By Muhammad Asad Ullah
In an odd but quietly very important way, works of architecture ‘speak’ to us. Some buildings, streets and even whole cities seem to speak of chaos, aggression or fast-paced dilemma; others seem to be whispering to us of calm or graceful dignity, generosity or gentleness and glamour. Buildings affect how we sleep, work, socialise and even breathe. They can isolate and endanger us, but they can also heal us. Unique among creative and artistic professions, architecture must always reflect the age and cultural context that produced it.
Joseph Karam, interior architect and designer, who has been defining the value that architecture holds for over four decades now stands in the midst of the modern yet contemporary architecture. Lebanon born but settled in Paris ,with works drawing a neat parallel and a mish-mash of Arabic and western architecture, is clearly on the top of his game. Karam takes no prisoners. That’s apparent in everything from the way he dresses — minimalistic — to the way he talks — a stream of no-holds-barred opinion, expressed in an accent that hovers closer to Paris than his native Beirut. In an age of focus-group-driven conformity, you sense that his fearlessness is the key draw for a client list that reads elegance like an A-to-Z of people who understand what it’s like to be surrounded with certain aesthetics. White is always predominant in his works. His style mixes French tinted with oriental warmth for authentic timeless projects.
Bare boards, white shutters and walls, clean lines and big comfy sofas in his studio may look like something from a lifestyle magazine cover shoot, but the way he accessorices it, is quirky; big lights and shades.
Head wrapped around a mobile phone, pencil running on a sheaf of paper, Karam talks to Community about the changing trends in architecture, how he draws a parallel between Middle Eastern architecture and Western/European designs and how light plays a crucial role in aesthetics of a design.
Have you always been interested in design and architecture?
I think I fell into the pot of design at a very young age. I always dreamt and drew the
future. As early as 1960, I began asking myself about the question of the architectural form and on the way of life that will be in the year 2000. It was by enrolling in the School of Fine Arts in Beirut that I deepened this research; a highly stimulating place for experimentation. We were twelve years old and our teachers encouraged us to give free rein to our imagination and to invention.
What elements define your style? Where do you find inspiration?
My style is not defined, it is an adaptation of the personality of my client. And the personalities of men are never similar.
The eyes are image sensors that record directly in a server – the brain. It is from this server that I dig my inspiration. But sometimes also by a designer parade or a misunderstood image.
How do you see the evolution of architecture from ancient times until now?
Is it necessary to define the main reasons for this evolution of architecture in general. It is: the economy, less sculpture, less cut stone, less ceiling height. Architecture is more and more rectilinear, simplistic with labour increasingly expensive, and a reasoning of more profitable financing, but with a huge variety of modern material and an evolution of technology and sources of comfort adapted to today’s life.
Who is your favourite architect and why?
Mies Van der Rohe, a precursor architect who built in a style at the beginning of the 20th century what we called: minimalism; the detail was his priority. He brought the interest of the relationship between the interior and the exterior. He considered that the external space is an extension of that of the interior. His work on volumes and transparency marked his time. All this represents my way of thinking, except that I would add a nod to antiquity so as not to forget it and integrate it into modern architecture.
What do you think about Middle Eastern architecture is different from Western/European designs?
To understand the difference between Middle Eastern and Western architecture, we must observe Middle Eastern artistic culture mixed with that of the West which gives a typical flavour, confronted with modern life supported by new technology.
It is said that architecture is a never fading field, people will never stop building their houses, and this has been leading to the saturation of the market. Your take?
If the earth currently houses 7.5 billion people, it will have to 10 billion in next thirty years; even though the industry has seen a drop in recent years – it will take quite a manpower to meet this challenge, in addition to advancement in industry and technology – at least that of construction.
What is a good way to use lights in your room? What is this important element that gives a roomy perspective to an even smaller room?
Light is life, it is necessary to exploit it in every way. It is necessary to demolish the obstacles of its passage and to orient the openings towards its direction, and sometimes to hang a giant mirror in opposite direction to reflect it, double it and at the same time enlarge the space. One should not forget the choice of the colours of the walls and furniture that play a big role.
Making space is the new ‘it’ thing. If a person has a low budget – then what is your advice, how can they use this budget in the most appropriate way? in the best way possible?
Budget is not important for space. Material has become so varied and industrialised that it has become accessible to both large and small budgets. It is advisable to call on a building professional who, despite his fees, can find very useful solutions to save money. What remains is the value of labour that differs by country and region. But one has to pay attention to the quality of the work which costs more in time if it is cheap.
Any message for young people trying to succeed in the industry?
For a young person, the hardest choice in his life is the choice of his future job. Unless this young person is passionate and decided, he will be more likely to succeed in life. So, one has to dig long to discover his passions that are sometimes hidden.
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