This major extension to the region’s most important museum of antiquities embraces the creation of a new, multi-purpose pavilion and an adjoining cafeteria. The Beirut National Museum first opened in 1942 and was designed in a neo-classical style by architects Antoine Nahas and Pierre Leprince Ringuet. Faced in local limestone, the original museum currently displays around 1300 objects from a collection of over 100,000 pieces dating from the prehistorical period through to the medieval era.
Following an earlier restoration of the Museum during the 1990s, the Lebanese Ministry of Culture and the Directorate General of Antiquities commissioned Raed Abillama Architects to design the new extension, which references the original museum building alongside yet is distinctly contemporary in its character.
The project is composed of three main elements, beginning with the landscaping of the section of the archaeological gardens that now form the processional approach to the new addition. Local stone pavers and benches are complemented by indigenous planting, with the formation of the landscape design helping to guide visitors towards the new pavilion and cafeteria.
The most prominent element of the new extension is the pavilion itself, which adopts a linear and contemporary profile. The façade features vast apertures of floor to ceiling glass framed by columns in yellow local stone, which subtly echo the neo-classical columns of the original museum. At ground level this pavilion offers a dramatic, fluid, open and adaptable space, which can be used for a variety of purposes. With its closed rear and side walls - complemented by flexible display panels - the pavilion serves as an additional exhibition space, with long skylights providing gentle toplight, which is carefully controlled by an integrated shading system.
In addition, the practice also designed two principal basement levels, which provide additional multi-purpose halls as well as technical and storage spaces for the Museum. A kitchen is also positioned on a mezzanine level within this new subterranean zone, servicing the cafeteria.
This new cafeteria sits within a space that lies between the new exhibition pavilion and the main body of the Museum itself. Bordered with tall banks of glass, this generously scaled new amenity space looks out onto the Beirut Hippodrome, which offer an engaging backdrop. The extensive glazing enhances the impression of light and openness, while enhancing the overall quality of the visitor experience. Beyond this inviting space, Raed Abillama Architects also designed a new sandwich bar and security zone within the original museum itself at the point where the new building meets the old.
As well as enhancing and improving the level of amenities for visitors and their enjoyment of the Museum, a key element of the project was the introduction of new technical and support spaces characterised by their flexibility. This design philosophy carries through the entire project, with – for example – the main pavilion able to function as a dark room for cinematic and photographic displays, once window shutters and the skylight shades have been closed and secured.