SOMA Architects: Firm Profile

SOMA Architects, a New York-based architecture firm, has attracted critical acclaim by creating cutting-edge projects since 2004. The founder Michel Abboud and the firm’s diverse team of young professionals facilitate the implementation of innovative and diverse projects in complex sites around the world. SOMA constantly tries to push the boundaries of architecture while integrating craft, digital technologies, and environmental responsibilities. 

Pollux and Castor by SOMA: The Chiseled architecture - Ssheet1
Castor ©Architizer.com – Castor ©Archello.com

The firm’s strategy is to work together with clients to understand their relationship with their built environment to carefully plan adaptable buildings which evolve with them through time. 

SOMA’s work is growing worldwide, in locations such as New York, Dubai, Jeddah, Lebanon, and many others. The firm’s work includes luxury residential, hospitality, condominium, and mixed-use developments. Its architecture design approach follows an avant-garde style that distinguishes it from the rest. 

One of SOMA’s prominent projects is a residential building in Beirut, Lebanon named Castor. The latter is separated by a courtyard with its paired building, Pollux. Although each of them has its characteristics and features based on their different direction and context, they both consolidate in terms of materials and design approach.

Site Context

Pollux and Castor by SOMA: The Chiseled architecture - Ssheet2
Pollux and Castor ©Archello.com

The apartment complex is located in Beirut, in an area called Achrafieh specifically alongside the historic street ‘Rue du Liban’. The surrounding area comprises narrow streets, alleyways, and historical buildings with distinctive architectural values contributing to the cultural heritage of Lebanon. A previously created plan road by Ecochard in the 1950s, named ‘Petro Trad plan’, proposed to link two streets together by cutting through this entire neighborhood destroying a cluster of historic landmarks. 

According to a study by Nahnoo, a youth-led non-governmental organization, the presence of a hypothetical projected road led to granting permits to construct high-rise buildings based on unofficial gabarit regulations. (ACHRAFIEH AND MAR MIKHAEL: Youth-led Architectural Heritage Mapping In Beirut, 2020)

Zoning Regulations

Pollux and Castor by SOMA: The Chiseled architecture - Ssheet3
The law of the Gabarit ©nahnoo.org

Consequently, the Castor’s angular facade was dictated by its site location, urban morphology, and zoning regulations. One of the latter is the ‘ gabarit ‘ law, where a setback is required at a certain height point that allows buildings to extend vertically until the permitted built-up area is reached. This legal provision defines the relationship between buildings, sidewalks, and streets.

Castor tackled this framework by gradually slanting two-thirds of the front façade in three different directions. The use of triangular forms resulted in an elegant seamless transition to the top which gave the building its unique character.

Building Design

Pollux and Castor by SOMA: The Chiseled architecture - Ssheet4
Castor ©Architizer.com

At a distance, Castor stands out from its surrounding low-rise buildings as a brutalist monolith. 

However, at a close range, the details and depth of the outer skin are more prominent. The building consists of two types of structure: an interior core based on the regional architecture construction and a steel exoskeleton framing the building. Vertical green walls and vegetation, shade the interior by resting on thin light metallic cables to create the façade envelope. The foliage changes color throughout the seasons and gives the building its unique character.

Apartments

Pollux and Castor by SOMA: The Chiseled architecture - Ssheet5
Apartment Castor ©Architizer.com

On the first seven floors, the residential building is divided into two 140 m2 apartments per floor. The following levels expand to full floors, divided by three-bedroom apartments ranging from 200 to 280 m2. The last stories are a duplex penthouse of 350 m2. Also, residents access the building from the blind alley through the private parking, and the visitors access it from the front street: ‘Rue du Liban’. Finally, the ground floor has been designated for retail use.

Façade Analysis

Pollux and Castor by SOMA: The Chiseled architecture - Ssheet6
Linear Analysis of Architecture Typologies of Buildings in Beirut ©JoanaAbouAli

The metallic cables’ configuration forms an irregular motif on the outer layer of the project. We notice that the pattern may not be entirely random but rather inspired by the façade’s window alignments of the surrounding buildings. The above diagram illustrates our analysis of the various architecture typologies in Beirut, which led to distinct line sequences. The presence of diverse building classifications in the area, reflects the evolution of residential architecture, from the mandate period before 1920, to the modern era of buildings in 1980. The arrangement of the vertical cables might be based on these features.

Nocturnal Architecture

Pollux and Castor by SOMA: The Chiseled architecture - Ssheet7
Night view of Pollux and Castor ©Architizer.com

The building stands out from its context, not only during the day but also at night, by using artificial lighting to illuminate interior spaces. The choice of material affects the façade’s appearance and perception at night. In the natural light, the apartments are masked by the vegetation on the outer skin. At night, however, the entire project lights up due to the double-glazed glass which encloses the façades allowing for visual transparency. The building’s functional character is accentuated by revealing dramatic angular features and linear elements that were otherwise faded behind the green wall.

This project may be considered controversial because on one hand, by taking advantage of the recently implemented zoning regulations, plays a role in the gentrification of the area that began more than a decade ago. Which puts the conservation of heritage buildings in jeopardy and threatens the area’s architectural and urban identity. On the other hand, the building’s design did not fail to integrate its surrounding physical attributes into the building’s architectural framework and attempted not to disregard its context.

References

  1. ACHRAFIEH AND MAR MIKHAEL: Youth-led Architectural Heritage Mapping In Beirut. [ebook] Lebanon, Beirut: Nahnoo, pp.16, 24, 25. Available at: <http://nahnoo.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Ashrafieh-and-Mar-Mikhael-Low1.pdf> [Accessed 1 April 2021].

Architizer. 2021. CASTOR by SOMA. [online] Available at: <https://architizer.com/projects/castor/> [Accessed 1 April 2021].

Image 1:

SOMA Architects, 2021. Castor SOMA Architects. [image] Available at: <https://architizer.com/idea/1017649/> [Accessed 1 April 2021].

Image 2:

SOMA Architects, 2021. Castor SOMA Architects. [image] Available at: <https://architizer.com/idea/1017650/> [Accessed 1 April 2021].

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SOMA Architects, 2021. Pollux by SOMA architects. [image] Available at: <https://archello.com/story/30146/attachments/photos-videos/5> [Accessed 1 April 2021].

Image 4:

SOMA Architects, 2021. Pollux by SOMA architects. [image] Available at: <https://archello.com/story/30146/attachments/photos-videos/3> [Accessed 1 April 2021].

Image 5:

Nahnoo, 2021. Figure 8: The law of the Gabarit (2005) defines the envelope in which the buildings should be inscribed.. [image] Available at: <http://nahnoo.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Ashrafieh-and-Mar-Mikhael-Low1.pdf> [Accessed 1 April 2021].

Image 6:

SOMA Architects, 2021. Castor SOMA Architects. [image] Available at: <https://architizer.com/idea/1017656/> [Accessed 1 April 2021].

Image 7:

SOMA Architects, 2021. Castor SOMA Architects. [image] Available at: < https://architizer.com/idea/1017652/> [Accessed 1 April 2021].

Image 8:

SOMA Architects, 2021. Castor SOMA Architects. [image] Available at: <https://architizer.com/idea/1017654/> [Accessed 1 April 2021].

Image 9:

Abou Ali, J., n.d. Linear Analysis of Architecture Typologies of Buildings in Beirut. [image].

Image 10:

SOMA Architects, 2021. Pollux SOMA Architects. [image] Available at: <https://architizer.com/idea/1030555/> [Accessed 1 April 2021].

Joana Abou Ali
Author

Joana Abou Ali is a Fresh Graduate from the Lebanese American University. Her curiosity to apply architectural thinking to different domains led her to pursue journalism as a medium of expression. She also believes that local interventions have a significant impact on our community where sometimes a building is not enough.

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