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.
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.
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.