The Growth of Buildings
Urban Crossroads #26

                                Front cover of book.

                                Front cover of book.

One of my favorite books on architecture is Steward Brand's How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built. This 1994 book points out that buildings often are intended as static objects, as works of permanence that convey timeless reliability. The reality, however, is that buildings regularly are forced to adapt because the usages taking place in them and around them change constantly.

The author investigates what happens to buildings over time. He cites how the designs of houses have evolved over the course of the twentieth century as their inhabitants have acquired cars, as women have joined the workforce, and how the television set has become the central fixture around which family life often concentrates. He also explains how commercial buildings continuously have to adapt to accommodate new uses and new tenants. Businesses grow or fail. When they grow, they move. Brand also makes the interesting comment that because of continuous developments in communications technologies, office buildings require rewiring at an average of once every seven years.

Not only do our needs and expectations from buildings change, but so do building techniques and materials. In this context, Brand mentions the example of Architectural Graphic Standards, which he refers to as the "American builder's bible for design and construction details." This publication first appeared in 1932. Less than one of the 864 pages of the 1932 edition survived into the 1988 edition.

Brand emphasizes that all buildings grow. They will grow even when zoning laws do not allow them to do so. In some cases, buildings even will be extended underground, where the zoning authorities would not be able to detect the extension.

The author emphasizes that this continuous evolution of buildings has strong economic ramifications. He states that the building industry is the second largest in the world, after agriculture. Office buildings are the largest capital asset of developed nations and employ half of their workforce.

People are spending more and more on developing, renovating, and rehabilitating their existing buildings. Brand mentions how in the United States, for example, expenditures on commercial rehabilitation have risen to exceed expenditures on new construction. He adds that in 1989, 5% of the gross national product in the United States was spent on building renovation and rehabilitation.

What about a city such as Amman? Available statistics for Jordan indicate that the construction industry takes up almost 9% of the country's gross domestic product and employs about 10% of the work force. More than 60% of construction activity in Jordan is concentrated in Amman.

The buildings of Amman provide no shortage of examples of organic growth. Just about everyone of us lives or works in such a building. I think of the house in which I live. The house was built only fifteen years ago. Initially, it was a single family house. As the family grew, a relatively small apartment was built on top of the house. As the number of cars owned by family members increased, the garage was expanded. Later on, the small apartment was doubled in size to accommodate the growing family using it. A few years later, an adjacent plot of land was incorporated into the house's garden. The house today bears very little resemblance to the original structure that came up only a decade and half ago.

Similar stories of growth apply to many, if not most, buildings in Amman. Buildings, whether residential, commercial, or institutional, continuously grow, and there usually is an attempt to maximize their size in relation to the plots on which they are located. Amman therefore is expanding not only horizontally but also vertically, and is growing both in terms of size and density.

In some cases, the growth of buildings is seamless, and one can barely differentiate the new parts of the building from its older parts. In other cases, we have annexes that simply are tacked onto buildings. When those expansions are intended to be carried out cheaply, the extensions often are built of inexpensive pre-fabricated materials such as corrugated iron sheets. Not only are these extensions ugly, but also are structurally unsafe. The massive snowstorm that Amman received two years ago confirmed this evaluation, when a number of these cheap expansions, many of which interestingly enough belonged to institutional buildings, collapsed under the weight of the accumulating snow.

As for the more expensive annexes, they often consist of structures with red-tiled sloping roofs. Buildings with red-tiled roofs have been somewhat of a status symbol in Amman, specially during the 1970s and 1980s. Accordingly, the next best thing to a building with a red-tiled roof is an extension with a red-tiled roof to the building. There is no shortage of building additions with such roofs in the city. This is specially common in the case of extensions consisting of balconies and garages. These extensions seem to be better built than the cheap pre-fabricated annexes mentioned above, but they also are tacked onto the original building without much concern for how they relate to what existed before them. They therefore leave a lot to be desired in terms of giving the buildings of Amman a sense of unity and coherence.

The growth of buildings is part of a natural process affecting the growth of any human settlement. Look around you in Amman, and you will see interesting examples of buildings growing, some in a smooth and even elegant manner, others in an awkward and even awful manner.

Mohammad al-Asad

November 18, 2004