Libya enlists British architects for conflict museum

A Museum of Conflict in Libya? Not before time you might say. The London-based Metropolitan Workshop, a collective of architects founded in 2004 by Neil Deely, David Prichard and Tim Peake, all of whom used to work with Richard MacCormac, architect of the BBC's revamped Broadcasting House, has won a closed competition to design this very building close to the Hall of the People in Tripoli's west end.

The proposed design takes the form of a sequence of origami-like, zigzag forms that somehow manage to conjure an image of some ultra-modern Bedouin tent hunkered down in the desert dunes of north Africa. These are early days, yet the form of the building does appear to be appropriate to its setting and makes a welcome contrast to the welter of air-conditioned concrete or steel-framed hotels, offices and government towers that stretch along the old Barbary Coast today.

Any attempt to document the history of conflict in Libya is bound to be complicated by the sheer intensity of the history of a country that, officially established in 1951 when it declared independence under the nominal rule of its one and only king, Idris, has been a crucible of war since any historian can remember.

Phoenicians and Carthaginians battled for control of trade along the coast, and of what is Tripoli today, long before the Romans conquered this stretch of the Mediterranean and Vandals ousted the Romans. Arabs swept the Byzantines from Tripoli in 647, but the city was in the hands of the Spanish Habsburgs in the early 16th century, who then handed it to the care of the Knights of St John of Malta who appear to have been pushed aside by Red Beard, the legendary pirate king of the Barbary Coast.

The Ottomans took control in 1551 and later fought a series of wars with the United States [1801-5] over the piracy issue. The Italians pushed out the Ottomans. The second world war, when Rommel's Afrika Korps and Montgomery's Eighth Army slugged it out here, witnessed an end to Italian ambition. Idris became king of an independent Libya in 1951 only to be overthrown in a coup 18 years later led by the 28-year-old army officer Muammar Gadafy.

Since then, Libya has been involved in the Yom Kippur war of 1973, its war with Egypt in 1977, aerial combats with the US air force, and further action against Chad and within the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

I very much doubt that this list, off the top of my head, is very comprehensive, but at least it might give you an idea of why a museum of conflict is a necessity in Tripoli: it will do much to explain the history and culture of the country to both its own people and to a slowly growing number of visitors. And, with Leptis Magna, one of the greatest and best preserved of all Roman ruins, just 80 miles from Tripoli, along with a fascinating mix of architecture in Tripoli itself (including a style I call 'Mussolini modern' - still a surprise to those who imagine the Duce was wholly in thrall to imperial Roman pomp), who wouldn't want to make the journey to a Libya that has been a remarkably peaceful place for the past few years?..

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