age: “We’re stepping on our culture, we just don’t care. It annoys me, because people invade countries that have what we have and we’re just throwing it away,” he says with dismay. Maalouf, who designed and executed Motto, Cargo, Internazionale and The Grand Factory amongst other work, speaks of the importance of preserving the materials used in old architectural styles and respecting the history of the space instead of shaping it into something completely different: “When you live in a space you leave your print there; the older it is, the more it has spirit and stories,” he explains. “It’s important to learn and see what you have and build on that.”
Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s and Walter Gropius’s work, known for its harmony with its environment, Maalouf focuses on creating a dialogue between the interior and the exterior by blending them into one entity that fits the natural location of the space: “Get to know the history in the streets, the people and how they refer to the place,” he explains. “You have to take note of whatever people say and research the whole history of the space,” he adds. “You learn a lot from the heritage.” And while some architects have an itch for big and bold buildings that have their names plastered all over them, Maalouf’s work, is a marriage between traditional materials and modern design, and remains subtle and unpretentious as he lets the space speak for itself: “I hate over-designing. I’d rather highlight the existing interiors and accentuate the old traits,” he says, adding: “I like to remain in the shadows and let people discover the space. I would rather people ask themselves: who did it?
Ever since he was young Maalouf had a penchant for design and architecture. He could draw perspective when he was seven years old and build shelves when he was 12. He owes his passion to his days with his grandfather, who became the head of the syndicate of architects in Jounieh during former president Fouad Chehab’s presidency: “I would go on site with my grandpa and he would go like ‘take all the nails and straighten them’. Do you know how many times I busted my fingers trying to do that with a hammer?” he says with a smile on his face. “My grandpa taught me everything.”
Maalouf compares his first days on his projects to a blind date: “I just go in, look around and trust my instinct” he says. The more he spends time working on a project, the more he builds a long-term relationship with it, something that’s hard to let go of when the job is done: “It’s like a relationship that someone came and took away from you and you’re like ‘no that’s my woman!’” he says.
A self-proclaimed vagabond and an avid traveler, Maalouf learns from different cultures and stories of people he encounters, progressively adding depth to his style along the way: “I grow older, I travel a lot, see lots of things and learn new cultures. With that, I add a little touch to my work. Your style grows with you,” he says. However, he refuses to recreate anything he has seen abroad, and he makes sure that a place in Lebanon is solely for Lebanon: “Even if it’s an Argentinian [restaurant], it has to have something that reminds you that you’re in Beirut,” he explains.
Although Maalouf doesn’t see his country getting back on its feet any time soon, he hasn’t stopped loving it: “I’m doing what I can to try to salvage it,” he says. “I will not stop doing any work here.” All he wants is for people to love Lebanon and show “a bit of appreciation for the people who are trying to revive what we have.”
A word of advice to aspiring architects? Maalouf stresses on the importance of traveling and exposing oneself to different worlds: “Learn different cultures and you will end up growing. Sit with people and listen. Be open to learning new things and you’ll become a better person,” he says. “You’ll be able to see the world differently and do your job better.”
High ceilings adorned with large windows, Mediterranean tiles accentuated by bricks, wood and concrete are just some of the trademark elements that make up the brainchild of Maalouf’s love affair with Lebanon’s golden era, or as he puts it “before everything got destroyed”. With today’s cookie-cutter real estate development, some people remain attached to the time when Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East, and Maalouf’s creations are some of the few time capsules where people can experience Lebanon’s authentic character: “It’s refreshing to see younger generations looking for places like [Salon Beyrouth],” he says. “It means there’s still hope.”