Levant rising

Architect Galal Mahmoud talks to MEA about architecture, Lebanon and the good and bad way to design hotels.


It may well have been homesickness that brought Galal Mahmoud back to Lebanon from France in 1996 after two decades away, but it is opportunities rather than nostalgia that has kept him here.

Four years after founding GM Architects in Beirut, Mahmoud closed his Paris office and concentrated on the Middle East full time. 2005 saw the firm move to Abu Dhabi and this year has seen Mahmoud finish work on the city’s Park Rotana Hotel.

Over the years, GM Architects has come to specialise in hospitality work, particularly beachfront resorts, and currently has major projects in Egypt, Morocco, Greece and Lebanon. MEA spoke to Mahmoud last month to find out more about Beirut’s unique design language, and the importance of scale, context and humanity in hospitality projects.

Have you seen massive change in Beirut since you first opened your office?

Beirut is what I call unorganised chaos. But it works. I don’t know how, but it works. The only thing is we have a major problem with urban planning. The UAE has gone to the other extreme of over planning, whereas in Lebanon we have no planning whatsoever. We just build wherever we can. We have an issue with providing the city with the basic requirements of a city – pavements for people to walk on, proper streets, green spaces. Everyone is building high rises, which will create a lot of collateral problems, in terms of traffic and pollution. No one is thinking in advance. We also have a lot of problems with the environment. Even though we have a fantastic environment, it is being destroyed gradually.

But it’s an interesting city because it has such an interesting mix of people. The war impacted four generations, who left and went all over the world to study and live and experience. Fifteen years is a long time, so naturally you are influenced by that.

Plus the generations that stayed and lived through the war all had their own experiences. To live and work during war time is quite something, and it can produce something positive. The positive is that it has produced people with such a strong will to move forward that you will never find anywhere else in the world.

How does the country’s turbulent history manifest itself in design?

It manifests itself in the fact that the people that stayed are extremely curious. unfortunately, they could not travel so instead they did a lot of research and tried to learn through whatever means they had available. They are extremely aware of what is happening around them. Plus, each person that left and then came back brought their own experiences. So you have this melting pot of people who lived in Italy or Canada or South America or France or the UK or the US. This variety of cultures has created a fantastic dish, which makes Beirut very interesting. It is chaotic, of course, but so creative at the same time.

Give the Lebanese people 10 or 15 years of stability and the country will just bloom. Right now we have cycles of five years, which is a very short amount of time. If you ask an investor that comes to Lebanon today to invest US$30 million in a resort, he is going to think twice. He’d prefer to invest in a residential building because he can sell the apartments and be done with it. Or at worse, rent them out.

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