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While visiting the cruise liner hotel of Amrié in Bikfaya, one cannot help but feel the craze of the exotic “années folles” that revolved around ethnography, dance and parties. A world of spectacles, feathers, fans, quirky haircuts and Charleston dancing to the most dizzying beats.

Four major schools made up Art Deco architecture in Lebanon: the traditional stylized trifora, the “Zigzag moderne” and, in the late 30s, the cruise liner-like “Streamline moderne” and the style that characterized industrial and public institutions’ buildings. These were developed in-depth after WWII, all through the 1960’s, until they were overshadowed by international modernism. 

Streamline Moderne

Built in Bikfaya in the 1960s by César Amer, the Amrié hotel complex is a magnificent example of that era’s creativity. It is the product of a very specific architectural movement, Streamline Moderne, that drew inspiration from the aerodynamics of the highly popular cruise liners of the time. The Amrié epitomizes Art Deco architecture in Mount Lebanon, one that is idyllic, incorporated in nature and full of shapes and gay colors. It includes hotel buildings, a sports area, picturesque fountains, a theater and even a church with stained glass and a typical belfry.

Amrié’s architectural style is reminiscent of old cruise ships, with its portholes, tubular steel guard rails, bridges, passageways, walkways and suspended openwork staircases. The “Île de France” (1927) and the “Normandie” (1935) are two cruise liners that inspired this style. In Lebanon, some hotel projects even bore the same name.

The cruise-liner style, considered part of the Bauhaus movement, was widespread in Beirut, and many hotels adopted and “lebanonized” it, with their use of dented stone and their immersion in pine forests.

Amrié  hotel in Bikfaya, in Streamline Moderne style. Picture found on the internet
Streamline Moderne movement and its cruiseliner-style balconies in Beirut, Bustros street. Photo taken by Amine Jules Iskandar

Industrial and public institution buildings

Large-scale examples of this kind in Lebanon are factories and breweries, the Beirut and Qleiat airports, the Casino du Liban and post office buildings. Entirely Art Deco in style, they can showcase general volume and clinical detail all at once. In some cases, no ornament can be found except for the two-dimensional representation generally displayed in the form of a vertical mosaic located at the entrance. These buildings can also boast mural paintings, such as the fresco found in the Beirut International Airport. As far as factories are concerned, they have an austere industrial aesthetic, with smooth painted cement surfaces, resembling international modernism.

All of this is in deep contrast with the PWA/WPA Moderne (Public Works Administration/Work Projects Administration) movement that typifies public institutions’ buildings in the United States. These projects were initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, and include imposing buildings, in reference to the stability of the classical style, with their cut stone, symmetry and sheer volume. The National Museum of Beirut is a perfect example, with its neo-Egyptian columns, vertical apertures and massive stones.

In the United States, Art Deco also sought to convey economic prosperity by soaring to the sky. New York skyscrapers, such as the Chrysler building – an inspiration for Charles Corm who decided to build a similar structure in Beirut for his Ford automobile company in 1928 – are a fine example. Indeed, the Corm tower favors sheer volume with its parallelepipeds piled with declining dimensions and its tubular steel guard rails.

The Chrysler building boasts a curved crown inspired by the bumpers of the company’s cars. As for the Corm tower, it has a triangular pediment similar to the one seen on the Empire State Building, constructed two years later. It is the only vertical Art Deco building in the country.

Almaza brewery. Picture found on social media

An all-encompassing art

Much like Art Nouveau before it, Art Deco is an art that encompasses all fields of creativity, from architecture to woodworking, but also poster art, stained glass, ceramics, tapestry, sculpture, jewelry, fashion, and typography, with its typical striated font. While visiting the cruise liner hotel of Amrié in Bikfaya, one cannot help but feel the craze of the exotic “années folles” that revolved around ethnography, dance and parties. A world of spectacles, feathers, fans, quirky haircuts and Charleston dancing to the most dizzying beats. The similar-style Casino du Liban was at the center of the cabaret years, of which the Amrié could only dream, although its spirit is still entirely imbued with it.

In architecture, one must highlight the importance of grandiose hallways, not only in public institutions, but also within residential apartment buildings still standing in the streets of Beirut. The use of high-end materials – marble in different contrasting colors, natural and artificial lighting, Japanese-style interior mineral gardens, figurative mosaics, cubist mirrors, podium-like steps, and dynamic awnings partially overlooking the sidewalks – contributes directly to the ceremonial feel of the Art Deco style.

Fresco in the Beirut International Airport. Picture found on the internet
Two Art Deco buildings: Weygand street in 1948, and the Charles Corm building designed in 1928. Photo: Charles Corm Foundation
Art Deco details: statue of a woman on Edward Spears street, forged iron at the National Museum. Pictures found on social media

An international style

While Art Nouveau died at the dawn of WWI, Art Deco’s swansong was at the outbreak of WWII, given the inevitable rise of modernism with its so-called international style. Stripped to the bone, it eliminates all forms of ornamentation and regional specificity, and its obsession with cement would make it overlook the city’s dimensions and the needs and sensibility of its residents.

Lebanese modernism often ignored city fabric and caused damage beyond repair, whereas, in the pre-1964 Art Deco period, buildings seemed to blend in seamlessly with the environment.

The new construction code adopted in Lebanon in 1964 legalized urban rupture by favoring height at the expense of traditional alignment along roadways. It ignored the spirit of the street, killed the city’s identity, and raised buildings from the ground up by mounting them on stilts, casting ominous shadows on the structures and gardens of yore. These new laws would replace aesthetic and social values with a number of quantitative considerations that would murder the city, the mountains, and the country’s heritage.

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