During the mid-20th century, a recently-independent Lebanon was gaining popularity as an international and regional destination and Beirut became known as “the center of the Middle-East”. The Presidency of Fouad Chehab (1958-1964) ushered in a new era of modernization and social liberalization in Lebanon, relying, unlike his predecessors, on a strong central state. Chehab’s main goal was to curb growing inequality between the wealthy merchant cosmopolis of Beirut and the poor underdeveloped rural areas. The concept of, what came to be known as, the Rachid Karami International Fair (RKIF) was tied to Chehab's embrace of social welfare, and intended to make Tripoli a cultural and economic locus outside of Beirut. It also evidenced a politics of optimism, which assumed a better future for Lebanon. Designed by renowned Brazilian modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1962, the RKIF was loosely inspired by his earlier design for Brazil’s futuristic new capital, Brasilia. The fairground was built to house a planned permanent international fair, capable of accommodating up to 2 million visitors a year, including, among others, a grand exhibition hall, a national pavilion, and an outdoor concert stage. Construction began early 1964, and was executed by the local companies Abouhamad, ACE and Dar Al-Handasa.
However, the RKIF remained unfinished 10 years later. This was due to successive interruptions in its construction as funds needed to be secured to enable each new phase of work. Then, in the spring of 1975, when the fairground was on the verge of being finalized, violence erupted: the Civil War and, later, foreign military control, left the fairground incomplete and abandoned for years. At the turn of the 21st century, the RKIF’s cultural and historical significance finally gained worldwide recognition. In 2018, thanks to rousing local efforts to protect and revitalize the complex, the RKIF was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage tentative list. The development of a conservation plan has since been initiated. While the finalization of the Conservation Plan and the complex’s full inscription on the official World Heritage List are underway, the fairground needs immediate maintenance and some structural repairs to preserve its integrity. It is our hope that the Lebanese State will give due attention to this gem of modern heritage by securing the necessary funds to enable the preservation, and eventual rehabilitation, of the RKIF.
Towards the end of President Camille Chamoun’s term in office, the Exhibition Committee at the Ministry of Planning decides to hold an annual international fair in Beirut and launches a project for this purpose.
As a result of local efforts and a 1958 governmental decision to establish greater regional balance in development across the country, President Fouad Chehab signs the formal acceptance to proceed with "The Permanent International Fair" choosing Tripoli as the final location.
The President of the Council, Saeb Salam, allocates for the Fair an expropriated plot of 400,000 m2, in Tripoli. The newly established Executive Council of Grand Projects (Conseil Exécutif des Grands Projets - CEGP) assigns international experts to advise on the planning of this Fair.
Niemeyer arrives in Beirut on July 28th for the first site inspection and develops a schematic design proposal. On the 3rd of September, President Rachid Karami presents the scale model in a press conference. In one of his interviews, Niemeyer describes Tripoli’s Fair as “a museum of modernism” presenting a “new solution” that revolutionizes conventional conceptions of international fairs.
The laying of the foundational stone is celebrated in a ceremonial opening, on the 1st of October. The study and development of the Fair are commissioned to three local consulting firms: Abouhamad, ACE, and Dar Al-Handasah.
Early in the year, construction work for the Fair begins. The inauguration of the Fair is scheduled for three years from the construction’s starting date.
Oscar Niemeyer visits Lebanon again to follow up on site work and the construction process. However, because of delay in the work’s progress and lack of enabling funds, the Fair’s opening is rescheduled for 1969.
With rising concerns about further rescheduling on national and international levels, Uthman ad-Dana, Minister of Public Works, calls for investigation in the construction delay of ongoing public projects, including the Fair and the expansion of Beirut's Airport.
The Lebanese State agrees to increase the budget commission in order to expedite the completion of the Fair.
In May, Niemeyer addresses a letter to the CEGP, expressing his satisfaction for the executed work, and his concern for the slow pace of the construction process. Niemeyer calls for additional efforts to expedite the work, considering that Tripoli’s Fair is one of his most appreciated projects.
Critics express concerns about continuing delay in the Fair's construction. Protesters question the Fair’s design and the language of architectural modernism, in view of the fact that it is a publicly owned complex.
The outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War leads to the cessation of further site work. In the following year, the Arab Deterrent Force (ADF), and mainly the Syrian Armed Forces, take military control of the Fairground and its incomplete structures.
In July, the Chairman of the Fair's Administrative Council requests the complete evacuation of the Fairgrounds. In October, two international experts, Jemp Michels and Roger Weber visit the Fair, report on the work that remains to be done, and set a tentative completion date of 1982-1983.
All projects related to the Fair are once again halted, following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In the following year, the Fair’s Administrative Council expresses a desire to resign due to the difficult conditions created by the continued Syrian military occupation of the site.
The Syrian Army partially evacuate the Fairgrounds. Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri launches a targeted rehabilitation plan, in an effort to actualize the Fair’s initially intended function.
The International Fair of Lebanon in Tripoli is officially renamed Rachid Karami International Fair (RKIF). Despite limited military presence, several international and regional exhibitions are staged at the RKIF between 1995 and 1998.
Following the complete military withdrawal from the site, several efforts to redevelop and revitalize the RKIF complex as an international fairground take place.
The Fair’s architectural identity, threatened by large-scale development proposals, arouses local and international media interest, bringing attention to the value of this modern project. Following a local campaign, the World Monument Fund, an organization dedicated to the protection of threatened cultural sites, listed the RKIF on its 2006 World Monuments Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites.
Niemeyer’s masterpiece in Tripoli is included onto UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List as a prime and representative exemplar of 20th century modern architecture in the Arab Middle-East. UNESCO’s Regional Office in Beirut, funded by the Getty Foundation, begins in 2019 the project to develop a conservation management plan for the RKIF.