Lina Ghotmeh
Photo by Gilbert Hage

Lina Ghotmeh: “Identity is never fixed”

Short Profile

Name: Lina Ghotmeh
DOB: 2 July 1980
Place of birth: Beirut, Lebanon
Occupation: Architect

This year's Serpentine Pavilion, À table, was designed by Lina Ghotmeh, and is open to the public from 9 June 2023.

Ms. Ghotmeh, is architecture a form of storytelling?

Yes, I think architecture is all about creating a spirit for a place and instilling a narrative that creates a persona. Neuroscientists will tell you that if you have a story associated with the streets that you walk by, you will remember them better — we're actually naturally drawn to narratives. As beings, we're always living in our own story, our own history. So in a way, architecture is the continuity of us, it's the continuity of the environment. And when there is a narrative, that means that this building is trying to assimilate, to dissolve within its context, it is allowed to belong, and this belonging triggers emotions in us. “This feels like a gothic structure, it reminds me of a very spiritual place,” or, “This place is like a carousel, it's very playful.”

It’s initiating a dialogue, so we are the ones who fill in the gaps of the story.

Exactly right, and I think that a big part of that dialogue is allowing a space to be for people and for appropriation, rather than just to look at or take a photo of. It’s a place to enjoy! When we talk about À table, my design for this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, it’s a gallery space but it also protects from the rain and the heat. There’s also this table that allows you to sit and relax, to picnic, to discuss with others. So the functionality of the space is allowing those different narratives to occur. There are stories, even love stories, that could emerge, I hope.

“Somehow with these stories, there are these contradictions but I think that contradictions are also ways of creating innovation...”

Were you also thinking about the history of the Pavilion site itself; the other Pavilions which have been built there, the gallery, the surroundings?

Sure, I looked very much at the natural context, the park itself, the history of the gallery… All of this is part of the experience, there is definitely an exterior-interior relationship, and I think about this for all the buildings I work on. Although other Pavilions have been built here, I don't think they were necessarily influencing this current structure, it's more like it echoes the posture, and it lives on through the repetition of its form. It’s about respecting the past and trying to be sensitive to the environment.

What does that entail for something like your famed Stone Garden in Beirut, which was built on land inherited by the clients’ father?

For Stone Garden, the history of the land is very present in the architecture, because there is this emotional link between the owner of the land his father, but it also looks at the idea of death: not only the death of his father, but also the death of the city, the permanent death of Beirut, and how to talk about this. Somehow with these stories, there are these contradictions but I think that contradictions are also ways of creating innovation. Stone Garden touches on memory, sense of belonging, connection both personal and collective.

Apparently the striations in the façade of Stone Garden were all hand-imprinted by the workers who helped build the space.

Yes, I love that feeling of history, the feeling that there's layers… These layers that talk about something, that allow knowledge to be built with time due to the process of building.

And what about when you’re designing something like the Estonian National Museum, where there is even more history involved?

The scale becomes different, for sure. The interaction is not only with a person, but with a nation! The responsibility is even greater because we’re talking about the identity of a country, a place for art, a cultural incubator that deals with very difficult subjects, like the history of Soviet times in Estonia, the military airfield, a zone that was really rejected and heavily stigmatized with a painful history. So, how can architecture play a role in that sense? You have to involve the nation and their history, and allow the National Museum to become an open structure, a place talk about an identity that is an evolving one. The identity here is never fixed, so the building must allow for that evolution.

Is that how you measure the success of a building? Through its ability to function as a kind of cultural presence?

Yes, definitely. But I think it has to have beauty also. I do believe that beauty allows one to enjoy the situation and want to actually converse with the structure. Architecture, for me, is a form of art as well. What touches me about art always is its capacity for questioning society, for creating and allowing for a critique of a certain time period, for reflecting the zeitgeist… But I also love its capacity to instill emotions. So that's very precious for me in terms of my architectural work. I want to construct an experience that touches emotionally, that transports, that allows us to question and think about the time that we're living in.

Do you ever think about success in terms of your own legacy as an architect?

I've never thought about architecture as a way for me to create a personal legacy or a way for me to have a signature in a landmark. The spaces that are created are going to be used much more by the people than they are going to be related to me. The feeling I have is more a sense of responsibility to make the best out of an architecture, the act of building responsibly, of ensuring the continuity of the environment… It has to be a sublime experience in every way. It’s about a legacy for the building.

So your own personal story doesn’t weave into the fabric of each building?

There is a lot of interiority in my work, it is of course still personal to me. I discovered recently the link between my work and my childhood, my time spent in Beirut. I grew up in this complex situation where we were always living at the edge, an unstable situation, but also dealing multiple cultures and histories. And that gives a lot of richness to this geography. You can see that in the food, the colors, in the environment… This complexity is somehow inherent in the way I look at things as an architect. But also I see how living in Paris, or traveling to Japan, or working in London is affecting my work. So I learned from the different places and different typologies; they are feeding into one another and pushing the architecture as a craft. Every project is able to push me one step further; it’s a continuous curiosity.