Rayyane Tabet’s trilogy of architecture, memory & repair at MUDAM Luxembourg
At MUDAM in Luxembourg, Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet has created a sequence of works which speak to the I.M. Pei-designed architecture of the contemporary art museum as well as personal and collective memories carried through design and architecture. Including a rare display of furniture designed by Alvar Aalto for Paimio Sanatorium, Will Jennings visited to discover numerous connections across time, place, and theme.

“When my grandparents got married in 1950, they had no money to move for their own home, so they moved in with my great-grandparents. As a result, they didn't have to buy anything. But my grandmother was allowed to change one thing in the apartment.”

Rayyane Tabet was born in Ashqout, Lebanon, in 1983, going on to study Architecture at Cooper Union University in New York. Though he didn’t then progress to practice as an architect, his artistic practice – developed over an Master of Fine Arts in San Diego – deftly weaves deep interest and concerns with architecture and the built environment with a conceptual practice rooted in sociopolitical history and memory. However, the architecture Tabet takes interest in isn’t always grand or structural and the family story of his grandparents’ curtains speak to this concern with subtle physical gestures of place which carry meaningful impact.

“My grandmother decided to replace all the dark velvet curtains of the 1920s with a kind of lightweight, sheer fabric of the 1950s that had become all the rage back then – it was kind of high modernism, transparency, openness to the light, and these sheer curtains were made out of a fabric that was a combination of rayon, nylon, and polyester, which had recently become commercially available at the market for like middle class families.” This curtain fabric isn’t only an aural story passed down as Tabet has taken them from his family’s storage, dusted them down, and used them create a delicate threshold.


They are now hung in the I.M. Pei-designed MUDAM museum in Luxembourg, a tight geometric massing of stone and glass which is unmistakenly rooted in the late 20th century but with a solidity suggesting it might remain for centuries to come. Emerging from a prominent plateau overlooking the city, it is seemingly contained within the more historic walls of the historic Fort Thüngen, archaeological remains of which were discovered during initial scoping works for MUDAM, slowing down and reshaping the project’s design but lending it a unique contextual relationship.

“I.M. Pei's building follows very closely, the perimeter of the fort,” Tabet explains, “then there's this pavilion, an architectural folly that is kind of detached from the building, and it's connected with a bridge.” This folly, the Pavilion, is the space Tabet was given for his solo exhibition Trilogy. His grandparents’ curtains hang along a glass bridge which connects the main body of Pei’s museum with the Pavilion space. “I realised that if you bring all the curtains and put them next to each other, they're exactly the same length as the corridor that links the main building of MUDAM to the pavilion,” Tabet says, and so it felt like an uncanny spatial coming together, or as the artist says: “the perfect moment of my grandma and I.M. Pei getting to meet each other.”

The curtains both filter the light and narrowing the bridge, building a heightened sense of passage for a visitor already drawn towards the Pavilion with an enticing, warm blue light in the distance. Once across and into the folly space, the blue is all encompassing within an octagonal space empty apart from a set piece in the centre, a wooden door facing the only item in the whole scene not bathed in blue light.


The items on display are all architectural. The door, as well as a chair, bed, side table, cupboard, sink, and light fitting were designed in 1929 by Alvar Aalto for Paimio Sanatorium, all items acquired by MUDAM during the long gestation period of Pei’s building. The day after the Berlin Wall fell, as a new Europe was emerging, the foundation that became MUDAM was formed, with I.M. Pei then appointed to lead on the design of a new home museum. Having just completed the Louvre pyramid, the Chinese architect was shown a number of prospective sites across Luxembourg, settling on the ruins of the former fort with an initial idea to build directly upon the existing walls with a new structure.

It was the start of a slow process. Archaeological finds delayed then forced a reimagination of the design, while local opposition to Pei’s choice of a non-local stone, the Magny Doré from Bordeaux, as also used at the Louvre. In 1999, the project had begun on site, completing in 2006, by which time Pei had also completed the redesign of Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum, the three European museums forming what the architect considers a trilogy.

Aalto’s sanitorium suite was purchased in 2000, while the museum was in its early stages of formation and when there was to be a stronger acquisition focus on design and architecture. After completion, and becoming MUDAM, the approach shifted towards contemporary art, and other than a couple of loans to other institutions, the Paimio furniture has remained in storage. Here, Tabat has put it on display in Luxembourg for the first time since its purchase.

Tabet says that even when first approached for his MUDAM commission, while not knowing what his project would entail he did “immediately know that part of the gesture was to show this work that's been sitting mostly in crate for 23 years.” Tabat’s Trilogy contains diverse elements, histories, and contexts, but conceptually the artist draws strong connecting lines between them all, including the historical contexts under and around his work. “The site offers this idea of thinking about the 18th and 19th centuries, then the Pei museum really makes us think about the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the nineties,” Tabet says, then moves on to thinking about the Aalto works, adding that “this work from the collection is an emblem of the interwar period when Aalto built the sanatorium.”

figs. v,vi

The blue light also has a story, drawn from cultural memories the artist recalls his parents regularly discussing. “During the six-day war in 1967,” Tabet explains, “it was the only time in the history of the Arab world where a curfew was imposed, where people had to turn off their lights at night in order to hide structures from possible bombing.” It transpired that blue lights were invisible to nighttime bombing raids, and so the population painted all their windows with water-diluted indigo blueing agent diluted to circumvent the curfew.

“Whenever I would be told this story, I had this imagination of how for those six days the entire Arab world fell into a deep blue darkness – of course when the war ended, people washed the colour away, but maybe something of that transformation altered people's perception.” His action to cover all of Pei’s Pavilion windows with a blue film is a poetic gesture to that war and reimagination of that perception, both internally when bathed in the blue light, but also at nighttime externally when the Pavilion gently emits a blue glow. Now, at a moment of more tragedy in the Middle East, the glow also feels like a symbolic gesture of solidarity.

War is one of the structural connections between the elements of Tabet’s installation. Even the hanging curtains on the bridge have a depth and weight which belies their delicate hang, as Tabet explains: “The material itself is rooted in technologies developed during World War One to produce cheaper alternatives to cotton for clothes for soldiers. Then during World War Two, under the Nazi occupation of Europe, forced labour to produce this rayon material, which led to it becoming very cheap and available after the war – so even though it comes across as very light and open, it holds this very, very deep history.”


The final connecting tissue between the elements is a notion of repair. Just as this fabric with a dark history was a personal symbol of his grandparent’s marriage, and kept in the family now to be rehung here in MUDAM, and just as Aalto’s furniture represented the interwar modernist period of a restorative repair and where in Tabat’s words “the patient’s wellbeing was a part of the architecture,” so too does a this notion of repair speak to the third and final element of Tabet’s trilogy of components.

In a lower space of the Pavilion, having descended away from the blue light, the visitor encounters a single, long shelving with a grid of seemingly identical glass jugs. It is minimal and conceptual in its aesthetic, but again a simple gesture camouflages profundity. “On August 4, 2020,” Tabet explains, “with the Beirut port explosion, among many other urban elements, 25,000 tonnes of glass was destroyed.” He adds that initially most of the glass which smashed from the buildings’ windows for a great distance from the epicentre of the explosion was destined for landfill, until environmental engineer and political activist Ziad Abichaker began to collect the fragments. Tabet explains that “he sent it to glassblowers in the south of the country who were under threat of shutting down because they could no longer afford raw material due to the currency devaluation preceding the explosion.”

These water pitchers are all made from that glass. Handcrafted, using melted fragments of smashed debris from the devastating explosion, these traditional vessels stand as symbols of repair and response. “The thing with glass – like sand and snow – is that it could be from yesterday, or it could be from 2000 years ago,” the artist considers, “it's an achronic material that echoes and questions, and some of the techniques used by the artisanal glassblowers are inherited over many, many generations.”


Tabet’s Trilogy creates webs of connections between local and distant sites, wars across centuries, and diverse modes of architecture and design which each seek to repair or reframe those complex histories and peoples. Pei’s MUDAM complex is an architectural celebration of glass and transparency, often not an ideal approach for exhibiting contemporary art practices which might require sealed-off spaces or white cubeness. But Tabet recognises and celebrates the 90s architecture and richness of Pei’s glass: “The museum was conceived in 1989, then inaugurated in 2006. Between those two dates, the world as we know it changed, and even the idea of this open glass roof, a fifth facade that's open to the sky, has become a lot more vulnerable.”

His trilogy is many journeys rolled into one, journeys that cross continents and generations, that traverse the most intimate personal memories as well as broad, collective histories, and ties themes of memory and repair. There is a more literal journey too, that of the visitor’s progress through the three episodic elements: “From the translucency of the bridge, to the blueness of the Pavilion, to the artificial lighting downstairs – each of them acts like a window, is a work on the window, or is about the window.” Tabet’s journey is a poetic one, beginning as the curtained and personal threshold from the sky of glazing of Pei’s vast MUDAM atrium, ending in the intimate sanctity of the Pavilion basement with the silent grid of Lebanese windows, violently destroyed then reformed into utilitarian water pitchers. Between the two is Aalto’s sanitorium, which like the pitchers is a symbol of hope that societal reform and repair might emerge from destruction.

Rayyane Tabet (b. 1983, Ashqout, Lebanon) has had solo exhibitions at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2021), Sharjah Art Foundation (2021), Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York (2020), Parasol Unit Foundation of Contemporary Art, London (2019), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2019), Musée du Louvre, Paris (2019), Carré d’Art – Musée d’Art Contemporain, Nîmes (2018) and at the Kunstverein in Hamburg (2017). He took part in numerous international group shows, among which In the Heart of Another Country: The Diasporic Imagination Rises, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah, UAE (2023), Machinations, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain, the Whitney Biennial (2022), the 7th Yokohama Triennial (2020), the 2nd Lahore Biennial (2020), the 21st Sydney Biennial (2018), Manifesta 12 (2018), the 15th Istanbul Biennial (2017), the 32nd Sao Paolo Biennial (2016) and the 10th and 12th Sharjah Biennial (2011, 2015). Rayyane Tabet lives and works between Beirut and San Francisco.

Will Jennings is a London based writer, visual artist, and educator interested in cities, architecture, and culture. He has written for the RIBA Journal, the Journal of Civic Architecture, Quietus, The Wire, the Guardian, and Icon. He teaches history and theory at UCL Bartlett and Greenwich University, and is director of UK cultural charity Hypha Studios.


Rayyane Tabet’s Trilogy is exhibited at MUDAM Luxembourg until 12 May. Further details available at:

Trilogy acts as the Prelude act of A Model, an exhibition trilogy running across 2023 & 2024, the central component of which is a group exhibition now open through to 08 September. Details available at:


all images  Views of the exhibition A Model: Prelude Rayyane Tabet. Trilogy 01.12.2023 — 12.05.2024, Mudam Luxembourg. © Photos: Studio Rémi Villaggi | Mudam Luxembourg

publication date
14 February 2024

Alvar Aalto, Archaeology, Beirut, Beirut Port explosion, Blue, Bridge, Curfew, Curtains, Deutsches Historisches Museum, Destruction, Fabric, Folly, Fortress, Fort Thüngen, Furniture, Glass, History, Indigo, Will Jennings, Journey, Lebanon, Louvre, Luxembourg, Memory, MUDAM, Paimio Sanatorium, Pavilion, Pitcher, Rayon, Repair, Six Day War, Stone, Rayyane Tabet, Threshold, Trilogy, IM Pei, Violence, Windows