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Feb / Mar 2017
Off the Wall Thinking

WRITER: Nadia Michel Photographer: Nader Moussally

Featuring walls that slide in and out of the building, Modulofts by Fouad Samara Architects are a novel solution to the age-old problem of making the most of a limited space.

“You have to be a little rough and ready,” says Fouad Samara, as I point out the raindrops covering the large wall that had just been slid into the space where we are meeting. “You only have to wipe it. Anyways, it’s not something you would necessarily do everyday.”

Samara, the Principal at Fouad Samara Architects (FSA), is referring to the partitioning of space that is afforded by his latest building’s innovative sliding walls. Named Modulofts, it’s a building of seven duplexes set in Beirut’s densely populated Ashrafieh neighbourhood. The idea of the sliding wall is no gimmick either, as it proposes a solution to space constraints while also allowing for people’s increasingly fluid lifestyles.

“There are sixteen ways you can tune it,” he explains of the flexible 200 square-metre stacked lofts. Each unit features a central double height reception and dining area with two sliding walled modules on either side. The kitchen can also be closed off, or left open, depending on the owner’s preference. “If you have guests, you can create a guest bedroom,” he suggests. “Or you can turn one of the cells into a home office.”

Spectacular as it is, practical concerns remain concerning permeability and air infiltration, after all, the idea of having a moveable part that just slides in and out of the façade must present a few complications. “That was one of the challenges we gave ourselves, to look carefully at every detail,” interjects Jad Abi Fadel, one of Samara’s associates, adding that the rubber gaskets on the doors function exactly as those on car windows. FSA also worked with French engineering consultants to develop a safety mechanism that would prevent the walls from ever falling off the building, even if one came off its tracks, and there was a strong gust of wind. “We have three or four layers of protection.”

 

 

It’s certainly a relief, especially considering how passers-by often stop to gawk at the moving walls. And to be clear, this public involvement was actually part of the architectural team’s plan. “We wanted to engage with the street because it’s a traditional way of life in Beirut. People here use their balconies to keep an eye on what’s going on in the neighbourhood,” explains Samara. And though Modulofts’ duplexes don’t have any balconies per se, they do have six-by-six metre, floor to ceiling windows that open up and turn the entire living space into a kind of balcony.

That’s what’s on the front of this single aspect building. The back, however, is a whole other story. There are actually no windows at all on the rear façade. The reason is that Modulofts’ architecture adheres to a concept developed by American architect Louis Khan, which divides layouts into distinct, linear served (habitable) and servant (purely functional) spaces. To achieve this orderly plan, a 2.6 metre-wide space towards the middle of the back wall has been dedicated to the stairway and the single elevator for the building, while either side of this are service shafts as well as the maid’s room, maid’s bathroom, guest lavatory and guest bathroom on the units’ lower floors, and master bathroom and secondary bathroom on their upper floors. This effectively eliminates any real need for windows, which would otherwise look directly onto a neighbouring building.

Further intensifying the Louis Khan-esque aspect, the building is set dramatically back from the street, especially considering the tiny, 206 metre-square plot of land it sits on. “While we were excavating, one engineer looking for space to unload material told us we didn’t have a site, we had a shelf!” laughs Samara, recalling that the ‘shelf’ that remained of solid ground was only one metre wide by thirteen metres long.

 

“I think this is what Le Corbusier was referring to in Vers Une Architecture, where I think he was yearning for not ‘another’ architecture or ‘new’ architecture as was mistakenly interpreted, but for architecture as it had always been, and always ought to be – a relevant, ordered, and coherent architecture: a ‘modern’ architecture,” says Samara.

 

Judicious use of space wasn’t the only guiding principle FSA considered when they began the architectural plans. Deep analysis and prioritising location are part of what Samara refers to as the rigorous, scientific process his team uses, one that eschews the pitfalls of modern, branded architecture. “You go to Zaha Hadid so that she gives you a building that is really out there, shocking and different. I have no problem with a building that ends up being like that, as long as it’s a natural by-product of the planning process,” Samara says. “What I call branded architecture is the biggest problem we face as architects. Clients and architects look for a signature brand indiscriminately – irrespective of culture, location, materials – there’s no indigenous architecture anymore.”

Indigenous architecture for Samara is design that approaches each and every project on an individual basis, from scratch. In fact, the only real common thread in FSA projects – which are peppered throughout MENA, including Saudi Arabia, where Samara serves as Director for Khalid Al Amoudi Architects – is an adherence to modern architecture infused with out-of-the-box creativity.

In the case of Modulofts, the architect says New Brutalism inspired him, though not in an obvious manner. There is a heavy use of concrete and a repetition of modular elements made popular in the UK (where Samara completed his PhD in Architecture) by architects like husband-and-wife team Alison and Peter Smithson. But what Samara means more than anything is that his Modulofts are brutally honest, especially in terms of the materials used. The walls are 35 centimetre-thick solid post-tensioned concrete, the floors are concrete (heated, thankfully), all the metal (including suspended custom lighting) is painted black and all non-structural elements (ceramics, tiles) are white.

 

Above and below: The design of Modulofts’ seven vertically stacked flats centres around a double height reception and dining area, either side of which are four modules that can be seperated with walls that slide in and out of the façade. 

 

The use of these so-called honest materials (also indigenous because concrete is the most common and inexpensive building material in the region) is mostly a result of wanting to make Modulofts true to its name. “We felt that the term loft was overused, and people were missing the point. At the end of the day, the original lofts of New York and London have four main criteria: they have a special luxury, lots of light, flexibility in terms of space and they almost always have integrity in the use of materials.”

Although it exemplifies a very fresh take on architecture, Modulofts’ greatest attribute is that it manages to blend in with it’s chaotic surroundings – a mix of traditional Ottoman architecture, random mid-century design and new, often uninspired apartment blocks.  In fact, I missed Modulofts the first time I drove up looking for it and had to loop back around the block, because it was somewhat hidden by the buildings around it, and then its colour and regularity work as a sort of urban camouflage. But this was the objective. “Ethics, not aesthetics,” Samara adds, quoting a Brutalist idiom.

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