Buried within the Lebanese Ministry of National Defense, hidden from the public eye, is one of the most iconic buildings in the history of modern architecture. The Hall of General Jean Njeim in Yarzeh, Lebanon, was conceived as an ellipsoid dome of concrete, a purely white naked volume, nestled amidst an artificial lake. The inherent geometric control that the volume possesses imposes a commanding presence befitting of the site that hosts it.
In 1963, Architects Andre Wogenscky and Maurice Hindie were commissioned to design the Ministry of National Defense, previously located in Badaro. Disciple and architect at L’atelier Le Corbusier, the French modernist architect, Wogenscky, was primarily concerned with the emotional state which his architecture evoked, and which allowed residents to transcend beyond the practicalities of a livable space to perceive it as a beautiful creation. To him, architecture is not merely bricks and stones, but an intricate composition of spatial forms meticulously interlaced in congruence with proportion, rhythm and order. He firmly believed being a seasoned architect is being conscientious of the synergy between humans and space to be able to materialize the intangible into an eloquent physique. In truth, he firmly believed being an architect is simply being human « Voir des hommes avant de s’autoriser à voir des formes architecturales».
In November 20, 1968, prominent public officials such as President Charles El Helou, Prime Minister, Head of the Parliament, Minister of Defense, Army Commander General Emile Boustany, Chiefs of Staff and military personnel attended the inauguration of the Ministry of National Defense. The crowning jewel of the Ministry, the Hall of General Jean Njeim, covering an area of 700m2, was unveiled as an auditorium dedicated to conferences, seminars, meetings, and events. Reinforced concrete encases the holistic shell structure, symmetrical in plan. In section, the thickness tapers from 0.4m at the base to 0.12m at the top.
In the hall of convoluted columns leading to the floating dome, edges are effaced. The absence of physical margins unbinds spatial extremities, and the far-reaching void extends on both sides towards the garden and the terrace. In the heart of this rough expanse, pulsating with lively public activity within, the interior of the dome stands in stark contrast. Visitors step into another realm. The dome hosts all visitors in unity and solidarity. The auditorium seating layout is end-stage, a basic theatre form, containing 704 seats. Two ramps on either side of the 9.6m opening follow the curvature of the dome and lead to the stage. A sliding mechanical wall serves as a projector screen parallel to the seating plan. The acoustics are well thought out to equally distribute the sound.
This small uniform entity of a dome lies quiescent on the vast site. From afar, the dome seems dormant but compelling. From a closer perspective, the dome is trimmed below the central axis of the volumetric ellipsoid, rising resplendently from the flowing water below, driven upward by the unifying force of its buoyant people. While the civil war has ridiculed the face of unity, and shrapnel left it wounded and scarred, it stubbornly persists. A vestige of beauty and tragedy. Baptized, it symbolizes the birth of hope. In 2001, a renovation plan was launched to revamp the interior and erase the damages incurred by its bitter history. Today, this hope is captured frozen in time, distant from the prying public eye. Buried within.
But not all eyes. The dome belongs, as it always has been, to the valiant. The dome belongs to Lebanon’s national hope. The dome belongs to the Lebanese army.
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