From architect Lina Ghotmeh’s studio in the perennially cool 11th arrondissement of Paris, our conversation quickly turns to an approximated quote from British anthropologist, Tim Ingold: “Everything is in a constant state of becoming—it’s just a question of time.” Like an ember, as it flickers and flutters, the curling of kindling, a flame burning bright, it is this connection between a building’s construction and purpose, creating for today and tomorrow, that Ghotmeh imbues into each of her projects. “Architecture is able to offer spaces that allow for change and allow for flexibility of use,” she explains. “That is what I am keen on doing in my work.”
Born in Lebanon, in the shadow of the country’s civil war, Ghotmeh began her studies at the American University of Beirut before continuing on to the École Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris. Having initially wanted to study archaeology, Ghotmeh leaned into the social, historical, and environmental underpinnings of the discipline. Over time, she developed an approach of her own to the métier. She eventually dubbed this methodology, “Archeology of the Future,” which operates at the cross-section of a site’s history, natural contexts, existing architecture, environment, and resources. Ghotmeh’s humanist and environmental-forward approach has earned her a laundry list of accolades from the Schelling Architecture Prize to an exhibition at the 17th Architecture Biennale in Venice, and most recently, a commission to create this year’s Serpentine Pavilion.
Unveiled each summer in London’s Hyde Park, adjacent to the contemporary art heavyweight, Serpentine Galleries, the pavilion marks an internationally renowned architect’s first project in England. Building on Ghotmeh’s philosophy, the pavilion titled, Á Table, uses low-carbon materials to create a large circular wooden structure. A low-slung, pleated roof creates a sense of openness and respite with a feeling of nature rooted in the surrounding park. In thinking about Á Table, which features large community tables in its interior, the Pavilion seeks to cultivate a space akin to the Mediterranean dinner table of the architect’s upbringing. A place where conversation lingers and connection is paramount.
Ghotmeh dives further into the intention behind the installation. “What’s interesting in the Serpentine Pavilion as a project, and as an experiment,” she explains, “is that it underlines the importance of free spaces. Á Table is about the scenography of a space, or the staging of how furniture is laid out—how the space relates to an environment. It allows a multiplicity of appropriations.” All of these elements contribute to a place of contemplation and reorientation with the backdrop of a bustling city. “I get stopped all the time with people telling me that they’ve spent two or three hours in the pavilion,” Ghotmeh shares. Through a calendar of concerts, talks and events, Á Table is able to evolve, continually taking on new contexts.
In many ways, the project elicits moments of reflection, while also taking into account the socio-historical context of the pavilion. Ghotmeh describes her research into the origins of the word “pavilion,” which in Old French translated to both a butterfly and tent. “It’s very interesting because it means that it’s a fleeting structure and it allows for a moment of flotation,” she shares. “This is also a way of connecting poetically to our surroundings and then about how you offer spaces that are free, that are open, that allow different uses in a setting.” This duality and embrace of both what is inward and out, has become a feature of Ghotmeh’s work.
One of these very projects is Precise Acts, a monumental 72,000 square-foot, brick workshop the architect created for Hermès and their team of artisans in Normandy. Describing her approach to the striking arches, which incorporate light and levity to the space, Ghotmeh explains, “It is really about bringing nature as part of the architecture, about giving dignity to this function, which is that of a manufacturing building, and bringing the hand as part of the making of that building.” Having helped to revive the region’s artisanal brickmaking industry as part of the project, she shares of its fabrication, “The material brings a sense of reality into the use of the space.”
In an era of unabating greenwashing, Ghotmeh understands the complex environmental crosshairs in which she operates. “Sustainability is not an added thing,” she declares. “It’s not a motto. I think it’s something that is part of architecture. In my mind architecture has to have a positive impact. It needs to provide beauty to its context, allow utility, but it also has to work in symbiosis with its environment, and natural environment. To do so, one has to think about the materials that are sourced as locally as possible, or that are sourced in a way that corresponds to the function, which also have a low carbon impact.”
From Stone Garden Housing, a much-lauded apartment building in Beirut, to the Estonian National Museum, these analyses come in the form of extensive 360° research of a location, long before ground is broken.“I [prioritize] the context in which we develop projects, understanding their history of the city or of the country and the natural contexts in which we intervene. It is important we understand the social construct of [a site’s] history, existing architecture, environment, and resources.”
This meticulous research allows Ghotmeh’s projects to be anchored in the reality of a location, something that she has honed in on as part of a sprawling decade-long redevelopment of the Maine-Montparnasse district in her adopted home. A loathed 70s-era sky-scraper, floating above the city proper, Montparnasse Tower sits atop a sprawling mall, adjacent to one of Paris’ main train stations. At a juncture between several neighborhoods in the south of the city, Ghotmeh shares, “The problem was that there wasn’t any idea about how to stitch the different parts of the city together. This shopping center and tower became an element that really disconnected the different neighborhoods.”
Through a green space-filled redevelopment, Ghotmeh is working to reunite the Montparnasse site with the neighborhood and community in which it stands. Through steadfastness and a conscientious approach, Ghotmeh will give a glow to this long-extinguished ember in the City of Light, and like each of her enduring projects, it remains in a constant state of becoming.
Written by Bennett DiDonna