The Haramayn intersection viewed from Medina Street, looking north. (CSBE Architectural Laboratory)
It is difficult to draw a mental map of Amman without incorporating the overpasses and underpasses (or tunnels) that go through a significant number of its major intersections. These overpass / underpass intersections, which have proliferated in the city since the early 1990s, have been redefining the manner in which the city functions and the manner in which it is conceived.
As an exploration of this issue, a stimulating three-week studio took place this August that addressed one of Amman's overpass / underpass intersections, the Haramayn intersection. This intersection is marked by the crossing of two of Amman's main thoroughfares, the east-west Mecca Street, which crosses it as an underpass, and the north-south Medina Street, which crosses the intersection as an overpass. The intersection itself is a roundabout that is used by vehicles moving along Mecca and Medina streets when they need to make left, right, or U-turns. The roundabout is bordered by buildings from two corners, while the other two corners have not been built up yet. Pedestrian activity around the roundabout is very limited, and the site is dominated by very heavy vehicular traffic.
The studio was led by three architects involved in both the practice and teaching of architecture. Two of them are from Jordan, Sahel Al Hiyari and Yasir Sakr. The third, Kristopher Musumano, is an American architect from New York City, who joined the studio for its third week. The studio's eight participants included five undergraduate and three graduate students of architecture. The studio was organized by the Center for the Study of the Built Environment in association with the Royal Society of Fine Arts / the National Gallery of Fine Arts, with support provided by Darat al-Funun / the Khalid Shoman Foundation and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
The studio was less about re-designing the area of the intersection (although it included a bit of that) than about exploring and understanding how this important example of an "urban joint" functions within Amman. The participants discovered there is a great deal to explore and understand. They started by visiting the site at different times of the day (and night). They drove through the site, walked in it and around it, and also took a bus line that passed through it. They went inside its buildings, and they looked at the site from the windows of those buildings and even from their rooftops.
They looked at the zone where the commercial area immediately around the roundabout meets the residential areas that lay just beyond it. Going through the site, it is difficult to imagine that a relatively serene area is located just behind it. The areas where the two zones met however leave much to be desired. These have become a sort of no-man's zone, and the commercial enterprises of the site usually dump all sorts of items such as empty containers and discarded furniture in the setbacks behind their buildings.
A couple of students explored the commercial signs dominating the site. These commercial signs are the site's most prominent feature. They are plastered on the facades of its buildings. Enormous commercial signs also are placed on the tops of buildings, and they may be viewed from considerable distances (as from the roof of my house, which is located a couple of kilometers away from the site). The use of oversized signs is not limited to the buildings located along the roundabout, but extends into Mecca and Medina streets. In the case of one building along that street, near the intersection, it was observed that the square-meter area of its signs is larger than the area of the main façade of the building itself! The signs clearly have come to dominate those buildings, which often seem to be no more than props that hold the signs. At night, when the signs are lit, the buildings almost disappear, and one almost only sees the signs tacked on to them. The enormous size of the signs clearly indicates that they are intended for those in motor vehicles and not for pedestrians, which should not be surprising considering that most of those who pass through the site do so from behind the windows of a moving vehicle rather than on foot.
One student looked at Medina Street and observed how it has a different character in the part located to the south of the intersection in relation to the part located to the north of the intersection. The part located to the south of the intersection primarily is residential in character and is dominated by a specific building type: the four-story, eight-unit apartment building. This building type has its problems as a solution to residential needs in Amman, but it does present a unified building scale along the street. Although each residential building has a different set of tree types planted along the stretch of sidewalk in front of it, the greenery of the trees provides some visual continuity along the street.
Once one approaches the intersection and reaches the commercial part of Medina Street, one enters a markedly different realm. The banal and uninspired, but generally coherent residential stretch makes way for an anarchic urban scene. There is no consistent building form that characterizes the commercial retail and office buildings located along that part of the street; there also is an absence of a consistent scale that brings these buildings together. The proliferation of commercial signs on the facades of buildings and on their rooftops adds to this chaotic feel. In addition, there are no trees in front of any of the buildings, and, for all practical purpose, no sidewalks. Instead, there are asphalted areas bordering the street itself in which vehicles park, in no apparent order. The difference between the two stretches of the street separated by the intersection, the residential and commercial, is overwhelming.
What about the interventions in the site that the students suggested? They came up with a few interesting (and in some cases creative) ideas. For example, the team that examined the proliferation of commercial signs in and around the site decided to take a novel approach. Rather than proposing an elimination or toning down of the signs, they suggested that thin independent façades be created specifically for the signs. These façades would be separated from the façades of the buildings on which the signs currently are tacked. The space in between the two façade layers would house multi-level pedestrian pathways. The additional independent façade also would serve to separate and protect the pedestrian pathways from the loud, busy, and fast traffic of the adjoining streets.
One student looked at the no-man's land that has come to exist in the setbacks located at the back of the commercial buildings and that separates them from the residential areas located behind them. Her solution was to convert these areas into landscaped pedestrian paths and spaces. Accordingly, the back facades of the commercial buildings would be retrofitted to include stores and cafés. The resulting arrangement is intended to provide a pleasant and quiet setting that people from in and around the adjacent residential neighborhood may use, and to create an atmosphere that contrasts with the loudness and busyness of the front parts of the commercial buildings that face the busy adjacent streets.
Realistic solutions for challenges facing the city often are found in what initially may seem as fanciful and unrealizable thoughts. The participants of the studio carried out a rigorous and disciplined analysis of the site of the Haramayn intersection. They then were asked to let their imaginations free when proposing solutions for developing it, and some of the solutions provided are worth serious consideration.
November 10, 2005