BEIRUT: Walk around Beirut long enough and you just may see some of Tessa and Tara Sakhi’s work; maybe an installation that questions the nature of public and private space, or a stunningly reimagined traditional Lebanese townhouse, or even bespoke pieces of marble furniture.
Their creativity is matched by their ability to transcend boundaries — they veer into architecture, art, filmmaking and design — and their star has risen in recent years. The two sisters, born to a Polish mother and Lebanese father, founded their multi-disciplinary architecture and design studio T Sakhi in 2016 and it has quickly become one of the most exciting creative studios in the region.
Their background, unsurprisingly, plays a major part in their work. “Growing up in a city like Beirut, rich in occidental and Arabic historical affluences, in a family where our mother comes from a Polish background while our father comes from a Lebanese one, helped us question the notion of home and our roots and drove us to be conscious of the hybridity of our culture,” Tara says. “These notions are at the core of each project we undertake as they bring back architecture and design to their essence: the influence of the human dimension in time and how to work with a contemporary approach while maintaining the traditional ones.”
Most architecture firms are not founded by siblings, and both sisters had to learn to adapt to their new working relationship. “In the beginning it was very challenging to work together because there were no obstacles and boundaries established between us as sisters,” says Tara. “So things tended to get very personal. It took us a couple of years to understand and calibrate the dynamics, and to establish healthy boundaries in order to be inspired and productive in our projects and in our sisterhood.”
Unsurprisingly, given the sheer range of the studio’s work, it’s hard for Tara to pinpoint a favorite project. “It’s like choosing a favorite child,” she says. “Our clients (come from) different sectors and with different types of projects, each very challenging in its own way: from transportable nightclubs, high-end restaurants to small épiceries, private residential projects to public urban interventions and installations, experimental workshops in glass-blowing in Murano as well as an ecstatic experimental dancing space in Tulum — our Lebanese pavilion for Abwab’s 5th edition for Dubai Design Week last November.
“We pour our heart and all our energy into working on each. You spend many months, sometimes years, building a relationship with these projects, the clients, the team you work with day and night. You even get attached to the context, and of course once it is erected, there is no greater feeling of pride and joy to experience an idea on paper come to life physically,” she continues.
“In the beginning, people often asked us whether we were architects, designers or artists. Our response was that we are sisters who simply do what we love and what moves us. We are curious (about) intersecting our different interests and watching the results. We do not emphasize a ‘discipline’ but rather a ‘way of thinking’ translated through different mediums, be it architecture, product design, installation or film. Each medium has its own form of expression and stimulates a different form of interaction.”
Witness ADAR, their stunning reimagining of a Levantine restaurant in Paris last year; a beautifully whimsical take on the Middle East’s textures and tones, that never lapsed into cliché. Or “Holidays in the Sun,” a series of public installations in Beirut that meditate on the city’s myriad security and military barriers.
Indeed, Beirut played a large role in the sisters’ formative years; how could it not? It’s a city at once beautiful and cursed, filled with tales of despair, but also with resilience, creativity and hope.
“We want to use our designs as a tool for re-questioning,” Tara says. “For instance, our Lebanon pavilion at Dubai Design Week last year, WAL(L)TZ, focused on transforming a wall into an activator of connection, sociability, and awareness. Lebanon is highly congested with (physical) walls, from security barriers and barbed wire embedded in the urban infrastructure, to fenced public spaces and privatized coastal and green spaces. Lebanon, as are most places, is primarily dominated by walls imposed by social-political norms and misinterpretations of religious and cultural values.
“Today, Beirut is unfortunately over-constructed — congested with buildings and construction sites, punctuated by private gardens, squares and beaches, and blocked by security barriers,” she continues. “There are barely any public spaces and greenery for the citizens to enjoy and to feel free in the city.”
That freedom was curtailed even further by the huge explosion in Beirut Port in August that wrecked large parts of the city. “There is hope for Beirut, there always has been and always will be,” Tara says. “It is a country that has raised itself from the ashes over and over again for many decades. It is constantly being destroyed by the corrupt political elite that has been ruling for the past 30 years, but the people and their love for the country are undoubtedly the pulse of the city and make it survive, revive and thrive. The blast destroyed in a split second all we have built and worked for. It is quite difficult to plan far in the future, we are living it out more organically.”