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Lebanese student wins Frank Gehry Award

Sophie Akoury, a student at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, was awarded the Frank Gehry Prize for her thesis project that draws an analogy between the Los Angeles River and the Beirut River.

Lebanese student wins Frank Gehry Award

Sophie Akoury at a graduation award ceremony last September. (Courtesy of Sophie Akoury)

Sophie Akoury was struck by the idea for her thesis project as she took her daily walk to campus, strolling by the Los Angeles River, which reminded her of the river in Beirut.

"I wondered how there is an urban space in Los Angeles that is so similar to Beirut,” Akoury said.

Gradually, the image of the river, its history, and even its associated myths become stuck in her mind. Her project went on to win the Frank Gehry Prize, named for one of the founders of the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

Akoury’s project is entitled “51 miles + 25 km = 13 feet” referring to the length of the LA River (51 miles), the length of the Beirut River (25 km) and the length of her installation (13 feet). The project is accompanied by a video projection where she recreates myths and stories from the 1800s.

In Akoury’s project, the camera moves along the model of the LA River as the scenery changes gradually to reach the Beirut River.

“I am interested in archiving. My project is a way to archive the LA river, to show its history and its different functions through time,” she said.

“By incorporating Beirut, I wanted to illustrate the subjectivity of archives,” explained the young architect. “There is always a personal touch, connotations, and memories that come into play … [Archives are] collective and personal at the same time.”

This is also why she decided to incorporate the Beirut River in an ambiguous way, with an undetectable transition.

“The video is 10 minutes long and it’s only at the end that we get to the part of Beirut. The spectators do not realize that there has been a transition. I explained this to them during my presentation,” Akoury said.

“My video is a journey through real and fictional archives at the same time.”


Footage from the graduate thesis of Sophie Akoury. (Credit: Sophie Akoury via SCI-Arc)

Multiple realities

“There is a plan to renew the river. Among others is a project by Frank Gehry himself, who is proposing to build a museum and a park for the LA river,” Akoury said.

“There is a sort of polarization between architects who see the river as a site to be revived and activists who are trying to preserve it and remove the concrete to bring it back to a wild state,” she explained.

“What I wanted to show in my project is that there is no wrong point of view because it is a space that involves so many different narratives at the same time,” Akoury continued.

“This river can’t be seen as one urban object. It’s a lot of environments combined.”

This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.


Sophie Akoury was struck by the idea for her thesis project as she took her daily walk to campus, strolling by the Los Angeles River, which reminded her of the river in Beirut."I wondered how there is an urban space in Los Angeles that is so similar to Beirut,” Akoury said.Gradually, the image of the river, its history, and even its associated myths become stuck in her mind. Her project went...