Prepared by Mohammad al-Asad with Diala Khasawneh
download text-only version of this essay
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)
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.