Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.
To the bewilderment of many friends, this quote by Rumi adorns the cover of my portfolio. It justifies my pursuit of a career in architecture instead of a more stable field. Although I teasingly explain that “architecture is chronic,” the quote still holds some truth.
As an architect, I thought I did my due diligence: working long, underpaid hours and late nights to build a solid portfolio. But, despite the recognition one’s work may receive, underpayment and employment uncertainty are considered part of the job. On the other hand, the diversity inherent to the profession promotes creative thinking and an aspiration to incite meaningful change; thus, it continues to ignite the imagination.
That’s why, when the opportunity presented itself in the summer of 2014, I took leave from work to visit the Middle East. Yes, that is correct. Having the opportunity to grow up in the East and then to live in the West, I know better than to submit to the media’s fear-inspiring propaganda. I figured that speaking the language and being a seasoned traveler would come in handy. So I set out on an expedition that not only reconnected me to architecture, but also led to one of the most meaningful projects I have worked on.
Within a few weeks in Amman, Jordan, I was delighted to discover some architectural gems interspersed between apartment buildings that sprawled across the city like weeds beyond control. I wondered why a city with such a long, rich history seemingly lacked planning ordinances to regulate its growth. To help shed some light, I thought of connecting to other fellow architects. Thanks to the power of Google, in less than an hour, I had contacted a few local firms and connected to Dr. Farouk Yaghmour, not knowing that I was about to encounter a unique architect who helped me reflect on who I am and to reconnect to my belief of utilizing design to positively impact the life of others.
The office of Yaghmour Architects sits within a fabric of historic Amman residences in Jabal Alwebda (“Al-Webda Hill” in English). The historic quarter extends over one of the seven original hills that formed Philadelphia—the ancient city of Amman. In recent years, Al-Webda has witnessed a revival, transforming it into a trendy neighborhood that is popular among the youth for its cultural institutions, restaurants and hookah cafés.
Originally the residence of an affluent merchant family from Syria, the building occupied by Yaghmour Architects is a testimony to the impeccable retrofit efforts accomplished by the firm. With subtle attention to details – starting with the exterior metal rusted sign and extending to the interior light fixtures – the design exhibits a sensible creativity in the way an existing building was transformed to a contemporary office with a historic flavor. This sensitivity and humbleness were apparent in Dr. Yaghmour’s personal character as well. With gracious, artfully chosen words and a gentle demeanor, he exudes a natural warmth and welcomed my discussion of the city’s architectural character.
Eman Bermani: Despite the rich history of the city, at a first glance, Amman appears like a forest of apartment buildings with no significant identity. It took some research to appreciate the city’s unique architecture and prosperous past. How significant are the planning regulations in defining the future of the city?
Farouk Yaghmour: The city of Amman was established during the Greek conquest of the region and was considered a major center during various historical periods, but Amman dates back to almost 7000 BC. A historical gap followed, then at the beginning of the last century, the city began regaining recognition when immigrant Circassian families began settling in the area near Amman Seil. The Seil was the main axis of the old Amman and historically existed as a body of water that encouraged settlements. Unfortunately, during the seventies, this stream of water was covered and a highway was built on top. We strongly disagreed with the decision, as we believe it could have been preserved and utilized as an attractive city feature. Amman evolved into the current city due to the political climate in the region, starting with the flood of immigrants from Palestine in 1948, followed by another wave in 1967. Moreover, the continuous wars and conflicts in recent years in Iraq and Syria produced greater waves of immigration.
Of course, there are pros and cons to such growth, and the city today is the result of these changes. At first glance, it is hard to identify the city’s strong architectural identity. However, we are lucky to have codes that require the use of natural stone as the primary building material. This provided some sort of uniformity and preserved a recognizable character in spite of the cocktail of buildings. Nevertheless, the reality is that this arbitrary growth was not accompanied by the required planning. In order to accommodate the realities on the ground, the response had to be fast.
EB: How successful have the planning regulations been in mitigating the situation?
FY: The city planning ordinances lacked the required updates to take into consideration these jumps in growth. The urban sprawl affected the city’s agriculture sector drastically. With the new waves of immigrants, the city expanded. This expansion moved mainly from the dryer, more populated East side to the predominantly agricultural West side of the city. Given the more abundant space in West Amman, investors grabbed the opportunity to build hastily for profit. As a result, car ownership has increased dramatically but without the required infrastructure to accommodate it.
EB: How did this affect the green areas within the city?
FY: The city’s green areas are a major issue. Many architects and planners raised the flag to protect the lungs of Amman and we continue to discuss the issue with the municipality, as what little that is left of the city parks is constantly being marketed for development.
EB: It’s encouraging that despite being overly populated with low-income and immigrant families, the East side of the city seems to be experiencing a movement of renovating existing older buildings.
FY: The Eastern side was the old Amman; it was mainly single-family residences with one or two stories. Currently, many are being substituted with apartment buildings. Although local codes limit the building height to four stories from street level, sometimes, buildings reach as high as ten stories, due to the hilly terrain of Amman and the difference in levels between two streets. But recently, there has been a growing appreciation for older buildings. For example, as you can see, this office is a renovated old residence. It is encouraging, as there seems to be more awareness and appreciation of historic properties.
EB: I was amazed to discover the Public Stairs that connect the different areas of the city. Yet, unfortunately I find the majority are neglected and under-utilized.
FY: You’ve been touching on very critical issues within the city: the green areas and stairs. With increasing car ownership, the Amman Stairs have been abandoned. We introduced the issue to the municipal authorities, but there is a lack of institutional oversight governing the successive administrations. As a result, with every change of guards the requirements are revised.
EB: Can you share some of the challenges facing architects working in Amman?
FY: The city’s hilly terrain creates a unique topography, which introduces certain requirements. As such, it presents interesting challenges in meeting a client’s aspirations within the existing conditions. Our challenge lies in educating the client, who comes prepared to change the terrain with the goal of maximizing profit. Another aspect is the social tendency to follow what are perceived to be modern trends, such as the demand to use certain building materials, even though it may not be beneficial and probably more costly. Our task then becomes educating the client that some ideas are only transient trends.
EB: Although it must be challenging to interweave history with modernity in the renovation process, yet there are few good examples around the city. In such a context, how do you introduce modernity to a client?
FY: Like many, I think Ammanis are confused by what modernity really means. Sometimes, it is associated with the use of certain materials or trends. For instance, we were commissioned to design a residence where the client insisted on using the Qarmeed (red bricks) similar to what he saw in Europe. Although the material was used in residential areas during the Ottoman Empire in Amman, Syria and Palestine, we felt that in this instance the material will not work for the design. Although we developed a design concept, ultimately, we had to abandon the project when no compromise was reached.
Modernity doesn’t mean simply borrowing features; it involves understanding the logic of the design. Our work extends to different areas in the region, and we face similar issues with clients, whether in the private or public sectors.
That’s why, upon moving to this location, we converted the lower level to a gallery showcasing the firm’s work in order to raise awareness regarding various design issues. The gallery is open to the public free of charge during business hours from 8:30am to 6:30pm.
We collaborate with many Jordanian Universities and others in the West Bank, such as Birzeit University – one of the oldest in the region – to hold student presentations at the gallery. The space is also used to host community groups like Friends of Al-Webda, that builds bridges between people and their communities through organized tours. In addition to practicing architecture, I teach part time; I find that such a setting works best, as both the students and the practitioner will benefit. Currently, I supervise thesis projects at the German Jordanian University and sometimes will hold discussions at the gallery.
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We left the office to visit the gallery. The exterior concrete stairs connect to the building via a bridge that passes over a green roof, covered with low-irrigation plants cascading down to the lower level of the building. When entering the space, the visitor is welcomed by two rough-cut stone walls, a white ceiling and a giant free-standing white wall with a black text unfurling across it—in both Arabic and English. The calligraphy swirls into a quote by Rumi, reading, “Things do not exist on their own, but are shadows that seize their existence.”
All the letter circles are darkened contrasting starkly with the white background and emphasizing the concept of the quote. Upon expressing my delight at the phrase, Dr. Yaghmour related how, on an earlier visit, the Swedish Ambassador in Amman too, was pleased to recognize the words of her favorite poet.
A semi-circular space with a large metal door in the middle – once the veranda or the formal entrance of the old residence – represents the main exhibition hall.
The concept of shadow plays an integral part in the firm’s philosophy and in the gallery’s setting. The ten projects on display define their existence in the gallery from the role they played in influencing the firm’s journey. Each architectural model is displayed with a line traversing the floor and connecting it to a brief explanatory text on the wall behind. Thus each model seeks its existence through the text beyond.
The architect’s black and white photographic biography on the wall show Dr Yaghmour as a child with his father – the city mayor of Al-Khalil, (Hebron) – on a jeep expedition around the city. Then, there are photos documenting his youth, studying at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, and later, in upstate New York. Dr. Yaghmour recalls how these early experiences planted a seed of recognition and appreciation for the built environment and influenced his path to architecture. The black and white journey continues to display images of the current office during renovation.
Two projects stood out to me: The Spine Mosque and Beit Sahour. I visited the former earlier on my trip in Dubai, on the Palm Jumeirah. A series of drawings, images and models tells the story of the firm’s evolving design philosophy from traditional and conservative to sophisticated and technologically advanced mosque buildings. The latter, I recognized from an article and inquired about.
FY: Beit Sahour is one of three small cities in the West Bank. The project focused on restoring the building facades and specific interior restorations around the city. As such, it required intensive documentation (through collaboration with a local firm in Bethlehem) and sensitivity to protect and preserve the original character of the city. The project has a unique place for me, not only because it was architecturally successful but also because it transformed the economic conditions of the inhabitants. Encouraged by the architecture, people started venturing into new businesses and established restaurants and shops.
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We climbed the stairs to the roof while Dr. Yaghmour explained his reasons for selecting the property: the historical value of Jabal Alwebda and the conditions of purchasing from the original owner.
FY: The last owners were two elderly ladies who inherited the property, but they were looking to move into a modern apartment building in a newer area. I made sure to explain to them the significance of the location. Nevertheless, they were determined to move, so I purchased the property.
EB: Morality requires ethical conduct, but some may think it’s difficult to follow, especially in business...
FY: I think it holds true whether in business or design. When it comes to renovation projects, there are many schools. For us, we choose to follow the principle of preserving the original character of a building as much as possible. During the renovation process, we kept one main aspect in mind: to work with the historic without imposing on it, to respect it and show honesty in the design. As you can see, a new parapet from the original external wall was added in segments with connecting glass, and set back to distinguish it from the original one. For the office open house in 2011, we hosted 300 guests at the roof. Vladimir Djurovica – a colleague and a well-known Landscape Architect from Lebanon – gave a presentation, accompanied by a pianist on the roof.
EB: What will happen when upgrading is required?
FY: Whenever upgrades or alterations are required, we believe it should be authentic, transparent and with minimal intrusion on the original. This enables us to work with integrity and design with ethics. For example, in order to accommodate utilities, a false ceiling was added. We made sure to expose the original ceiling by creating a gap between the new one and the wall. In another instance, when a new concrete wall was added to divide the space, it was left exposed to distinguish it from the surrounding painted walls. Whenever possible, we recycle the original materials. For example, existing windows were restored, a wood heater vent was transformed into lighting receptacles, and old cable trays were used to create lighting fixtures.
The original house was built in 1944 following the “Three Bays” design principle that was popular during the thirties and forties. This layout has a central living area, called the Aliwan, surrounded by other spaces such as bedrooms, a Kitchen and a staircase. The stairs were beyond repair, so they were removed to make space for a new entrance and an elevator for accessibility. An independent concrete staircase was introduced. I recall that during renovation in 2010, I was fascinated with the concept of contrast. The earlier sketches of the project featured a glass cube with a concrete staircase at its heart. But, on a site visit during construction, I began reflecting on the surrounding context, paying special attention to the old residences with open stairs. More and more, I became aware of how beautiful and ingenious they were. Finally, I came to the realization that being an architect doesn’t give me the right to impose a foreign body on a harmonious environment. I realized that leaving the stairs open with no glazing would work better with the surroundings, so I abandoned the contrast and opted for harmony.
For similar reasons, I continue to encourage my students to think of design as a flexible process and to accommodate change when it’s required. A concept shouldn’t shackle a designer; on the contrary, it should help him or her to evolve his or her thinking.
EB: Such considerations show humbleness on your part as a designer and architect.
FY: I think, when working on buildings with a history, an architect will benefit from putting his or her ego aside and instead focusing on the building and its relation to the surroundings. In my opinion, the notion of iconic buildings has gone too far. Look around you, these residences have their rights too, and part of my responsibility is to be sensitive to them.
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The hilly city skyline looked striking from the panoramic roof, and underneath, the sea of old residences looked vulnerable yet peaceful under the setting sun.
I left the office reflecting on my conversation with Dr. Yaghmour.
In the back of my mind echoed the words of my mentor, "To be an architect, means not only using one's technical training, but also utilizing one's full potential."
I thought of Rumi’s shadows and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, thought of my journey between the East and West. A familiar enthusiasm began rekindling.
It became clear that through the built environment, architecture serves to enrich everyday life experiences.
Despite being far away from home, and with limited time and resources, the concept of a project – different from all I had worked on – began evolving.
Keep an eye out for the second part of this series, where Bermani explores a grassroots initiative that seeks to revitalize public spaces in Amman, Jordan.
Eman Bermani is a licensed architect, NCARB Certified, and LEED Accredited Professional, who practices in the State of California. Educated in Iraq and the United States, she frequently travels and documents transformative experiences with the built environment.