Gallery 27: Rethinking the Architectural Exhibition
Urban Crossroads #117


                                                                                View of the central hall in the Gallery 27 exhibition.

Jordan has a lively and impressive architectural scene. This is particularly remarkable considering the country's relative youth, its small size, and its limited material resources. The architects of Jordan have carried out interesting experiments that have developed a unique architectural identity. These experiments have incorporated diverse sources including the building material of stone, the architectural heritage of Greater Syria, as well as the various traditions of Western modernism.

Although lively, Jordan's architectural production remains weakly documented. It is true that monographs have been published on three of the country's architects: Rasem Badran, Sahel Al Hiyari, and Jafar Tukan. The full story of Jordanian architecture, however, remains in need of further exploration. Even concerning exhibitions on Jordan's architecture, the only one that comes to mind is that organized a few years ago at the French Cultural Center on the work of Jafar Tukan.

Within this overall context, “Gallery 27,” the exhibition on the work of architect Farouq Yaghmour of Yaghmour Architects, Planners, and Engineers, is particularly significant. The exhibition was organized to inaugurate Yaghmour's new offices. The old offices had been located in a commercial building along Gardens Street. In the fall of 2010, the practice moved to a beautiful 1940s house in Jabal al-Weibdeh, one of Amman's older districts. Yaghmour and his staff renovated the house - adding a few elegant contemporary touches to it - not only to accommodate office and studio space, but also to feature a sizable area dedicated to cultural events. The Gallery 27 exhibition is located there.

The exhibition is very much a result of a process of self-reflection that Yaghmour carried out with his daughter Rula, an architect in the early stages of her career, and members of his office staff. In developing the exhibit, they looked into how they may best present a diverse body of work that has been carried out over the period of 27 years since Yaghmour established his office (thus the name of the exhibition, Gallery 27). It also expresses the geographic diversity of the office, which has expanded over the years beyond Jordan to branch out in Palestine and the United Arab Emirates.

One particularly refreshing characteristic of the exhibition is that it does not merely categorize the over fifty architectural, urban, and landscaping works it includes according to chronology and / or building type, but also identifies ten themes that Yaghmour's team felt best represent the office's architectural journey.

The exhibition space contains five rooms. These rooms follow the three-bay plan common in the houses of Amman and other parts of Greater Syria until the 1940s, and which consists of a central hallway flanked by rooms on both sides. The hall and rooms feature the exhibition's ten themes. The themes deal with a number of influences that include places, people, and states of being. More specifically, they are: beginnings, family, persistence, spirituality, topography, change, stone, Amman, Dubai, and unfinished business. These themes exist on a number of interconnected levels. On one level, they are highly personalized, presenting influences that are unique to Yaghmour. At another level, they present influences common to architects working in Jordan. At a third level, they are universal to the practice of architecture.

Upon entering the exhibition space, one takes a right to visit the first room. Here are photographs of the places connected to Farouq Yaghmour's life: Hebron and Amman, the two cities to which he belongs; Weimar in Germany and Buffalo in the United States, the two cities where he studied; and various locations where he has worked. It also includes images of family members, colleagues, and friends. The photographs occupy a thin strip that wraps around the room's walls. Accompanying these images is a set of moving shadow projections that appear on the floor and that present ten buildings he designed, each representing one of the ten themes.

From this introduction consisting of people, places, and buildings, one moves to the central hall. This features ten architectural models made of stone, each representing one of the ten themes. These stone models were carved using computerized stone-cutting machinery, and are dramatically set in front of a black wall. The wall has white text written on it, with a section describing each theme. Each model is physically connected to the accompanying text by a painted white line that moves along the walls and floor.

From the central hall, one proceeds to three rooms located to its left. The projects included in these rooms elaborate on the ten themes. However, they also feature the more traditional categories of building type and location, and show the considerable diversity of Yaghmour's work. The first room presents his residential and educational buildings. Much of the history of modern architecture in Amman may be expressed through its innovative single-family houses, and Yaghmour made an important contribution to the development of these houses, particularly during the 1980s and early 1990s. These houses also are one expression of the theme of family.

The second room presents religious projects as well as ones dealing with cultural conservation. Most are devoted to the theme of spirituality. Yaghmour has had the opportunity to design projects with very important religious and cultural significances. These include the Solomon Pools project in the West Bank, a sizable multi-use complex that includes a convention center, a museum, and shops featuring various aspects of the Palestinian heritage. Another important project is the Baptism Site in Jordan, along the Jordan River, which is among Christianity's more important religious locations. In this room, Yaghmour also presents a number of his mosque designs, revealing a journey that has explored the modernization of this historical building type.

The third room presents projects relating to urban planning and to eco-tourism, two areas in which Yaghmour has been very active. The urban planning projects overlap with his cultural projects since a number of the latter are urban in scale. The eco-tourism ones provide very important experiments in developing tourism solutions for fragile natural areas in our part of the world, where achieving a balance between the protection of nature and visitor access is extremely important.

In all the projects, one comes across the themes of persistence, change, and unfinished business, which architects generally need to incorporate, accommodate, and come to terms with. The last theme, that of unfinished business, involves an element of irony. It is about these projects that architects work so hard on, but that never get realized because of reasons such as the clients changing their minds or not having the necessary financial resources for their implementation. These unrealized projects represent a very frustrating aspect of the architectural profession.

At least for his new office, Farouk Yaghmour was able to completely finish the project, and to finish it as he had envisioned it. With this project, he also has presented Amman's residents with a new cultural space and an engaging architectural exhibition.

Mohammad al-Asad

June 02, 2011