BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER. Architect Lina Ghotmeh was born and raised in Beirut, where she studied at the American University. In 2005, while working in London and collaborating with Ateliers Jean Nouvel and Foster & Partners, she won an international competition to design the Estonian National Museum. Following this victory, she co-founded her first studio, DGT Architects, in Paris. Upon delivery of this project in 2016, she had established Lina Ghotmeh—Architecture. Ghotmeh has won several prestigious awards, has delivered multiple commended projects and designed the Serpentine Pavilion 2023, À Table.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Lina Ghotmeh, what do you mean when you say that as an architect you practice “archaeology of the future”?
Archaeology of the future is about thinking of architecture as research-driven. Beirut is a city that has witnessed the history of the Phoenicians, the Greeks, and has been buried layer by layer after many earthquakes. This context, all intertwined with a war-torn city, gives you an anchorage to the earth, but also a process of constant search for origin, for identity, for what roots us as human beings. I look at an environment, at the history of a typology, and I work almost like a detective, like an archaeologist. But because architecture is never an act of the past – it’s a space that exists in the future – it’s the “archaeology of the future”.
Since 2000, Serpentine has commissioned 22 internationally renowned and emerging architects to create their first completed building in England. How did you conceive their 2023 Pavilion, entitled À Table?
I started like a detective asking what a pavilion actually is, and like an archaeologist digging into the history of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens and the Serpentine Gallery itself. The story is about building knowledge about our environment through the pavilion. Before there was a gallery, it was a tea house, tables and chairs a reminder of the place itself. Looking at nature and the trees, I wondered how I could create a shape that echoed the canopy of the trees, so you have this concave petal that makes up the pavilion and starts to talk about the place, about the anchor, also about what happens under the ground because of the roots of the trees. The structure of the roof also tells us about the structure of the leaves. In short, À Table talks about the environment in which it stands.
“I like it when something very simple can evoke so many different layers of meaning and memory.”
Interior of Serpentine 2023 designed by Lina Ghotmeh. June 9th 2023.
Photo by David Hornsby © Alain Elkann Interviews
Lina Ghotmeh, why is there only a single large table in the pavilion?
The philosophy of À Table is dialogue, conversation, people coming together. Instead of having separate tables and chairs, À Table is about a communal gathering. It starts with this idea of how we bring people together with the intimate spatiality that is created by sitting on a chair at a table. From there it goes on to ask what kind of spatiality it is when we sit in a concentric way, echoing the idea of gathering on a larger scale.
Why did you make the pavilion entirely of wood?
Wood is the raw material of the park, which the pavilion reflects. I’m always keen to be very sustainable and ecological in my work, to work with materials that are biodegradable and have a low carbon footprint. A pavilion also has to be a lightweight structure that doesn’t have a lot of foundations and is easy to dismantle. It will sit here and then be moved somewhere else.
How come your pavilion gives the impression of a temple?
The architecture of the pavilion draws on and echoes several memories. Part of the research was looking at follies, temple-like structures with colonnades. I also looked at the gathering places of the Dogon people in West Africa, where the wise people of the village meet until they come to an agreement. These places have low, heavy roofs and people have to stay seated until they reach agreement, because if they get up or try to be violent, they will hit their head on the roof! Staying seated is about respecting each other. À Table is also a playful carousel-like structure, and you feel a movement with the pleated roof, as if it’s turning. I like it when something very simple can evoke so many different layers of meaning and memory.
I did an internship with Jean Nouvel in 2001 and in 2003 the atelier offered me a job to come to Paris to work on a project they had in Beirut. When the Beirut project came to an end, Jean Nouvel suggested that I move to London to work on a collaboration that he had with Foster & Partners. I found myself in London working on this really interesting collaboration between two very different architects. I was very passionate about architecture and when I saw an open competition for the 40,000 square metre Estonian National Museum on the internet, I entered with two architect colleagues and won the competition. I was very young, only 26.
Then you opened your own practice in Paris?
Yes. I moved back to Paris, left Jean Nouvel and Foster and opened my first practice in Paris in 2006. We completed this project and meanwhile I was developing other projects and was invited by the École Spéciale d’Architecture to teach as an associate professor.
In 2015, you started a very interesting project in the Masséna district of Paris?
Yes, the City of Paris had a great idea to put derelict sites up for competition, where architects could come with developers and with the users of the spaces. Masséna is in the 13th arrondissement and the old Masséna station was on the La Petite Ceinture railway line. Our proposal was that the former Masséna station and the area around it should become a complex governed by a circular economy and a sustainable food system.
And in your home city of Beirut you built a residential tower called Stone Garden?
The archaeology of the future is about finding the uniqueness of each situation, so every project talks about where it is. Stone Garden, I completed in 2020. It talks about Beirut, a city that has been wounded, that has been hollowed out, that has been buried, that has been violated many times. It talks about my experience in the city, growing up with the war, looking at the city completely eaten away, but at the same time the strength of the material that surrounds you, the ruins and nature coming in, and the power of nature to bring beauty even when it’s all about destruction. Stone Garden looks at the memory of the city and how we can offer alternative ways of living. A lot of cities are growing with these typical apartments that are repeated on top of each other, taking you further away from the ground, so to anchor a tower to the ground itself, the material of this building is all earthly, calm. It’s a home that talks about the intimacy of living on earth in a vertical archaeology, so you have these loggias that are inhabited by nature and give individuality to each floor of the building. The ground floor is also a gallery space for exhibitions, art and debate.
“I love that the building can function generously.”
Lina Ghotmeh, what is one of your current projects?
With my studio, I am working on the Museum of Contemporary Art that will be built in AlUla, an area in the heart of Saudi Arabia that was the cradle of the Nabatean civilisation. It marks the route of the Silk Road and the Incense Road, where many travellers passed. It’s a fantastic oasis in the desert, adjacent to all these ancient rock formations that have been excavated for Nabatean tombs, and within that there is a valley and agricultural land. The museum sits within this agricultural fabric and acts as a regenerator of it. The museum is not just about building a white cube box. It talks about the history of the town, it allows the gallery space and the art to be deeply connected with nature, with agriculture, and it brings a different typology of contemporary art presence in such a context.
In this case, the context is the desert?
The desert is such a rich presence. There are more than 20 words in Arabic to describe the desert, the different moods of the desert, the light, how it hits the desert, the different moments, whether you have a sandstorm or not, all the layers of biodiversity that exist in the ground of the soil and the sand, the ability of plants to find their water so deeply rooted in the ground. My work was almost physical, almost anthropological, because I went to the children’s schools in AlUla, talked to them, made them draw and infiltrated the place to try to understand it.
What materials are you using to build there?
The traditional material with which the old city was built is earth. They used to build all their dwellings fantastically, one courtyard at a time, like knitting into the landscape. They are also developing BTC construction, which is briques terre crue, earth blocks. I love developing techniques with more sustainable materials, as was the case with a project I just did for Hermès.
What did you recently do for Hermès?
Their 6,200 square metre manufactory in Normandy. It’s all brick, made from the local soil. The idea is to give these programmes a dignity that they don’t normally have today. Industrial places usually look terrible, like tin boxes. This building looks almost like a museum, or it could be a house, a monastery, a place for people’s memory. We just finished it and celebrated in May with all the craftsmen and the Hermès family. When you enter the Hermès building, you’re suddenly in a very light, brick building, and the courtyard is almost like a cloister. You have a moment of silence, that takes you away from the industrial environment surrounding the building, and when you enter the workplace it’s cocooning and all the materials are soft. The workers say that when they walk into this place they feel like they’re on holiday. I love that.
Are your projects very eclectic?
Yes, I try to bring a cultural edge to every project and every project is like a museum to me. A museum, in the way we give care to its architecture, is my ultimate way of expressing architecture, or giving dignity to what architecture could be, but I don’t think it’s only in museums. Every project is a way of giving something back to the city. Stone Garden is a residential building, but it has such a presence and such a generosity that it gives back an emotional feeling to the city in which it sits. The experience of architecture that I am aiming for is really about layers of discovery, where you uncover the building. You can see Stone Garden from the outside and touch the material, and when you’re inside it allows you to see the city differently through windows that frame the city almost like a photograph. The interior experience is as important in its manifestation as what emerges as an object, and it allows the individual to be part of that imagination and part of that experience.
At the same time a museum has to function?
I love that the building can function generously. In the Museum of Estonia, only 20% of the whole museum is about exhibition. The rest is about work and conservation and the archive and the public and conference rooms. I don’t create a box or a form and leave it at that. I love to work with this interior experience as well, to make the whole space work and be enjoyable for people.
Built with Nature. Ink Pencil Watercolor. Sketch by © Lina Ghotmeh.
Serpentine 2023 designed by Lina Ghotmeh
Serpentine 2023 designed by Lina Ghotmeh
Serpentine 2023 designed by Lina Ghotmeh
Serpentine 2023 designed by Lina Ghotmeh
Serpentine 2023 designed by Lina Ghotmeh
“I prefer to think of architecture as a place of gathering that can bring joy and togetherness.”
Lina Ghotmeh, what do you teach your students?
I cannot teach a style of architecture. I teach students to have a critical mind, to open their sensibility, to read, to listen to their context. I teach them the process of design, the archaeology, the history, the research, and I try to push their own sensitivity to how you create a space, why what you’re doing becomes relevant. So, for example, we sit and a person who is developing a project talks about their research and narrates the design, and in this way the students are part of being able to critically assess and evaluate each other’s work.
Some architects like horizontals and some like towers?
I like both and I love towers and I love designing them, but I think there’s a different way of designing towers to bring the city into the tower and create interaction. The Masséna building is a small tower and a tower for Paris in a way, but it’s also about creating connections. There’s a ramp around it and all the levels are connected.
The Egyptian pyramids have lasted last thousands of years and are like mountains, but I often think that skyscrapers made of metal and glass will not last?
They are also stigmas of moments when we thought we could be completely independent of our environment. They try to negate their own environment and become consumption machines that are consumed by themselves. When it’s winter in Dubai or other places, you have to wear a T-shirt because it’s too hot inside. Or it’s summer and it’s freezing in these towers.
Will neighbourhoods of these towers be in ruins in a few decades?
No. That would make a nice dystopian collage, but we are growing as a population on Earth, and we need almost two Earths to sustain us as a population, so we have to inhabit these spaces. But they affect our psychology and the way we behave. We become more violent as beings when we are in environments that don’t have the humane quality to them, when they are out of sync with nature, with the environment, with the climate that we live in.
The pandemic has made us think about the need for housing with external spaces of gardens, of nature. How will this affect architecture?
All the housing competitions or projects in Paris are now about how our homes can also become working spaces and how we relate to the outside. We have a lot of empty spaces in cities and a lot of waste in our built environment, in the sense that we have all these towers that are just for speculation. People buy the flats and they’re completely empty. Thinking about construction as something that is impermanent, that you assemble and disassemble, reusing the material, completely changes our relationship to the city. It’s no longer about permanence. So the value of capital can no longer be in stone or in towers.
You spoke about your project in Saudi Arabia, can you tell me about another one?
In Lebanon, I worked on an open archive museum for a collector who collected works by artists who depicted the history of Lebanon. I love this project because it’s really a work of developing an alternative typology of museums. Visitors become actors in the visiography and narrative of the collection itself. You enter and it’s like a big library and there’s a ramp all around and every time you open an archive you unveil a story and by unveiling the story you create a narrative for the next visitor. I designed the museum as a series of intimate rooms, like homes, and you enter there and you have a table in the middle again and a library of collections around it. You take a collection, you put it on the table and you study it. It’s almost a feeling of home. I studied the typology of Lebanese houses, which are based on a central courtyard and different rooms, and tried to combine that with the museum in a way that gave something new.
You love creating environments based on tables, and as you demonstrate with the Serpentine Pavilion, ultimately you believe that a building should bring people together?
Yes, even if people come and open their computers, they’re still together. That’s something that’s rooted in my experience of a city that was torn apart by war, where buildings separated people. Because there was always a divide between East and West Beirut, and fighting between people. I prefer to think of architecture as a place of gathering that can bring joy and togetherness.
Thank you very much.
Portrait of Lina Ghotmeh © Gilbert Hage
Images courtesy: Serpentine
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