"Ugly Concrete Boxes are Almost Alright"

Work and Consultation Space for a Psychologist by architect Sahel Hiyari - Amman, Jordan

Prepared by Mohammad al-Asad with Diala Khasawneh

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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.

 Work and consultation room: two views showing the different lighting effects that can be achieved by moving the sliding wall panels.


The first thought that comes to mind when trying to analyze this project is its modesty. It is a renovation of a small (less than 60 square-meter) nondescript portion of a residential structure that was carried out with the relatively tight budget of around 11,000 Jordanian Dinars (15,500 USD). However, the result is exhilarating. This is a project that pays attention to the smallest detail, and unequivocally declares that high-quality architecture does not have to be expensive architecture. It creates effective spaces that show a masterful and dynamic manipulation of color, light, and texture. Moreover, it is a project in which architect Sahel Hiyari makes a powerful architectural statement. This is an iconoclastic design that avoids historical architectural traditions or the fashionable vocabularies of contemporary world architecture as points of departure. Instead, Hiyari turns for inspiration to popular contemporary building practices predominant in a developing-world context such as that of Jordan.

Consequently, Hiyari examines buildings characterized by shoddy construction materials and techniques, which primarily incorporate poorly finished concrete surfaces with rough edges and rusting steel elements. Such buildings understandably have been the subject of scathing attacks by architectural critics everywhere. They are a harsh manifestation of the abrupt advent of the powerful forces of modernization to the developing world. These structures have replaced the age-old architectural vernacular traditions that sensitively incorporated the economic, social, technological, and environmental circumstances of their societies, and the result has been a built world that is out of balance. Consequently, cheap, uninspired, and shoddily built concrete boxes today overwhelm most cities of the developing world.

Hiyari's approach is that these ubiquitous structures will not go away for some time. However, much of Jordan's architectural community has attempted to ignore them, and in the search for sources of inspiration, many architects have turned back to a romantic past, or have run forward to the various trendy vocabularies of post-industrial architecture. More often than not, the results have been simplified and superficial borrowings from such prototypes that fail to understand the complex ideas, processes, and forces that have shaped the architectural masterpieces of the past and present. Hiyari, on the other hand, has decided to accept the present realities and constraints of our built environment and to work with them. He examines the crude concrete boxes of our cities and develops them to reach a higher realm of architectural production. In other words, he proposes turning the tables and letting the highbrow learn from the lowbrow, a position that in some ways has been espoused by Robert Venturi in statements such as "Main Street is almost alright." In the case of Hiyari, ugly concrete boxes are almost "alright."

Hiyari moves away from the architectural vocabularies that have become widespread in the more affluent sections of Amman, or what is known as western Amman. Of course, there is no shortage of confused, dreadful exhibitionist buildings in western Amman. However, it also has its share of elegant, high-quality structures that masterfully incorporate well-proportioned cubic masses, usually sheathed in the white limestone that has become its visual trademark. Hiyari, in contrast, explores the concrete buildings of the less affluent sections of Amman - or what usually is referred to as eastern Amman - for inspiration. To Hiyari, eastern Amman is the core of Amman. This is where three-quarters of the city's population live. Moreover, eastern Amman, with its compact urban fabric and vibrant pedestrian life, is the urban Amman, while the more sparsely occupied and automobile-dominated western Amman is the suburban Amman. However, eastern Amman remains absent from the consciousness of the city's architectural community. (Figure 1)

Figure 1 : Al-Jofah Hill in eastren Amman (photographed by Said Nuseibeh)

Hiyari's approach is to search the margins and the marginalized for solutions. He studies what most of us view as unrefined building practices; he accepts their harshness, crudity, and imperfections; he digests their vocabularies; and he uses these structures as a springboard from which he develops a new, bold, and vital architectural aesthetic. In the final result, he creates poetry out of an uninspired utilitarian reality.



The project deals with a 1950s addition to a preexisting structure dating back to the 1920s. The 1950s addition is one of a number of extensions that have been tacked on to the structure since it was first built. This phenomenon of accretion also is true of the First Circle area in which the structure is located. The area is one of the earliest to have been built in modern Amman. A number of its structures date back to the 1920s, but the area also has been the scene of a series of diverse interventions, ranging from renovation works to additions to new construction.

This project is primarily an interior one. Exterior interventions therefore are relatively limited. Still, the changes that Hiyari carries out for the street façade of the building give a glimpse of what is to be expected inside. Hiyari re-plasters the exterior façades with a roughly textured layer of concrete that is mixed with steel powder. The powder is intended to rust, and the resulting rough texture of the concrete articulated by the brownish speckles of rusted steel provide for a calculated harshness that well tolerates the process of weathering. (Figure 2)

Figure 2: Street façade.

A standard feature of many houses in Amman consists of protective iron grills that cover the windows of the lower floors of buildings. These have come to serve both utilitarian and aesthetic purposes. They provide security against theft, but they also serve as decorative elements that incorporate various patterns, ranging from simple vertical or horizontal strips to ornate curving designs. This project has one ground-floor window facing the street, and Hiyari provides it with a protective iron grill. Hiyari has approached this commonplace element in a most uncommon manner. The grill, which is arranged as brise-soleil (sun breaking) panels, was left to rust before a protective sealant was applied to it. In other words, rather than attempting to resist the oxidization process, which in many cases is an inevitable result of weathering, poor craftsmanship, or poor maintenance, Hiyari accepts it and even develops an aesthetic statement out of it. The end result consists of interesting textures and colors that incorporate various shades of brown. (Figure 3)

Although protective window grills are about permanence and stability, Hiyari incorporates sliding window grills. The grill can be fixed in position in front of the window with a padlock. However, one also can slide it along rails away from the window. The idea behind this approach is that although window grills provide protection and security, they also create a feeling of confinement for those inside. Moreover, they most often are not needed when someone is inside the space they are intended to protect. Consequently, Hiyari provides the user with the option of locking the grill in front of the window or sliding it away from the window, and both options can be achieved with considerable ease. As we shall see, such sliding planes provide a theme that reoccurs regularly throughout this project.

A window (with a sliding protective grill) and a main entry door are all that articulate the street façade of the project. The door leads to a small (20 square-meter) open forecourt that is bordered by high walls from three sides and the structure itself from the fourth. The treatment of the exterior elevation described above is continued in the forecourt. Its walls are covered with rough concrete plastering mixed with steel powder. The openings of the structure facing the forecourt are articulated with sliding grills consisting of brise-soleil panels. In addition, Hiyari introduces deep brown wooden frames for the windows. The floor of the courtyard is paved with closely spaced pebbles, giving the floor an undulating smooth texture that contrasts with the rough texture of the walls. Two preexisting lemon trees are incorporated within the design of the forecourt. These provide a link with the structure's past, and also introduce elements from nature into the otherwise manmade space of the forecourt. (Figure 4)

Figure 3: Brise-soleil window grill for street façade window.

Figure 4: Forecourt

The ground floor consists of a kitchen, bathroom, and a work and consultation room. Each of the spaces provides a unique experience in terms of spatial qualities, manipulation of light, and use of materials and of textures. (Figures 56)

Figure 5: Groundfloor Plan

Figure 6: First floor plan

The small bathroom is much more than a utilitarian space. It is a poorly lit area to begin with. Hiyari accepts its darkness, and therefore avoids using the usual white ceramic tiles and bathroom fixtures associated with bathrooms. Instead, he uses the dark Jordanian Dab'a stone of the Karak region as the main material for this space. The bathroom floor is paved with Dab'a stone, and the walls are covered with alternating protruding and recessed horizontal strips of that stone. A pleasant surprise is that each of the sink and toilet consists of a carved single block of stone. The result is works of sculpture. In keeping with the overall somber feel of the space, Hiyari had the ceiling painted in a dark olive green. (Figures 78)

A similar approach extends into the kitchen. Here, the huge kitchen sink also is carved out of a single block of Dab'a stone and is placed over a steel cabinet. The color theme provided by the stone is continued for the floor, which is made of cement painted with a hint of lavender. One side of the kitchen is sheathed with broken mirror pieces. These give the tight space a sense of openness without denying that the resulting feeling of spaciousness is illusionary. Again, Hiyari's skill in making use of simple inexpensive common-day industrial objects is expressed in this space. The kitchen lighting fixtures are no more than galvanized industrial pipes hung from the ceiling with light bulbs fixed to their ends. (Figure 9)

Figure 7: Toilet.

Figure 8: Bathroom sink.

figure 9: Kitchen sink.

The main space of the project is the work and consultation room, a small space with a high ceiling that rises about four meters. Hiyari states that this space "provides multiple visual conditions and possibilities." Here, he uses the theme of sliding panels - which we first encountered with the exterior window grill - to provide the room with its spatial variety. Those vertical panels slide in a manner resembling overlapping curtains to create almost another wall parallel to and in front of the actual wall. Through the incorporation of these simple panels, which are made of wood and are hung from the ceiling, the amount of light entering the room is manipulated to transform it from a space flooded with natural light to what Hiyari refers to as a "warmly lit, sealed capsule." Consequently, a single physical space offers a multiplicity of effects, and the room functions in many ways as a stage set - though a very private one - that can be readily transformed to provide contrasting experiences of space and light. (Figure 10)

Figure 10: Work and consultation room: two views showing the different lighting effects that can be
achieved by moving the sliding wall panels.

The power of the work and consultation room is not confined to the manner in which Hiyari manipulates the play of light entering it. Every detail seems to reflect the tremendous care and creativity applied to this project. In the case of the floor, some of the original decorative terrazzo tiles were preserved, but the rest of the floor was redone with a cement finish. The result is a delicate reminder of the 1950s that is combined with a harsher contemporary concrete surrounding.

A stair leads to the upstairs room, which is intended as a contemplative space. A blue sliding panel - rather than the traditional hinged door - separates this upper-floor space from the stair. Consequently, the theme of sliding panels is continued. This space is spartan but relaxing. It has a bed that is a mattress placed on top of a concrete platform, which also functions as a storage box. The space also incorporates built-in shelves made of concrete. The heating radiator and the alcove in which it is located are painted in a dark blue that contrasts with the lighter colored walls of the room. The ground is covered with a warm sea-grass rug. The result is a space that is ideal for contemplation and relaxation. (Figures 61112, & 13)

Figure 11: Entry door and stair leading to upper level.

Figure 12: Contemplation room.

Figure 13: Contemplation room.

Hiyari mentions that this project was designed around the "possible rapport between architecture and self discovery, and the question of how this space can facilitate such a process." This definitely is one theme that this design addresses. However, it goes much beyond that, and provides a powerful statement about the state of contemporary architecture within the context of a developing country such as Jordan. Much of the debate about this architecture remains bogged down within the dichotomy of "modernity vs. tradition." This design, in contrast, transcends this debate to create its own modernity and plant the seeds for a new tradition.


Project data:

Architect: Sahel Hiyari

General contractor: Mansour al-Taweel

Metalwork contractor: Yahya Kasji

Photographer: Jan Kassay (unless otherwise noted)

Date of completion: 2001

Location: First Circle Area, Jabal Amman, Amman, Jordan

Area: 57 square meters, in addition to a 20 square-meter open forecourt

Cost: 11,000 Jordanian Dinars (15,500 USD)

Sahel Hiyari is an architect and painter. He received his Bachelor's degrees in Architecture and Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design, and his Master's of Architecture in Urban Design from Harvard University. He also attended three years at the University of Venice as a Doctorate student in architecture. He has been practicing architecture in Jordan since 1996. Before moving to Jordan, his professional experience included design work with Dar El Handasah, Shair and Partners in Cairo, and Machado Silvetti Associates in Boston. His paintings have been exhibited in Jordan, Lebanon, and Italy. Hiyari also is the first architect to receive the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, according to which he has been chosen as the protege of the Pritzker Prize winner architect Alvaro Siza of Portugal.

List of Figures:

Figure 1: Al-Jofah Hill in eastern Amman (photograph by Said Nuseibeh) 

Figure 2: Street façade

Figure 3: Brise-soleil window grill for street façade window

Figure 4: Forecourt

Figure 5: Ground floor plan

Figure 6: First floor plan

Figure 7: Toilet

Figure 8: Bathroom sink

Figure 9: Kitchen sink

Figure 10: Work and consultation room: two views showing the different lighting effects that can be achieved by moving the sliding wall panels

Figure 11: Entry door and stair leading to upper floor

Figure 12: Contemplation room

Figure 13: Contemplation room