Too little, too late? The battle to save Tripoli's futuristic fairground

Designed by Brazilian modernist Oscar Niemeyer, Lebanon’s international expo site has been abandoned since civil war broke out in the 1970s

“It could collapse at any time,” says the architect and activist Wassim Naghi. The facade of the unfinished, subterranean space museum in Tripoli, Lebanon, is visibly decaying and its steel reinforcements are rusted – but that may not be its biggest problem. “The ageing concrete’s carbonation is invisible,” explains Naghi when we meet in his office in the centre of the city. “We don’t know how bad it really is.”

Situated beneath an elevated concrete helipad, the museum was part of a planned permanent international fair designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in the early 1960s that was expected to accommodate more than 2 million visitors a year. The 1,000 sq km site’s 15 existing buildings also include a domed theatre, an atrium, an arch and collective housing. A 717-metre-long boomerang-shaped canopy was designed to house the permanent exhibition, alongside a separate, traditionally styled pavilion for exhibitions relating to Lebanon.

Some of the highlights of Niemeyer’s expo site including the Lebanese pavilion, bottom left. Photographs: Chantale Fahmi/Walid Rashid Photography/Alamy

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Niemeyer’s designs for the Tripoli fair were modelled on Brasília, but he also experimented with new structures

The fair’s amphitheatre and arch. In September the fair site was placed on Unesco’s tentative list of properties for nomination to its world heritage list. Photograph: Walid Rashid Photography

Left: an old postcard of Tripoli’s orange orchards, part of which were used for the international fair site. Right: The fair’s general manager inspects construction progress, circa 1967. Photographs: private collection/Wassim Naghi

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The helipad, lit for the opening of the 2018 Cycles of Collapsing Progress exhibition. Photograph: Walid Rashid

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