"Grafting the Ammani Landscape"
The Abu Samra House by Khalid Nahhas of Symbiosis Designs
Prepared by Mohammad al-Asad with Sandra Hiari
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This article is part of Exploring the Edge publication. Support for the publication of Exploring the Edge has been provided by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Chicago.
The first two issues of Exploring the Edge presented a search for a genius loci within the context of Jordan. In neither case was this search expressed through the too-common emphasis of connecting to conceptions of a past heritage, which often ends up caricaturing and de-contextualizing the architectural heritage of a previous era. Instead, architects Sahel al-Hiyari and Hani Imam Hussaini examined current construction materials and practices predominant in Jordan. They worked with what may be identified as a ‘contemporary conventional semi-industrial vernacular,' but redefined and developed it into a higher level of architectural expression. Al-Hiyari worked with roughly and often poorly finished exposed concrete construction, and Hussaini worked with stone sheathing. Both are ubiquitous within the context of Jordan, with the former generally associated with lower-budget construction and the latter connected to higher-budget construction.
Khalid Nahhas, the founder and senior architect of Symbiosis Designs, has taken a very different approach. The forms of his buildings attempt to connect to the surrounding topography, and their colors establish links to the earth-tone hues of the relatively dry landscapes of this part of the world. His architecture, however, does not try to make even the slightest of nods to the forms, materials, or techniques prevalent in the buildings of Amman, whether past or present. Instead, he consciously emphasizes the introduction of new forms and techniques.
As with al-Hiyari and Hussaini, Nahhas is a product of two worlds. He spent his childhood in Dubai, and moved to Canada when he was eleven. He studied architecture at the University of British Columbia, and before that also completed a bachelor's degree in geographic and economic planning at the University of Victoria. He worked as an architect in Vancouver for about seven years before moving to Amman to establish an architectural practice there in 1997. His first major design in Amman was the Blue Fig Restaurant (figures 1a & 1b). The building, which was completed in 2000 and received the 2002 Dubai-based Cityscape Young Architect Award, became a sensation in the city upon its completion. Its abstracted reductionist geometric forms, large glazed panels, corrugated roof sheets, and earth-toned plastered surfaces, provide a striking contrast to the white limestone-covered buildings with their more conventional use of small punched in or strip openings that are characteristic of many parts of Amman. Nahhas's involvement in the project extended beyond the design of the building. He also was involved in the branding process for it. He therefore dealt with issues including the food the restaurant serves, the manner in which it is served, and the overall ambience of the establishment - from the digital images projected on its walls to the music played in it. It is as good an example of ‘total design' as one may come across. The Blue Fig Restaurant is a work that expressed a high sense of quality and attention to detail often missing in the local architectural scene.
The Abu Samra house is one of the more recent projects that Nahhas has completed. The first impression with which the Abu Samra house receives the viewer relates to its use of materials and color. Nahhas rejects the conventional use of stone in Amman, and by extension both its textures and the whitish tones associated with most examples of this material in Amman. Instead, he presents an earth-toned plastered building for which the subdued hues fit in perfectly well within the dry local landscape and the strong bright Jordanian sun. Plaster finishes are common in Jordan, but generally are used as a cheap alternative to stone. Nahhas challenges such low-budget connotations, and uses plastering as a high-quality building finish that requires a considerable level of craftsmanship.
The architectural forms of the building, which primarily consist of two sets of cubic masses linked by a corridor, may have ended up providing for a rather busy composition, especially towards the western edges of the building. Nonetheless, his use of forms expresses on the conceptual level an element of reductionism, as with the expansive plastered surfaces and simple rectangular cutout windows. The southern one of these two compositions of masses extends the axis of the corridor, while the northern one is rotated from it at an angle, partly to break the longitudinal extension of the house, and partly to maximize the views of the surrounding landscapes available to this northern mass (figures 2 & 3).
For most, the house currently is experienced from the main north-south street that passes parallel to the site, to its east, and that is located at a higher level than the house (figure 4). The house is separated from this street by an empty plot of land, which most probably eventually will be built up. The view of the house from the street consists of two linked masses that are masterfully juxtaposed on a sloping site. More importantly, the blank façades of this side of the house, which is what the public sees (and which later also will be what the neighbors who end up building on the adjacent plot will see), reveal extremely little of what lies beyond. From the opposite direction, however, the facades completely open up, interweaving inside and outside, and providing expansive views of the rolling hills dotted with oak trees that the site overlooks (figure 5). The building composition does tend to loose some of its strength and unity as one moves down the slope from the closed sides of the building masses to its open ones, and this may be a result of the programmatic requirements for the house, which have resulted in the large area of about 1,000 square meters.
Compositionally, the house emphasizes expansive earth-toned, textured surfaces with wide panes of glass cut into them. On one level, the two-dimensional components of this arrangement show a faint connection to Gerrit Rietveld's 1924 Rietveld-Schroder House in Utrecht (figure 6). The design however also expresses a duality combining two- and three-dimensional compositions, with planar arrangements competing with three-dimensional masses. The weight of the masses especially is apparent when Nahhas frees up the mass of one of the house corners with a recessed window, thus revealing the considerable thickness of the exterior walls of the house (figure 7).
This duality also clearly is evident in the composition of the entrance area of the house, which architecturally is its most elegant (figure 8). The entrance door is situated between a mass with a recessed corner window, and a long, thick planar wall, which also may be perceived both as a plane and a mass. As one proceeds into the house from this entrance, which is located at the southern extremity of the longitudinal axis that cuts through the building, one is provided with a long unobstructed visual corridor that leads the eye all the way to the other end of the house, 24 meters away from the entrance (figure 9). At that point, a large window overlooking the outside garden provides a terminus for the axis. The corridors of the house are much more than utilitarian connections linking one part of it to the other. Along their open glazed sides, they provide vistas opening up onto the adjacent rolling hills. Their closed sides serve as gallery walls on which are placed works of contemporary Arab paintings from the Abu Samra family's art collection. From the interior, the spaces defined by the heavy solid exterior walls contrast with this solidity. The spaces of the house flow freely, both horizontally and vertically, emphasizing views to the outside. Doors are kept to a minimum, open spaces prevail, and double spaces are used abundantly (figures 10, 11, 12 & 13).
The architectural vocabulary of this house, with its massing, treatment of openings, and use of color, is rather novel to the architectural scene in Jordan. However, it still is highly sensitive to the immediate topographic surroundings, and the forms of the house, with their longitudinal strips set along the sloping site, work very well with its topography.
What about influences? At one level, the use of the earth-toned plastering provides formal references to two Mexican architects, Luis Barragan (1902 - 1988), and Ricardo Legorreta (b. 1931), who followed and developed the spirit of Barragan's work (figures 14a & 14b). Both are viewed as Modernists who nonetheless injected a regionalist character in their architecture that emphasized a Mexican identity, as evident in their emphasis on solids, color, and rough textures, as well as on securing a sense of privacy for the users of the building.
Nahhas emphasizes his debt to Canadian architects John (b. 1947) and Patricia (b. 1950) Patkau, who in addition to being sources of inspiration for him, taught him as a student of architecture at the University of British Columbia. Their influence is evident, amongst other things, in emphasizing the connection of the building to the landscape, the concern for building tectonics, the strong volumetric presence of the building, the incorporation of color, the concurrent use of various materials, and the emphasis on high-quality detailing (figures 15a & 15b).
Nahhas has grafted the results of these diverse influences into the landscape of Amman. As he is becoming more of an established presence in Amman's incredibly booming architectural scene, as his growing office is becoming an important work destination for newly-graduating Jordanian architects, and as more of his buildings are being constructed in the city, the new architectural set of images he introduces in his work is becoming increasingly familiar in Amman. It will become apparent over the next few years if these new vocabularies will provide a new architectural prototype that will establish roots within the city's architectural landscape, or whether his buildings will remain unique compositions that provide strong contrasts with the building stock of Amman.
Design and supervision team:
Architects: Khalid Nahhas, with Nisreen alFar, Daad Musa, Raad Sawalha, and Reem Suyyagh, Symbiosis Designs.
Structural engineer: Marwan Ghanem.
Mechanical engineer: Issa Hamdan.
Electrical engineer: Kaled Srahneh.
Interior designer: Fadi Farajallah.
General contractor: Fusion Developments.
Photographer: Osman Akuz.
Location: Dabuq, Amman.
Area: 987.65 square meters.
Date of completion: May 2005.
Cost: Withheld at owners' request.
Khalid Nahhas is a senior architect and associate director of Symbiosis Designs. He received a bachelor's degree in Geographic and Economic Planning from the University of Victoria in 1985, and a second bachelor's degree in Architecture from the University of British Columbia in 1989. He has been practicing architecture since 1989, beginning his professional career in Vancouver, at Spaceworks Architects. In 1991, he co-founded Symbiosis Designs. He moved his practice to Amman in 1997, and has been practicing there since then. His work includes several commercial and residential buildings, as well as interior design projects. He was a member of the Design Committee of the Jordanian Pavilion in the Expo 2005, in Aichi, Japan. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Children Museum, and also is its Chairman of the Board of Directors. He also is a member of the Amman Commission at the Greater Amman Municipality. In addition, Nahhas received the Dubai-based Cityscape Young Architect Award in 2002.
List of figures:
Figure 1a: Blue Fig Restaurant: rear façade.
Figure 1b: Blue Fig Restaurant: main façade.
Figure 2: Ground floor plan.
Figure 3: View of western side of house.
Figure 4: View of house from the main north-south street located to the east of the site.
Figure 5: View of house from the lower western part of the site.
Figure 6: Utrecht, Rietveld-Schroder House by Gerrit Rietveld, 1924.
(Source: Boston College's Digital Archive of Architecture,http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/arch/20thc/SchroderHouse06.jpg, accessed June 2006.)
Figure 7: Recessed corner window located at the southwestern corner of the house showing wall thickness.
Figure 8: View of entrance area located at the southern edge of the house.
Figure 9: View of interior corridor connecting the northern and southern ends of the house.
Figure 10: Longitudinal section of house.
Figure 11: Interior view of house looking north and showing the house's north-south corridor.
Figure 12: View of living space located at the southwestern corner of the house.
Figure 13: View of interior staircase in the northeastern part of the house.
Figure 14a: Mexico City, Casa Gilardi by Luis Barragan, 1975 - 1977.
(Source: Arcspace.com,http://www.arcspace.com/exhibitions/barragan/quiet_revolution_ex/Barragan-1.jpg, accessed June 2006).
Figure 15b: Columbus, Ohio, Fabrications Installation: La Petite Maison du Weekend, Wexner Center for the Arts, by Patkau architects, 1998.
(Source: Patkau Architects web site, http://www.patkau.ca, accessed June 2006).