Levant rising

Architect Galal Mahmoud talks to MEA about architecture, Lebanon and the good and bad way to design hotels.
By Orlando Crowcroft
Fri 28 Jan 2011 12:00 AM

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.

What kind of projects
have you done in Lebanon?

We’ve done a lot of restaurants. Now we are shifting to
hotels. There are a few new hotels coming up, and we have some renovation projects.
We’ve also created the concept of a day beach resort, which already existed in Lebanon but was
very archaic. It was the 1970s model of a concrete pool, a ladder to the sea,
and a fish restaurant.

We’ve taken that and developed day beach resorts which are
comfortable and well designed and have all kinds of facilities, such as private
cabanas, open-air spas, restaurants and so on. This is something that we have
specialised in and will try to introduce to the UAE, because it doesn’t exist
at the moment. Anyone who wants to go to the beach has to pay a hotel US$60 to
go and sit on a plastic chair.

You’ve been working
in the UAE recently, what are the biggest differences that you see between the
Lebanese and UAE markets?

The UAE is a far more bullish market. Things have to come
out quickly. The problem we face in the UAE is that we are not given enough
time to really think our projects through, because everyone is in such a rush.
Things need to be built yesterday. It’s challenging but at the same time, it
makes us more reactive.

In Lebanon,
you have more time because the owners are far more personally involved in their
projects. They follow up and they want to know what you are doing. Here you are
dealing with a board and the board has budgets and administrators and so on.
They hire you because they know you are good - which is great - but sometimes
you feel like you are just a commodity, rather than an added value.

You lose control of your projects because of time and
budgetary restraints. You can do a fantastic design and then suddenly the
project is out of your hands because it’s gone out to a contractor and they
start cannibalising it. And once it’s done you are left feeling a little
disappointed. We have a problem with the quality of the finish because things
happen so quickly that even the best contractor doesn’t have time to do things
properly.

However, at the same time, the market in the UAE is much
more bullish, the projects are on a much bigger scale, the budgets are bigger
than in Lebanon and the exposure is far greater for us as an office.

What are the biggest
challenges that you face as a designer in this day and age?

The time that we are given to produce projects. We are
creating a space that you will be using for 15 or 20 years. You cannot create
that in three months, no matter how good you are. Whatever you produce as a
space has to be well thought through. And these projects cost a lot of money,
so you also have a responsibility to the client.

Our role as designers is to make people’s lives better.
That’s a big responsibility. It’s not a simple case of a sketch on a piece of
paper. This is the main challenge – making people’s lives better, be it in a
hotel room, or a restaurant, in an office or in their home.

This is what I mean when I talk about humanity. You have to
worry about the human element first. You don’t just do a drawing and then ask
people to fit into that, which happens a lot with iconic architecture. But we
need iconic architecture to push the limits. It helps the rest of us to open
our eyes to different approaches to designing a building or a space.

It doesn’t
mean we’d do the same, but suddenly it opens our eyes to new methods and
technologies and so on. We need these people. It is necessary to have them and
they do produce quite spectacular creations. Look at the Yas Hotel, for
example. It’s a spectacular building. Is it user friendly? No. Is it easy to
maintain? No. But you have to have buildings like that. Our approach is different. We are problem
solvers, not problem creators. It is far more discreet and laid back process.

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