"Variations on a Theme"

Two Houses by Hani Imam Hussaini of Almarsam Architects and Engineers: The Mushahwar and Abdulwahab Houses

Prepared by Mohammad al-Asad

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Support for the publication of Exploring the Edge has been provided by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Chicago.

Introduction: 

This is the second issue of Exploring the Edge. Since this feature still is at its early stages, it is difficult to resist the temptation of comparing the projects that have been presented in it. In addition to these two houses by Hani Imam Hussaini, the projects include a Work and Consultation Space for a Psychologist by Sahel al-Hiyari. In fact, Hiyari’s project and these two houses readily lend themselves to comparison. Both show a commitment to innovative and high-quality architecture, but beyond that, each diverts into a different direction. Al-Hiyari’s project expressed a conscious rejection of the use of stone as a sheathing material, in spite of (or because of) its ubiquity in Jordan. Instead, al-Hiyari turned to the shoddily plastered concrete boxes of lower income architecture as a source of inspiration. In contrast, Hani Imam Hussaini embarks upon a journey of re-exploring the constructional and visual potentials of stone, which has been an integral part of historical building practices in much of the area that constitutes modern Jordan. Like Hiyari, Hussaini is uncomfortable and dissatisfied with the manner in which stone is used today. Hussaini feels that architects and builders in many cases have come to take this building material for granted, and this has resulted in uninspired uses of stone, which is treated and perceived as no more than a sturdy sheathing material and a protective skin for buildings that needs little maintenance. Consequently, Hussaini’s reaction to this situation has been to engage himself in a full-scale exploration of various issues relating to stone, including craftsmanship, textures, scale, and weathering. In this, we see a sense of continuity with the work of a small group of Jordanian architects who devoted considerable energies to experimenting with stone, such as Jafar Tukan and the late Atallah Douani.

Another contrast between al-Hiyari’s work and consultation space and Hussaini’s two houses is the issue of craftsmanship. Al-Hiyari accepts the shoddy construction practices characteristic of most of the exposed concrete buildings of Amman and incorporates such practices in his work in an innovative manner that transforms their limitations and creates powerful aesthetic architectural statements. In contrast, Hussaini devotes tremendous efforts to securing the highest possible levels of craftsmanship from the existing Jordanian building industry, with its people, technologies, and materials. This he achieves not only through insisting on high quality work, but also through investing in the development of highly detailed construction drawings for that work. In the case of stone, he works with a traditional construction material and unrelentingly demands of those working with it to come up with high levels of precision and discipline in craftsmanship.

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Addressing Contexts: 

 Hussaini’s emphasis on stone is part of a contextual approach he espouses to the making of architecture. These two houses are very much the result of a process of interaction with different contexts that include the urban, social, and technological. Each house presented Hussaini with a different set of contexts, and the results express active and sensitive levels of interaction with the requirements of each of these contexts.

The urban context: 

The Mushahwar house is located on a corner plot, and provides an axial termination to one of the streets that makes up the corner arrangement (figure 1). Consequently, the location of the house demands presence, and this is what Hussaini gave it. He presents the street that visually leads to the house with a tower like structure, which functions as the primary defining form of the house (figure 2). The use of the tower is reminiscent of the late nineteenth-century Queen Anne houses of the Victorian era, where towers often are incorporated within the formal composition of the house. These Victorian era towers serve to further articulate the form of the building, but also function as a location from which one would be able to view the surroundings. Hussaini also provides his tower with a series of other functions. In addition to providing a termination point for a visual axis and providing a form that serves as the major three-dimensional architectural component of the house, the tower aims at concealing the rooftop water tanks. Water tanks are integral but unsightly components of the rooftops of houses in Jordan, where municipal water commonly is only pumped one to two days a week, and therefore needs to be stored during the days when water is not pumped. These rooftop elements clutter the Amman skyline, but in the Mushahwar house, they effectively and cleverly are concealed within the tower. Also, the owners of the house rejected the two-story villa typology (see below). However, since most of the surrounding residences consist of two story structures, the incorporation of the tower as an imposing element within the formal composition of the house provided it with a substantial mass that allows it to assert itself within the neighborhood context, rather than being dominated by the surrounding structures. 


Although the tower occupies a dominant architectural position within the visual makeup of the Mushahwar house, as one further approaches the structure, it becomes evident that the tower also has to compete with a number of other architectural forms, compositions, and details that make up this irregularly shaped structure, which has over a dozen external bends and corners in its exterior plan outline. In fact, one criticism that can be made of the design of this house is that the “busyness” of its formal composition portrays a certain level of architectural “muscle-flexing” of forms. 

This last remark clearly does not apply to the second house, the subtle and understated Abdulwahab house, which was designed about two years after the Mushahwar house. In contrast to the prominent site that the Mushahwar house occupies, the site of the Abdulwahab house is barely visible to the outside world (figure 3). It is located at the end of a cul-de-sac, has a street frontage of only 11 meters, and is almost totally surrounded by other houses from all sides. Hussaini has dealt skillfully with such a difficult and restrictive site. Rather than attempting to force an external façade on this house and attempting to assert its presence to the outside world, the house turns inward. Here, the garden plays a crucial role in defining both how the house appears and how it is to be used. This house consists of what can be described as an L-shaped structure that hugs a rectangular garden (figure 4). The two form a yin-yang relationship, and neither of the two would make much sense without the other. The facades located along the outer sides of the “L” are primarily blank (figure 5), but those located along the inner sides of the “L”, i.e. those facing the garden, include extensive floor to ceiling transparent glazed surfaces. As a result, the garden becomes an integral part of the house, instead of consisting of the usual four strips of un-built setbacks flanking a building, which characterize most free-standing houses in Amman as a result of zoning setback requirements. The expansive glazed facades facing the garden serve to further emphasize the integration between house and garden (figure 6). Although this continuity between inside and outside alludes to works by Mies van der Rohe such as the 1929 Barcelona Pavilion, the relationship between the house and the garden also provides a contemporary interpretation of the traditional inward looking courtyard house.

The social context:

The architecture of each house also has been influenced to a great degree by the character and needs of the families commissioning them. The Mushahwar family consists of the parents and three teenage children. As the children were nearing the age when they would leave to attend university, the parents were anticipating the time when the children would become occasional visitors in the house. The Mushahwars also were very interested in having a house that reinforced their informal way of life, and, in contrast to the prevalent situation in the residential architecture of Jordan, they wanted to avoid the separation of entertainment and reception parts of the house from its remaining spaces. Finally, they looked into the future and considered a time when it might become more difficult to negotiate stairs, and therefore did not want too many changes of level in the house. These requirements made them reject the common villa typology of separating the bedrooms upstairs from the reception and living rooms downstairs.


Hussaini reacted to the needs of the Mushahwar family by creating an informal arrangement of rooms in which various spaces, including bedrooms, reception room, and a centrally situated living room are located closely to each other, and many of them also open onto the rear garden (figures 7 & 8). At the same time, the house has a lower level in which service areas, an exercise area, and a two-bedroom suite for the children are included. 

The Abdulwahabs are a younger family with children at the kindergarten stage. There was a need to keep the movement of the children somewhat under control and to create some separation between the more informal living spaces and the more formal reception spaces of the house. Here, the somewhat common housing prototype of locating the formal living and dining areas, along with the kitchen, on the ground floor, and locating the bedrooms and the family living room on the upper floor, proved to be suitable. In addition, a basement was included to house service areas and a playroom. The stairway serves to connect both the ground and upper floors functionally and visually. It consists of a sky-lit space with the stairs wrapping around a planted bed, and which can be looked into from the upper floor living room. The use of a planted bed staircase also serves to reinforce the connection between interior and exterior (figure 9). 

The context of building materials and technologies:

As mentioned earlier, one of the most important architectural contributions that these two houses present is the re-exploration of stone within the context of the architecture of Amman. To many residents, as well as visitors to the city, Amman is a city of buildings sheathed in white stone, at least in its more affluent parts. Hussaini believes that this construction material unfortunately has come to be taken for granted, and in most cases is used un-creatively. Most commonly, it is perceived as a durable and low maintenance sheathing material. In the few cases where it is not treated as such, stone is used to provide a rustic look that harks back to the vernacular architectural heritage of Jordan. In other cases, it is used as an intricately carved material intended to provide a sense of historical opulence. Although both approaches are valid, they present the use of stone as a historicist element that emphasizes connections with the past. With the partial exception of a few works from the 1960s and early 1970s, it is very uncommon in Jordan to find stone used to provide a deliberately modern - let alone industrial - aesthetic.

True, the use of stone as a sheathing material serves to unify the architecture of the city and to soften the impact of some of its more monstrous buildings. However, it most commonly is used in a manner that does not effectively utilize its expressive content. Here, a few brief remarks should be made about traditional and contemporary uses of stone in the buildings of Amman.* During the 1920s and 1930s, stone primarily was dressed using the tubzeh technique, which gives roughly textured surfaces with protrusions from the surface that might project up to 10 cm. The tubzeh stone presents similarities to cyclopean rusticated stone, but gives a very different visual effect than rusticated stone, partly because of the much smaller dimensions of its stone blocks. The tubzeh surface texture is created through splitting the stone and also chipping off small pieces of it through a pitching tool. Each stone block often was provided with a smoothly dressed frame, and was pointed with a white / beige pointing (figure 10). 

In the 1940s, the musamsam dressing became widespread. This consists of a series of short, fine parallel lines, done with a tooth chisel. The stone blocks were used with recessed black pointing, which along with the frame, served to emphasize the individual identity of each stone block (figure 11). 

During the 1980s, the mufajjar dressing was introduced. This is a dressing of medium roughness, which is achieved with a point chisel hammered on the stone surface with single strokes, creating a speckled surface. The pointing usually is of the same color as the stone (white). The use of white pointing has served to erase the individual identity of each stone block, and instead creates a unified surface out of the different stone blocks in a given façade (figure 12). 

Of course, there are other methods such as the matabbah stone dressing, which is a finely speckled surface dressed with a bush-hammer. As for sizes, the height of 25 cm has become standard for stone blocks, but the length is irregular. In terms of thickness, the earlier blocks were partly load bearing, and therefore were relatively thick. However, since the spread of reinforced concrete in Amman during the 1940s, these stone blocks became no more than a veneer, and the thickness therefore has diminished considerably. It ranges from about 15 cm for the roughly textured tubzeh to as little as 3 cm for a finely textured stone such as that dressed in the matabbah manner. 

Hussaini spent considerable time studying and photographing the various methods of stone dressing used in Jordan during both the past and present. Not surprisingly, he shows special interest in the tubzeh dressed stone, which, because of its rough texture and relatively high level of protrusion, remains the most expressive form of stone dressing, and which is achieved through a combination of splitting and chipping off pieces of stone. Moreover, the use of splitting for the tubzeh stone allows the stone to retain much of its original color, in contrast to the effects created by extensive chiseling of the stone, which sort of “whitens” it. Also, the rather rough texture of the tubzeh stone allows it to weather more gracefully in comparison to more smoothly textured stones. Interestingly enough, Hussaini moves away from the standard 25 cm high block, and uses blocks of smaller height, 10 cm in the Mushahwar house and 12.5 cm in the Abdulwahab house (figure 13). The height used in the stone blocks of the Abdulwahab house is half that of the standard 25 cm high block, which makes it more in tune with existing standards used in the Jordanian construction industry. A few architects had experimented with these reduced stone block heights, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, but the results were never widespread. It is worth noting that while Hussaini has been experimenting with smaller sized blocks, many architects in Amman recently have been moving in the opposite direction, and have been attempting to create a more monumental effect to their buildings through using 50 cm high blocks, or combining two 25 cm high blocks and providing an indentation between them and the following two blocks to create the effect of a 50 cm high block. Hussaini’s smaller sized stone blocks in fact are closer in size to brick, but rather than displaying the smoother texture of brick, Hussaini uses a modified version of the rough tubzeh dressing technique for his stone blocks that includes more splitting of stone pieces than chipping them off. This of course is to be expected considering the small size of the stone blocks. Obviously, these smaller sized blocks also require higher and more precise levels of craftsmanship than the larger ones, and therefore serve to more or less “magnify” the details of the stone and to bring its textures and forms into more intimate interaction with the viewer. 

Hussaini works hard at bringing out the expressive content of his stonework. One manner of achieving this is through combining stone with other smoother materials. After all, the juxtapositioning of forms and planes of different materials and emphasizing the joints at which they meet effectively brings out the characteristics of each of these materials. Consequently, Hussaini combines his stone surfaces and forms with surfaces and forms consisting of smoothly plastered concrete and curtain-wall glass surfaces (figures 1314 & 15). The combinations and contrasts of colors, textures, play of light, and shadow that these different materials present are very effective, and allow the observer to more fully appreciate the visual and tactual qualities that each material provides. 

Of course, there also is considerable experimentation in how stone is used. While stone primarily is used as a material in compression, Hussaini also “plays” with it by using it as a material in tension. In the Mushahwar house, he uses 120 cm long slabs of stone that are 5 cm in height and 20 cm in depth to provide stone grillwork to openings in the upper part of the tower and the outer fence (figure 16). The result is interesting and, from a distance, these stone beams seem as steel ones. However, it should be kept in mind that the use of stone as an element in tension is found in various historical examples, ranging from the stone beams of ancient Greek and Egyptian temples to the window and door beams of the vernacular architecture of Jordan. However, whether in tension or compression, Hussaini makes sure that the stonework in the two houses expresses high levels of accuracy that makes this material at home in the company of industrial steel an glass architecture. 

Hussaini introduces other techniques, which may not affect the outer appearance of a work of architecture, but greatly affects the process and schedule of building it. He completely separates the interior and exterior skins of the building from each other through the water and thermal insulation systems (figure 17). This has allowed him to construct each of the two “skins” separately. Consequently, internal finishing works did not need to wait until the time intensive process of building exterior finish was completed, as is required by commonplace construction practices in Jordan, where the interior and exterior skins are unnecessarily linked and therefore need to be constructed simultaneously. This separation between the structure and its external veneer provides for enhanced thermal and moisture barriers.

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Epilogue:

Where does Hussaini’s work fit within the context of contemporary Jordanian architecture? Obviously, he is one of a group of innovators in Jordan’s contemporary architectural scene. As is the case with Hiyari, this is related to his educational and professional background. He has had the opportunity to study and work abroad before settling in Jordan. In al-Hiyari’s case it was the United States, in Hussaini’s case it was the United Kingdom. Upon returning to Jordan, both architects avoided the trap of concentrating on copying architectural forms, vocabularies, and construction technologies from the United States or the United Kingdom, and transferring them to Jordan, but instead worked on initiating an intensive process of studying local architectural practices and exploring methods of integrating local conditions with the expertise they gained as students and practitioners abroad. In the case of Hussaini, he embarked upon a process of examining stonework techniques from various periods and from various parts of Jordan. He also brought with him from abroad approaches towards architectural form, materials, and technologies (rather than the actual forms, materials, and technologies), which emphasized attention to detail, as well as studying, exploring, and understanding the nature of a given material. The results have been an injection of fresh ideas and approaches into contemporary Jordanian architecture. Such ideas have emphasized a commitment to the use of stone as a construction material, but also have emphasized a commitment to engaging in creating highly disciplined and precise details for this traditional building material. Rather than using stone to turn back to a pre-industrial past, stone here is a forward looking material that welcomes the 21st century.

* For more detailed information on the use of stone in Amman, see, Center for the Study of the Built Environment, Stone as Wall Paper: The Evolution of Stone as a Sheathing Material in Twentieth-Century Amman (Amman: Center for the Study of the Built Environment; Cambridge, MA: ArchNet, 2001). http://archnet.org/institutions/CSBE/library/web/stone/intro.html. The information presented in this essay on stone dressing techniques is taken from an article included in Stone as Wall Paper by May Shaer entitled “The Use of Stone in Amman.” In addition to the article, Stone as Wall Paper includes an illustrated catalogue containing 84 stone samples taken from buildings in Amman constructed between 1900 and 2000. It is worth noting that Hussaini played an integral role in the conception and implementation of Stone as Wall Paper.

Project data:

Mushahwar House

Design and supervision team:
Architects: Simona Bahr, Hani Imam Hussaini, Sarmad al-Mashta, Yousef Shishan, and Rania Yaeesh, Almarsam Architects and Engineers. 
Structural engineers: Ramzi Salfiti and Rami Tadros, Almarsam.
Mechanical engineer: Ammar Nahya, Almarsam.
Electrical engineer: Faisal Qaqish.
Supervision: Zaki Sunna’, Almarsam.

Construction management: Almarsam Architects and Engineers. 

Photographer: Sema Zureikat.

Date of completion: November 2002.

Location: Abdoun district, Amman, Jordan.

Area: 800 square meters.

Cost: Withheld at owners request.

 Abdulwahab House


Design and supervision team:
Architects: Faten Abdullah, Mai Abu Shanab, Joana Haddadin, Hani Imam Hussaini, and Yousef Shishan, Almarsam Architects and Engineers. 
Structural engineers: Ramzi Salfiti and Rami Tadros, Almarsam.
Mechanical engineer: Dunka Jubeh.
Electrical engineer: Faisal Qaqish.
Supervision: Zaki Sunna’, Almarsam.

Construction management: Almarsam Architects and Engineers. 

Photographer: Sema Zureikat.

Date of completion: March 2003.

Location: Abdoun district, Amman, Jordan.

Area: 600 square meters.

Cost: Withheld at owners request.

Hani Imam Hussaini (b. 1960) is a Jordanian architect, and is a partner at al-Marsam Architects and Engineers (www.almarsam.net). He studied architecture at Cambridge University, where he obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as a Diploma in Architecture. He has practiced architecture in the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and Jordan, and also has been involved in projects in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Saudi Arabia, and the West Bank. He is a member of the Jordanian Engineers Association and the Royal Institute of British Architects, and is registered with the United Kingdom Architects Registration Council. He also serves on the board of directors of the Center for the Study of the Built Environment.

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 List of figures:

Figure 1: Mushahwar House, site plan.

Figure 2: Mushahwar House, view of street façade.

Figure 3: Abdulwahab House, site plan.

Figure 4: Abdulwahab House, ground floor plan.

Figure 5: Abdulwahab House, elevation drawing of eastern façade. 

Figure 6: Abdulwahab House, view of garden façade. 

Figure 7: Mushahwar House, ground floor plan.

Figure 8: Mushahwar House, view of family room. 

Figure 9: Abdulwahab House, view of staircase.

Figure 10: Example of the use of the tubzeh stone dressing in Amman. 

Figure 11: Example of the use of the musamsam stone dressing in Amman.

Figure 12: Example of the use of the mufajjar stone dressing in Amman.

Figure 13: Mushahwar House, detail of stonework. 

Figure 14: Mushahwar House, use of surfaces of different materials, view from rear garden towards living room.

Figure 15: Mushahwar House, use of surfaces of different materials, view of entrance area.

Figure 16: Mushahwar House, view of outer stone fence.

Figure 17: Abdulwahab House, typical constructional cross section of outer wall.

 

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Figure 1: Mushahwar House, site plan.

Figure 2: Mushahwar House, view of street façade.

 

Figure 2: Mushahwar House, view of street façade.

Figure 4: Abdulwahab House, ground floor plan.

Figure 5: Abdulwahab House, elevation drawing of eastern façade.

Figure 6: Abdulwahab House, view of garden façade.

Figure 6: Abdulwahab House, view of garden façade.

 

Figure 7: Mushahwar House, ground floor plan.

Figure 8: Mushahwar House, view of family room.

Figure 9: Abdulwahab House, view of staircase.

 

 Figure 10: Example of the use of the tubzeh stone dressing in Amman.

Figure 11: Example of the use of the musamsam stone dressing in Amman.

Figure 12: Example of the use of the mufajjar stone dressing in Amman.

Figure 13: Mushahwar House, detail of stonework.

Figure 14: Mushahwar House, use of surfaces of different materials, view from rear garden towards living room.

Figure 15: Mushahwar House, use of surfaces of different materials, view of entrance area.

Figure 16: Mushahwar House, view of outer stone fence.

Figure 17: Abdulwahab House, typical constructional cross section of outer wall.