It’s after a decade of architectural projects that Carl Gerges esteemed it was time to launch his own venture: Carl Gerges Architects. Described as “an advocate of authentic and honest designs”, the studio emphasises on its clients’ stories and identities, putting a project’s core value and DNA at the centre of the work.
A musician at heart, Gerges earned his BFA from the American University of Beirut during the founding years of Mashrou’ Leila, the internationally recognised band in which he officiates as a composer and drummer amongst other things.
Today we discover his studio’s very first project, Villa Chams, an architectural jewel niched in the heart of Baalbek in Lebanon.
Exterior view of Villa Chams
Tell us about Villa Chams; What did you have in mind when you first started designing it?
Every time I get commissioned to work on a new project, I spend a lot of time analysing the site, understanding its history, its context, and its geographical qualities. This site particularly inspired me because it is located in Baalbek, the “city of the sun”, where I performed one of the most memorable concerts with my band inside the temple of Bacchus.
The site has remained untouched for hundreds of years and nature has been displaying its most beautiful spectacle. Everything was so harmonious that I made a point not to alter anything or to at least have a minor physical impact.
At the same time, feeding off from the proximity to the Roman site and from what Baalbek meant to me, I wanted to introduce through my architectural gesture, a melodic element that would add another dimension to the harmony of the site, something that would tell a story.
How technical has this project been? Has it been very challenging?
Working on-site was extremely challenging and chirurgical. It was as if you were operating bobcats and cranes in the middle of an archaeological site. Every rock, opuntia, or olive tree was treated as if it was an artefact.
The rocks went through centuries of weathering and erosion. Any scratch or break would have marked their surface forever. I kept going back on site to observe, sketch and archive each and every element; I even had to readapt the design of the house as we went through excavation works.
Exterior with pool view of Villa Chams
Was it really important for you to have the villa almost being a natural component of the surrounding landscape?
In all their monumentality and glory, the adjacent Roman temples perfectly succeeded in blending with the surrounding flora. It was fundamental that the villa achieved the same result. I consequently worked a lot with the natural resources available on site: I used earth that came from excavation works to cast the entire structure of the house.
Native pebbles and aggregates were also used in the mixture of the terrazzo that paved all the outdoor terraces and the pool. I even used existing rocks as walls, like in the bathrooms for example. The house also follows the natural slope of the site.
Each room has a different floor level and therefore a different relationship to the outdoors.The bathroom is particularly unique.
Interior view of Villa Chams
Can you guide us a bit through the choice of materials?
The bathroom is the most dramatic space of the house. In this cave-like room, I wanted to enhance the sensorial experience of the user and to highlight the different qualities of the minerals found on site.
The wall adjacent to the bathtub and shower is a natural rock that was treated to prevent bugs and animals from infiltrating but that kept all of its tactile qualities.
I consciously didn’t want to use any sound-absorbing materials, only hard reflecting surfaces to amplify the resonance of the water flowing in the double height volume under the skylight.
Portrait of Carl Gerges
Which would you say is your favourite room and why?
Probably the music and reading room which is nestled a lower level into the ground. As you walk in, the outdoor landscape is at eye level; you automatically feel cocooned. The walls are naturally finished with poured earth concrete emitting an earthy sensorial balance.
The sliding windows are floor-to-ceiling and also help blurring the line between indoors and outdoors. There is a fireplace that makes the place even warmer during the cold winter nights. It’s not yet very usual to see very conceptual architectural projects in Lebanon, at least outside of Beirut;
Interior view of Villa Chams
What do you wish to bring to the Lebanese landscapes?
I wish that we could build less. I know it may sound weird coming from an architect but I feel that we are drowning in concrete. I wish that people can emerge from this quarantine more sensitive and more aware of the difficulties the world is facing.
Try driving along the coast and looking towards our mountains that used to be green and pristine just a couple of years ago; they now look like they are infested with thousands and thousands of hideous buildings. This is probably due to the very bad and archaic building regulations and an unexplainable thirst of building big luxurious palaces often with no real budgets nor qualified designers.
I went for a hike last week and I stumbled upon a castle that looks like a wedding cake in the middle of a beautiful site or what’s left of it. The owner proudly explained: “you should have seen the land before I built this beauty, it was filled with huge rocks and olive trees and it was really challenging to dispose of them.” A small part of me died that day.
Exterior scenic view of Villa Chams
Is it important to you to incorporate elements of traditional Lebanese architecture into your work?
Traditional Lebanese architecture is very much tied to the old artisanal techniques and know-how that unfortunately slowly disappeared. It is practically and financially impossible today to build a traditional Lebanese house without it looking like a wedding cake, because everything is machine-made and the materials are manufactured differently.
Growing up in my grandparents’ traditional house, and being obsessed with the few remaining vestiges from the past, has undeniably influenced the way I perceive and approach architecture.
The purity of a central hall layout, the nobility of the materials that were used, the awareness to the sun’s orientation, and the serenity that one could feel under a cross vault are elements I identify with and try to incorporate in my projects.
Sometimes however, if you’re lucky enough, you can get the chance to work on an old traditional Lebanese house, which is what I’m currently doing in Beit Mery (a region in the mountains above Beirut).
Living room view of Villa Chams
Define the Carl Gerges Architects aesthetic.
Everything has already been invented in design. We live in an era of reinterpretation and re-appropriation.
I love the idea of a responsible and honest architecture, that is contextual. An architecture that is based on a sane and sober philosophy and on sustainable values.
Images courtesy of Carl Gerges Architects
From the summer 2020 issue of Harper's Bazaar Interiors