Connecting with the Built World
Urban Crossroads #104

When I started my doctoral studies in the history of architecture in the United States back in the 1980s, I moved to a new university. Incoming doctoral students were allowed to live for two years in the university’s graduate dormitories. The dormitory buildings included two constructed during the late nineteenth century, and a newer complex completed in 1950.

The two older dormitories were built by architects whose names have long been forgotten, but the 1950 complex was designed by one of the great masters of twentieth-century Modern architecture, Walter Gropius. We did not get to choose our dormitories, and had to accept the selection that the university made for us. Surprisingly, those of us placed in the older dormitories felt lucky, while those placed in the buildings by Walter Gropius were disappointed. The Gropius buildings projected a cold, uninviting feel. Their rooms were tiny. The walls felt flimsy and one could easily hear through them. They hadn’t aged well. In contrast, the older dormitories had spacious rooms with high ceilings and thick walls. Their heavy brick facades and solid masses seemed to embrace and protect you. They made you feel part of the university’s long and distinguished heritage.

A few months later, I visited my old university and dropped in on a professor of mine who had taught me a few courses on modern architecture. He was someone I greatly respected (he passed away a few years ago). I told him how the students I knew intensely disliked the Walter Gropius dormitories. He was very surprised. He told me that when those dormitories were completed, they were widely celebrated in architectural magazines. They were acclaimed for their clean lines, white surfaces, as well as uncluttered forms, materials, and architectural details.

My professor was an admirer of Modern architecture, and had known Walter Gropius. Still, he seemed to have sensed that Modern architecture had failed us on a very basic level. Although we applauded its visual compositions, many still preferred to live and work in older buildings.

In the developing world, Modern architecture has left a much worse legacy. There, instead of simple, clean forms, the results often are ugly, shoddily-built concrete structures. They do a horrible job protecting their users from the heat or cold, and begin to fall apart as soon as they are completed. This is not limited to buildings, but also to other components of the built environment, whether streets, sidewalks, or open spaces.

A decade later, I returned to live in Amman after a long absence that had extended since high school years. Although the time-line is different, here too, I felt that a similar comparison could be made between Amman’s newer and older built environments. It struck me that what was built since the 1970s (the new) failed to live up to what was built before that (the old).

When I retuned to Amman, the city’s older districts, including parts of Jabal Amman and Jabal Luwiebdeh, had been out of favor. Most of their affluent residents and upscale shops had moved to the city’s newer districts. Still, I found the buildings and streets of these older parts far superior to the newer ones. They had a human sense of scale with which one could intimately connect. Their buildings were simple, but dignified. They were solidly-built, and well withstood the lack of maintenance and neglect that characterized those years of decline. Their trees had matured, providing greenery and much-needed shade, as well as a habitat for birds. Also, their relatively-narrow streets discouraged cars from speeding through them. The car could not rule those streets. As so many urban planners have finally come to realize, no single development has destroyed the quality of life in today’s cities as the car.

In contrast, the newer parts of Amman, while including a good number of very high-quality buildings, generally seemed poorly put together. Repetitive, cheap-looking, and badly-maintained apartment buildings already were beginning to takeover the city. Cars were everywhere, rushing by at horrific speeds; there was no place to walk; and crossing a busy street was a life-threatening experience. These conditions have become more pronounced each passing year.

An appreciation of Amman’s older neighborhoods eventually did emerge about a decade ago. However, as I indicated in previous articles for this column, I worry that this appreciation has taken on a crassly-commercial character that threatens to destroy those areas. They are being converted into entertainment zones where music constantly blares and traffic congestion has become endemic. But that is another subject.

As one examines the construction of these different periods, it is clear that the built world around us, whether buildings, streets, or opens spaces, should go beyond satisfying basic functions. Buildings serve much more than providing roofs over our heads. Streets are more than paved surfaces for cars to move on. It is in the built world that we interact with people we know and people we don’t know. The streets we move in, the open spaces we visit, and the buildings where we live, work, study, shop, and socialize become closely connected with who we are. The built world helps define our identities and our memories. Accordingly, what we build is extremely important, and so is where we build. In the same vein, where we don’t build is just as important and says just as much about us. Many areas in and around our cities are best kept as open, green areas rather than being sacrificed to concrete and asphalt.

While there are many older buildings, streets, and open spaces with which people feel a strong sense of affinity and belonging, the same doesn’t always apply to newer construction. A good part of that newer construction is poorly designed and built. At the other extreme, its upscale examples are intended to dazzle, overwhelm, and impress. In both cases, we do not feel a sense of affinity to the built world. Instead, we feel alienated by it.

I am not arguing against change. On the contrary, I am aware that what was suitable for us yesterday is not necessarily suitable for us today. However, what we are building today is not bringing about the same level of attachment and affinity as what was built yesterday. This is why the students I studied with preferred the late nineteenth-century dormitories over the ones built by Walter Gropius; and this is why many in Amman have become attached to the city’s older neighborhoods, but feel alienated by its newer parts. Whenever we intend to build, we therefore need to ask a few questions: Are we proud of what will be built? Do we hope that it will last for a long time? Do we wish to pass it on to our children and grandchildren? If not, we may be better off not building it at all.

Mohammad al-Asad

May 06, 2010