Surfaces of the City: Concrete

Urban Crossroads #22

 

 

Concrete surface in Amman. (Jumana Bississo)

When describing Amman, it is common to refer to it as a city of white sandstone buildings. This use of sandstone as a sheathing material provides Amman with a sense of character, and also provides its buildings with an element of continuity. It also tones down the effects of some of the city's more obnoxious architectural displays, of which there is no shortage. In addition, sandstone is locally quarried and needs relatively little maintenance.

However, we often overlook the fact that a good part of Amman's buildings are not sheathed with stone. Instead, they are both constructed of and covered with that most ubiquitous material of the modern period: concrete. Concrete, which is defined as a "hard, compact building material formed when a mixture of cement, sand, gravel and water dries," was used extensively by the Romans almost two thousand years ago, but then more or less was forgotten and not revived until the late-eighteenth century. A powerful revolution in the use of concrete took place at the end of the nineteenth century with the development in France of reinforced concrete, which is concrete that is strengthened by iron bars or an iron mesh embedded inside it. Since then, the use of reinforced concrete has spread throughout the world at a phenomenal rate.

Much of the construction taking in Amman and in Jordan as a whole incorporates cement and concrete finishes. This ranges from the use of exposed concrete blocks to plastered concrete surfaces. The results in the vast majority of cases can only be described as ugly. Although the use of stone to sheath building surfaces usually is done rather well in Jordan, the same does not apply to concrete. High-quality exposed-concrete buildings are a rarity in Jordan, and the ubiquity of poorly-constructed and finished concrete buildings throughout the country has resulted in eyesores on a wide scale. This is unfortunate since cement and concrete can be appealing and effective finishing materials. They may be used to create high-quality smooth as well as rough plastering finishes. Concrete also may used to create numerous types of "artificial stone," and also may be given attractive surface textures that copy the texture of the shuttering used to hold it in place as it dries.

Why is it that exposed concrete has come to be synonymous with ugliness in Jordan? The main answer is that we have been spoiled by the use of stone. Stone can and has created good enough building finishes that we in Jordan have not made any serious efforts at exploring the visual potentials of concrete as a finishing material. This has created a catch-22 situation in which stone has been typecast as a finishing material for more expensive buildings, and concrete for cheaper ones. In other words, buildings that are deemed worthy are sheathed in stone, but less important, low-budget buildings will have exposed concrete or cement finishes. Neither clients nor those involved in the building industry (architects, engineers, contractors, and builders) are willing to make any special efforts to explore the potentials of cement and concrete as finishing materials. All believe that the results of such efforts always will be less than satisfactory. In the meantime, we are presented with an enormous and ever-growing number of poorly built exposed-concrete buildings scarring our cities and countryside.

Although concrete and cement have not yet taken hold in Jordan as high-quality finishing materials for buildings, imported aluminum panels are becoming increasingly fashionable in Amman for this purpose, specially in the case of commercial buildings. Although such panels definitely have an aesthetic merit, they are not necessarily the most suitable solution for building finishes in Amman. Aluminum panels are highly reflective, and therefore reflect a great deal of heat and sun, both of which are very abundant in Amman. Moreover, I was terrified to see an old stone façade in downtown Amman re-sheathed with aluminum panels, which are totally out of place within the context of the older parts of the city.

Concrete and cement, on the other hand, provide enough variety in color and texture to make them potentially appropriate within almost any context. Only a limited number of Jordanian architects, however, are carrying out experiments that attempt at exploring such potentials. In this context, the Jordan Cement Company has both the responsibility and interest in supporting and even participating in efforts aimed at developing and disseminating the use of higher-quality concrete and cement finishes for buildings in Jordan. This company produces just about all of the cement used in the country, and should be concerned that the use of this cement does not always result in eyesores. Moreover, embarking on such efforts can only lead to increasing its sales of cement. This would bring about a win - win situation for all involved, whether producers or consumers of cement and concrete.

Mohammad al-Asad

October 14, 2004

 

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