Architectural Laboratory II
Description and Assessment
Written by Mohammad al-Asad and Basma Abdallah, 2006
Table of contents:
- The Intersection
- The Exploration
- Tools of Presentation
- The Teaching Process
- Students' Results
It is difficult to draw a mental map of Amman without incorporating the overpasses and underpasses (or tunnels) that go through a significant number of its intersections. These overpass / underpass intersections, which have proliferated in the city since the early 1990s, have been redefining the manner in which the city functions and the manner in which it is conceived. As an exploration of this issue, CSBE organized in August 2005 its second Architectural Laboratory, entitled "Amman: Collisions
in the Urban Fabric."
The studio was led by three architects involved in both the practice and teaching of architecture. Two of them are from Jordan, Sahel Al Hiyari and Yasir Sakr. The third, Kristopher Musumano, is an American architect from New York City, who joined the studio for its third week. The studio's eight participants included five students working on their undergraduate degrees in architecture, two working on their master's degree, and one who is just starting her master's degree this year. The studio was carried out in association with the Royal Society of Fine Arts / The National Gallery of Fine Arts, with support provided by Darat al-Funun / the Khalid Shoman Foundation and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
A special thanks is due to Anan Ashour, the Architectural Laboratory II course assistant, for all the efforts he made in ensuring the success of the studio.
2. The Intersection
This three-week design studio addressed one of Amman's overpass/underpass intersections officially known as the "Haramayn Intersection," and popularly known as the "Kilo Intersection," after a convenience store by that name that used to be located along the intersection. The intersection is marked by the crossing of two of the city's main thoroughfares, Mecca and Medina streets. Mecca Street, an east-west thoroughfare, crosses the intersection as an underpass, and Medina Street, a north-south thoroughfare, crosses the intersection as an overpass. The intersection itself is a roundabout that is used by vehicles moving along Mecca and Medina streets when they need to make left, right, or U-turns. The roundabout is flanked by buildings from two corners, and the other two corners have not been built up yet. Pedestrian activity around the roundabout is very limited, and the site is dominated by vehicular traffic.
3. The Exploration
The Exercise was less about re-designing the intersection (although it included a bit of that) than about exploring and understanding how this important example of an "urban joint" functions within Amman. The participants discovered there is a great deal to explore and understand.
A major challenge was getting the students to view this intersection in a fresh manner, to look at it differently, and to explore it in ways not thought of before. This was not an easy task to accomplish. The students' immediate reaction for initiating this exercise was to look at the site in a predictable, conformist manner. Their initial approach was to take a map of the site and follow the layout of streets and buildings around it. They also wanted to take a few photographs of the site, but were not sure as to what to do after that.
The instructors encouraged them to go about the exercise in a different, more unconventional manner. Using a map of the site, therefore, was to be kept for a later stage. The participants instead were asked to go to the site and explore it directly, through walking in it, observing it, and examining the manner in which people use it. The instructors raised challenging issues for the students to consider. One of them was to decide on the "borders" of such a site. At first glance, such a site would be defined by the roundabout in the center and the buildings bordering it. However, the overpass and underpass zipping through the site had extended its borders beyond those immediate boundaries. The overpass and underpass connected the site physically, functionally, and visually along Mecca and Medina streets. The Haramayn intersection therefore is not a stand-alone, autonomous urban element, but an amorphous "joint" that reaches into the areas surrounding it.
Another interesting issue that the instructors raised was whether this new intersection was superimposed on a pre-existing urban fabric, whether the opposite took place - i.e. a new urban fabric grew around the intersection once it was completed, or whether what has taken place is a bit of both. The topography of the site also was to be considered, especially in a hilly city such as Amman. Depending on the direction from which one approaches the site, one either would move uphill or downhill, but never along a flat stretch of land. Accordingly, the person approaching the site either looks down towards the site or up towards it, but not straight ahead.
The students also were encouraged to consider the factor of time. The intersection takes different qualities at different times of the day. The site is very different during the day hours from the night hours, when the street and sign lighting overtakes the buildings and spaces of the site. In this context, one instructor mentioned a film on architecture that documented a cultural building after hours, at night, when the janitors would clean it, rather than when those working in its offices or visiting it would be in the building. This presented a totally different understanding and experience of the building that allowed the viewer to become more acutely aware of its forms, spaces, planes, and textures.
By extension, the students were asked to examine the uses of the site. What activities took place around the space of the roundabout? To what extent could pedestrians use the area, and to what extent is it the exclusive realm of the automobile? How did people reach the various shops and offices located around the intersection?
Students even were asked to let senses other than that of sight explore the site. What are the noises of the site? What are its smells?
It took the participants some time to adjust to what for them clearly was a new manner of exploring their built environment. Their knee-jerk reaction initially was to take an "inventory" of the buildings and spaces of the site. Once they began to understand that there was more than that to examining the site, it was as if they had discovered a new world.
4. Tools of Presentation
Observing the design and presentation tools that the new generation of architecture students use is a very interesting experience. They rely heavily on digital technologies, primarily computer rendering programs and video clips. Very often, this reliance becomes an obsession, and the use of digital technologies becomes an end rather than a tool. Learning to use these tools frequently is at the expense of more traditional tools. Freehand sketching, therefore, almost is completely absent from the repertoire of tools that students now master. Interestingly enough, even though one of the students showed superb free-hand sketching abilities, these abilities barely were used as a tool in the analysis and design processes for the project. Fortunately, the instructors did encourage the students to at least build physical three-dimensional cardboard models, and a number of the students did produce them. However, they used such models as a presentation tool rather than a design development tool.
Although digital technologies provide wonderful opportunities for exploring the architectural design process, and allow for experimentation that often is not possible using more traditional media such as sketching and physical model building, there is a concern that such technologies have come to take over basic design skills. Today, it is common to come across students who can produce flashy presentations for a project, but are not able to put together a working plan or even a project in which the plan and elevation fit together. In fact, one of the goals of the first Architectural Laboratory studio, carried out in the summer of 2003, was to encourage students to work directly through drawings and physical model building, rather than rely exclusively on computer-generated images.
5. The Teaching Process
The Architectural Laboratory is based on extensive interaction between instructor and student. In Architectural Laboratory I, one instructor led each of the studio's eight weeks. In doing so, each of the instructors worked closely with the studio coordinator, who also led the first week of the studio. Architectural Laboratory II, although building upon the achievements of Architectural Laboratory I, took a slightly different approach. This was partly because it was a three-week (rather than eight-week) event, and therefore had a smaller number of instructors. It also dealt with a single urban problem rather than a set of small-scale architectural ones. The instructors consequently decided to co-teach the studio together. Sahel Al Hiyari and Yasir Sakr carried out the first two weeks jointly, and were joined by Kristopher Musumano beginning in the third week. The presence of Kristopher was extremely helpful. He had never visited Amman before arriving in it for the third week of the studio, and his presence therefore brought a completely fresh view to the process. He had no preconceptions of Amman, and this neutral view worked extremely well when combined with the more intimate knowledge that the other two instructors have of the city.
As a result, the students have had the opportunity to simultaneously work with three instructors, and what they often got was even better than a one-to-one relationship: a one (student)-to-three (teachers) relationship. Considering that the studio was a full-time endeavor for its three week duration, the students were able to benefit from a process of intense interaction with three accomplished architectural practitioners / academicians.
The number of students for Architectural Laboratory I was 15. The number for Architectural Laboratory II was only 8. The lower enrollment is very much connected to the unprecedented construction boom that Jordan currently is undergoing in contrast to the less active architectural scene prevalent in the country during the summer of 2003. As a result of the tremendous work load that architectural offices are facing, not a single office would let any of its staff members off for a period of three weeks to attend the studio. Although it would have been preferable to have a larger number of students join the studio, the small number allowed each of the students to receive a very high level of personalized attention.
The students were given the option of working on the project as individuals or in pairs. Two students chose to work alone and the remaining six chose to work in pairs. The work process was intense, and design reviews were carried out almost on a daily basis. Through these reviews, the students presented their work, and received feedback regarding the work from the instructors and also (though not as extensively) from their colleagues. Outside reviewers also attended a number of the reviews (one of the authors attended at least a couple of reviews during each of the studio's three weeks), and this allowed for additional input and an additional cross-fertilization of opinions.
Although the objective of the process was not to produce completed designs as much as design strategies, it seemed to us as observers of the process that by the end of the three-week studio the work had come to a bit of truncation and that it did not achieve a sense of "closure." The students had come a long way in terms of assessment and analysis, but the process of intervention had not reached its logical conclusion. Still, they all seemed to agree that they learned a great deal and that the experience has transformed the manner in which they deal with built form.
Finally, a positive aspects of an event such as this one is that the students participate in it purely for purposes of professional and educational self-development. There are no grades to be given and no degrees to be granted (the students only get a certificate of attendance). On the one hand, this takes much of the psychological stress associated with courses connected to degrees and for which grades are to be handed out. On the other hand, those attending usually are fully motivated and are eager to learn. This results in a most healthy learning environment. This was our experience in both Architectural Laboratory I and Architectural Laboratory II.
6. Students' Results
The students started visiting the site at different times of the day (and night). They drove through the site, walked in it and around it, and also took a bus line that passed through it. They went inside its buildings, and they looked at the site from the windows of those buildings and even from their rooftops.
They looked at the "collisions" between the commercial zone immediately around the roundabout and the residential areas that lay just beyond it. Going through the site, one would not imagine that a more serene area is located just behind the hustle and bustle of the site. The areas where the two zones met however leave much to be desired. These have become a sort of no-man's zone, and the commercial enterprises of the site usually dumped all sorts of items, such as empty containers and discarded furniture, in the setbacks behind their buildings.
A couple of students explored the commercial signs dominating the site. Along with the heavy traffic zooming through the intersection's overpass and underpass, and often coming to a standstill along the roundabout, the commercial signs of the site are its most prominent feature. Not only are they plastered on its buildings, but enormous commercial signs also are placed on the roofs of buildings, and they may be viewed from considerable distances (as from the roofs of houses located a couple of kilometers away from the site). The use of oversized signs is not limited to the buildings located along the roundabout, but extends into Mecca and Medina streets, especially along the commercial part of Medina Street that continues to the north of the site. In one building along that street near the intersection, it was observed that the square area of the signs is 1.3 times the area of the main façade of the building with which they are associated. The signs clearly have come to dominate that which is built, and the buildings often seemed no more than props that held the signs. At night, when the signs are lit, the buildings almost disappear, and all that one sees are the signs tacked onto them.
As the students examined the signs more carefully, they began to discover that a system of categorization and hierarchy could be identified out of the seemingly chaotic spread of commercial signs. The hierarchy placed the largest signs on the rooftops of the buildings located immediately bordering the intersection and facing it, since these were the ones most readily visible to vehicles as they moved into or through the intersection. The enormous size of the signs clearly indicates that they are intended for those in motor vehicles and not for pedestrians.
One student put a video camera around her neck and had it document her footsteps as she walked around parts of the site. The resulting video clip showed the various textures of the ground surfaces of the site, the paved and the unpaved. It showed patterns of light and shade in the site. It also showed how and when pedestrian movement met vehicular movement, as she would stop when crossing one of the streets cutting through the site. The zooming vehicles clearly had priority over the marginalized pedestrian.
Another student took a video from a moving car (the medium of videos was the most popular tool of documentation and analysis used amongst the participants, but more about that later). An informative video he took showed movement through Medina Street as it starts at its "T" intersection with Zahran Street, goes through a two-kilometer stretch of street that primarily consists of residential apartments, passes over the roundabout, and moves on to another stretch of the street that primarily consists of commercial buildings. He coupled the video with a map that showed the density of buildings along this part of Medina Street that he traversed. The images he produced showed that the residential stretch of Medina Street, to the south of the intersection, consisted primarily of a specific building type, the four-story, eight-unit apartment building. This building type has its problems as a solution to residential needs in Amman (a subject that is beyond the scope of this essay), but it does present a unified building scale along the street. Although each residential building has a different set of tree types planted along the stretch of sidewalk in front of it, the greenery of the trees provides some continuity along the stretch of the street.
Once one approaches the intersection and moves into the commercial part of Medina Street, one enters a markedly different realm. The banal and uninspired, but generally coherent, residential stretch makes way for an anarchic urban scene. There is no consistent building form that characterizes the commercial retail and office buildings located along that part of the street; there also is an absence of a consistent scale that brings these buildings together. The proliferation of commercial signs on the facades of buildings and over their rooftops adds to this chaotic feel. In addition, there are no trees in front of any of the buildings, and, for all practical purpose, no sidewalks. Instead, there are asphalted areas bordering the street itself in which vehicles park, in no apparent order. The difference between the two stretches of the street separated by the intersection, the residential and commercial, is overwhelming. Interestingly enough, the uniformity of the residential stretch of the street is interrupted in the pockets along it where commercial uses are located. Here, one gets a glimpse of the chaos prevalent in the commercial stretch of the street, since massive signs located over relatively small buildings overwhelm these commercial pockets.
Some students also carried out what might be referred to as "dead-end" exercises. One student followed red-colored elements beginning from the intersection, and from there followed these elements along the western extension of Mecca Street. She followed everything including red signs, red automobiles, a red container discarded along the street, and even a red chocolate wrapper thrown along the street. It was an interesting exercise. It did provide a linear visual line of elements connecting parts of the street together. However, in addition to the fact that the presence of many of these elements on the street is transitory, it was very difficult to find a visual system or pattern that explained the distribution of the red permanent red signs along the street.
This section provides the students' descriptions of their projects. Although the texts of the descriptions have been considerably edited for the purpose of realizing as much clarity and brevity as possible, the editing process has aimed at facilitating the process of self-expression and explanation for the students, rather than attempting to provide an external interpretation of their projects.
Land Use Analysis - by Nataia al-Naber
In opposition to the usual linear design process of analysis, concept development, and then design, the idea of this exercise was to start with exploration, followed by interpretation, then concept development. The analysis segment was kept till the end. Design was not the only goal for this exercise. This simple change in the arrangement of priorities opened doors to possibilities that would not have existed otherwise.
On the first visit to the site, I did not carry out any documentation, except for taking a few notes that registered some impressions regarding the personal experience of passing through the site. Considering that no definite boundaries exist for the site, the documentation did not attempt to delineate borders, but emphasized personal perception, observation, and interaction with the site.
Further investigation of the site focused on both its positive and negative aspects, as well as on possible interventions. Negative attributes needed to be altered, and positive attributes were to encouraged.
The focus of the investigation was on the uncomfortable mixed-use nature of the site, and the boundaries that had emerged between these different uses. Also, the investigation focused on the manner in which commercial facilities were used in the site, and on the domination of the automobile. An interesting observation regarding the site is the immediate change in ambience that takes place when walking from the main thoroughfares defining the intersection into any of the side roads surrounding the site.
An investigation of boundary types throughout the site and the manner in which these boundaries were evolving then was carried out. Here, the physical collision that took place between the commercial and residential uses of the site was strongly apparent. Accordingly, a concept for developing the site began to emerge: the areas where such collisions occurred, i.e. the boundaries, needed an intervention that would enhance both the commercial and residential uses, and would positively impact the urban fabric in general.
Analysis of those areas of collision then followed, with the focus being on one representative area, exploring what it was like and how it came to be. Here it became apparent that a considerable amount of knowledge on local building codes was needed to understand why such collisions have come to take place, not only in this site, but throughout Amman.
The proposed solution to the problem was to transform the back alleys located between the high commercial buildings and the residential back gardens into pedestrian paths that merge both commercial and residential uses. Some changes to the building codes would need to be carried out to facilitate this transformation, which can considerably enhance the quality of urban life in the site.
Signage Analysis, by Mais al-Azab and Ne'meh Mansour
Outdoor advertising elements (banners, signs, billboards, ...) provide a dominant attribute that continuously makes and distinguishes city spaces. The Haramayn intersection in Amman is a clear example of a space where advertising billboards play as important of a role in defining that space as do its buildings.
In this exercise, the boundaries of the site have been extended beyond the direct limits of the intersection to reach the large signs of three popular fast food restaurants located in the area. The three reference points (or signs) were chosen mainly because of their oversized scale, which has made them dominant visual landmarks in the area (figure 6.6). The roads connecting these signs were analyzed and photographed during both the daytime and nighttime. The signs within these roads clearly invade all elements of the street, whether buildings, sidewalks, or street furniture. At night, the signs are completely transformed into illuminated and independent elements that seem to be floating in space.
The phenomenon of commercial signs in the city was studied through different analytical approaches, and visual exercises were conducted with the aim of developing a logical pattern for reinterpreting the present complex relationships between signs and buildings in the site.
The diagrammatical survey shown in (figure 6.7) was carried out to study the relationship between signage and building. The survey recorded the following aspects for a number of façades:
- Ratios of signage to façade areas
- Ratios of solids to voids
- Ratios of the use of red in relation to other colors
These exercises also investigated how the subject matter of the signs related to the functions housed in the buildings to which the signs are attached.
One of the first observations to be made from studying the site is that the vital points along the roads of the site (as with the immediate area of the intersection) are where both the largest signs and the largest number of signs are found.
A number of preliminary design exercises were initiated along with this visual analysis. One exercise focused on exploring and developing the communicative value of the signs for those passing along the street in both directions through the use of folding signs, or the use of signs that alternate between being attached to buildings in a parallel or a perpendicular manner. This led to the development of the idea of a new folding architectural surface of signs that would function as an integral part of the building itself (figure 6.8).
Another line of thinking led to developing the large structural systems that hold the large billboards placed on the roofs of buildings in a manner that extracts and enlarges them to become dominant three-dimensional architectural elements (figures 6.9 and 6. 10).
Yet another attempt took a more systematic approach according to which the existing ratios of sign to building areas were preserved, but the signs were restricted to a specific grid-like module that is adapted to the different types / heights of the adjacent buildings (figure 6.11).
In searching for a logical and essential order in this relation between signs and the buildings on which they are located, a new visual system that depended on two elements eventually was developed. The first element consists of the parts of the buildings that support the signs. These are the vertical edges and the horizontal platforms of buildings. The second element consists of the supported features, which are the signs projecting from the edge or placed on a platform. A module was then created through developing the idea of signs projecting from vertical elements and others placed on roofs into a modular system that may be repeated and moved (backward or forward; up or down) to create a flexible space between the building's facades and the new thin façade of signs. In this space, the structural systems supporting the signs also take on the function of dividing up the resulting inner area (figures 6.12 and 6.13).
This strategy led to an attempt to design new buildings. The process of developing the new designs also included exploring new possibilities, such as rotating the module mentioned above, flipping it, or adding to it an additional layer of inclined signs (figure 6.14).
Audio-Visual Analysis, by Ayah al-Karmi and Duha Hamdan
This intervention was based on a video taken by one of the team members, who walked along the path shown in (figure 6.15) through the site, with a camera hanging around her neck. The video documented her footsteps as she walked. (View segments of this video in MPEG format; file size is 5.75 MB.)
The video and sounds that were recorded were divided for convenience into frames that are 20 seconds apart. These frames were then analyzed in terms of visual patterns, visual markers, light intensity, change in ground material, sound intensity, and surface density. The graph in (figure 6.16) shows the analysis and the corresponding sounds. Based on the average speed of the pedestrian, the 20-second time frames were transformed into a 20-meter grid that was imposed on the area where the video was taken. This grid would create a neutral framework on which multiple functional programs would fit. The programs, like the video, would change with time, and the site would take on different functions according to different times of the day or year.
The occurrences of the site were translated into two possible structural scenarios that used the ground level for two functions. In an attempt to recreate the experience of the video through different routes, the public spaces were related to light, the private spaces were related to shadow, and both were related to the intensity of sound. The public spaces were designed to accommodate different functions. They are large in area, well-lit, and sunk below ground level to contrast with the surroundings. The transitional spaces range from columns to free standing walls, and create different spaces according to need. The models in (figures 6.17 and 6.18) show the proposed solutions.
Urban Fabric Analysis, by Jamil Sha'ar
This exercise attempts at exploring the urban fabric of the Haramayn intersection as perceived from a car moving through the street. The urban fabric was analyzed at different levels: building distribution patterns, building heights, zoning regulations, and density of the urban fabric. The analysis, which concentrated on Medina Street, aimed at developing design tools that may be used in developing the urban fabric along the street (Figure 6.19).
A video was taken from a car moving through the street (View segments of this video; video is in MPEG format; file size is 7.36 MB). The movie was divided into one-second frames (figure 6.21) to analyze the density of buildings along different parts of the street. The visual area of these buildings was calculated in each frame and translated into the parametric graph in (figure 6.20). The purpose of this exercise was to identify a rhythm that defined the density of buildings in the street.
Through manipulating and changing the rhythms of the graphs, the interventions in the site may be carried out by reversing the process and translating the modified rhythm into an urban fabric. This may be realized through adding or removing buildings, increasing building heights, adding green spaces, etc.
The site includes two parts, a commercial part and a residential one, with the empty plots located on both sides of Medina Street as it crosses the intersection as a bridge separating commercial areas from residential ones. These plots may be developed as a green area that functions as a buffer zone between the commercial and residential zones, and protects the residential area from the incursion of the commercial area into it. This green area also may be used as a public space that serves both the commercial and residential zones. The possible solutions are displayed in figures 6.22 through 6.26.
Visual Perception Analysis, by Heba Shahzadah and Shireen Talhouni
This exercise focused on observation by mapping the area through a purely perceptual experience. Photographs from strategic angles were taken to build an image of the entire site constructed from different perspectives put together. Data obtained from each photograph was then collected and recorded on separate drawings. When compiled, the drawings formed a single layered plan that indicated a hierarchy based on the persistent visual presence of certain facades.
Based on this, one view was considered a reference point onto which various scenarios were imposed that altered the perceptual experience. Each scenario posed key questions that provoked the investigation of core problems in form, social structure, program, and views within the urban fabric.
The outcome of this exercise provided information that was linked back to the original hierarchical plan. By adopting a method of cross referencing between site observation and intervention, a thorough exploration of the potentials of the site became possible.
The following step involved exploring the physicality of the site through a series of interventions at two different locations. This included rotation, inversion, and the elimination of particular elements. One location has implications on a macro scale with reference to the site boundaries, and the other on a micro scale addressing a smaller number of local residents as well as street users. This approach enabled the development of each of the different locations into a series of spatial transitions from the loud commercial side to a silent residential zone, treating the physically altered buildings as mediators between two different ends and developing a program in each of them that is specific to the context.
Following is a description of the steps followed throughout the project and the corresponding images:
Figure 6.27: Photographs were taken to explore points of entry to the site, with each contributing to the visual recording method that was adopted. The photographs mapped the entire site and were translated onto maps based on pure perception.
Figure 6.28: From the photographs, one view was chosen to represent the site in relation to the visual presence of buildings. A number of scenarios were proposed from this view to study the different implications that each scenario would have on the site.
Figure 6.29: Referring back to the layered map, the visual hierarchies of buildings were evaluated and compared in relation to program, heights, and signage.
Figures 6.30 and 6.31: Six scenarios were selected to translate back onto visual maps, and therefore were further explored. This approach combined the observation method with site intervention.
Figure 6.32: Studying the effects of advertising, visible street facades were rotated and aligned with the signage. The implications of previously proposed scenarios were reinvestigated after this re-alignment.
Figure 6.33: The Kilo building, taken as a marker for the site, was rotated 180 degrees. As a consequence, the focal point created by the street façade was flipped inwards, merging the opposing programs, with the Kilo building acting as a gateway/mediator between the two sides. A silent façade was introduced into a commercially loud street.
Figure 6.34: Turned inwards, the façade introduced commercial street elements into a quieter residential zone. The back area is automatically transformed into a public space. On the other hand, the silence of the new street façade is further explored by painting it black, thus making a statement and possibly acting as a referential node in the city for future developments.
Figure 6.35: The potentials of applying this process to a commercial center in a different location were investigated. The center is inverted inwards by addressing solid-void relationships.
Figure 6.36: A six-storey residential building, situated behind the commercial centre, was removed to allow for further potentials, and the bordering negative space was extruded to create adjoining workshop/studio spaces for the community. The extracted building allowed for a series of space transitions and acted as a mediator between two conflicting ends, the commercial street and the silent residential area. Omitting the residential building created a void that would act as a communal, possibly religious space for congregation, serving local residents as well as street users.
Figure 6.37: In reference to the interventions proposed on the commercial center, the rotation of the Kilo building is further explored. A five-storey residential building has been omitted from the site to define the space and allow for visual accessibility.
Figure 6.38: The same paving system is adopted to set up an outlined space for congregation. The Kilo building, now acting as the mediator, sets a series of vertical instead of horizontal transitions in the program.
Figure 6.39: The conclusive intervention system is summarized in 3 steps for the Kilo building as well as the commercial center. A radical change is experienced between step one and step three.