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Apr / May 2014
Outside In

WRITER: Warren Singh-Bartlett  PHOTOGRAPHY: Joe Keserouani

He may eschew 3D renderings for models but Paul Kaloustian’s work is decidedly contemporary and offers a fresh take on the region’s vernacular architecture. 


Looking from outside, you can see clearly through the house to the other side. The first thing that strikes you is that this isn’t your average home. The building, low-slung and muscular, is robust and most of it is open air, a giant gravel courtyard around which the ‘house’ winds sinuously, like a ribbon.

Next to it, there’s another. More vertical than horizontal, it is divided internally by a series of curving walls. The ceiling soars to a height of almost nine metres, so that it crests the canopy of the surrounding trees but the living room and the bedroom, both of which face a sweeping wall of glass, are only a few metres deep.

I’m tempted to pick them up, to examine them from all angles. They are curiosities, yes, but more than that, these models at architect Paul Kaloustian’s very industrial studio in deepest Manufacturing City, are intriguing. Their spatial dimensions present a challenge to contemporary notions of living, to the way we understand, appreciate and inhabit domestic space.

As I come to understand, Kaloustian likes to play with ideas. His practice is still small – Paul and his partner Jad, essentially – so he has this luxury. But with degrees from ALBA and Harvard and a stint working with Swiss masters, Herzog & de Meuron, it may be that play is integral to the way he practices architecture.

Another thing I learn is that he doesn’t believe in giving everything away in one go. Unlike many architects of his generation, Kaloustian is not overly enamoured of what he calls the ‘hyper-reality’ of 3D renderings, software that produces buildings that look more real than reality.

“I present a foggy idea, to keep the client dreaming,” he explains as the crepuscular afternoon light dims and the row of naked, upright neon tubes fixed to the back wall come into their own. “I show the essence rather than the surface of the concept. I’m not showing clients materials and angles, I’m showing them ideas. I keep them guessing. It’s like seduction as opposed to pornography.”

I admit, I’m taken aback. These image-obsessed days, the flawless 3D architectural rendering is almost de rigueur. Aren’t clients nonplussed when he produces a cardboard model?

“Once you go down the 3D route, Design has left the building. There’s no room left for imagination. The thing is, as an architect, you don’t know exactly how a finished project will feel and secondly, once you show them the rendering, your client will fixate on it,” he explains, talking about how changing light conditions and the physical experience of being inside a space mean that architecture does not permit total control, likening the process of design to a tennis match. “Buildings have their own autonomy, you can’t control every factor. The accident, surprise, is important to me. You need an element of surprise to happen somewhere, even if you have to force it, at first.”

Accident is a recurring motif, not just in Kaloustian’s work but also in his life. His decision to apply to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. His internship with HdM. His return to Lebanon. All accidents. Another ‘accident’ currently defines much of his work, the re-examination of the courtyard house.
In these times of imitation and appropriation, Kaloustian’s current interest is refreshing because it doesn’t derive from an imported model but from a local archetype. Perhaps most closely associated with Islamic architecture, which revelled in the creation of internal sanctuaries, the courtyard home has been a part of the regional vernacular almost as long as there have been humans here. Excavations in the Jordan Valley have revealed early versions that date back at least 8,000 years.

Needless to say, there’s little historical about Kaloustian’s take. He’s busy conjuring ‘courtyards’ inside apartments, courtyards that take up more space than the house, courtyards that are in plain view, courtyards where the vegetation is strung overhead, like a grape trellis, rather than planted.

Even his latest project, a club/restaurant called Stereokitchen, seems to have borrowed from the idea. Located on a rooftop overlooking Beirut, the bay and the mountains beyond, the space is conceived as a circular glass pavilion covered by a low roof, which extends over the terrace.

Internally, the pavilion is centred on a ‘gladiator’ space, a circular central area, which has tables during the week for those who like to be seen and is emptied to become a dance space at weekends. Around this run three rings, arranged in ascending steps. Studded with concrete tables, they are divided from each other by a circular concrete bench/wall, which is broken to facilitate circulation. Standing on the upper ring, a tall person would find their head almost brushing the roof. The rings are deliberately narrow, forcing those populating them to interact with one another, if only to ask permission to squeeze by.

Designed for voyeurs (and the perennially shy), the feeling in the rings is a mixture of the mildly claustrophobic and the entirely omniscient, especially from the uppermost ring, where the transparent walls permit panoramic views across what feels like half of Lebanon.

The glass wall creates two different worlds. The inner ‘courtyard’ is noisy and busy, the outer ‘house’, quiet and reflective. Each enjoys clear views of the other.
“It’s the arena, the Circus but without blood,” Kaloustian says with what I suspect is a mixture of naughtiness and delight. “Because the ceiling is low, it affects your perception. It’s like when you’re on the floor playing with your child, your perception is totally different. I’m really interested in the relationship of space to the body and to the feelings it creates. I like to challenge that relationship. I think this is at the core of what I do.”

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