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In search of a Jordanian architectural style

The constant motif of Ammar Khammash, a young Amman architect, whose imprint is already large, is to refresh the present by preserving the past. His studio and his sites bespeak his creative quest.
by Lisa Fliegel

Ammar Khammash is on a "rescue mission." He is in a race against the forces of change that are eroding Jordan's traditional rural environments. Still only 33, Khammash is an architect, artist, designer, photographer and craftsman.

I interviewed him in his Amman studio which is overflowing with photographs, furniture of his own design, blue prints, project proposals and paintings - all testimonies to a world joined together by color and light, objects created out of tireless respect for the images of the past.

Khammash is so prolific, so bubbling with ideas, that he tends to forget in the telling of his work some of his greatest projects. What he doesn't forget to mention, however, is his book, "Notes on Village Architecture in Jordan." It was published in 1986 by the Art Museum of the University of Southwestern Louisiana which also devoted an exhibition to the subject, The introduction states not only the theme of the book, but also of Khammash's aesthetic mission -" it serves as a witness to an ancient culture which adapted ingeniously to a harsh arid environment and simultaneously produced an architecture incorporating simplicity of form with an inspired dedication to function."

The book and exhibition derived from a long field study that Khammash conducted in 1985, which included living in nine different villages. Through this experience Khammash affirmed his commitment to the preservation of regional architecture, rural cultural forms, and traditional building methods.

He wants to bypass universally - used modern techniques, like scaffolding and steel which, he says, siphon money away from a site to the hands of suppliers. He advocates use of local materials and , for example, donkeys instead of bulldozers.

"Donkey's leave no ugly traces and don't ruin flora or fauna, like bulldozers do,'' he says disarmingly. Moreover, they belong to the scene. "During the Gulf War the whole construction industry in the kingdom came to a standstill except our project because we planned for self reliance," he notes with a twinkle.

His pride and joy is the Pella Jordan Valley Renovation where he has constructed two rest houses, one at Pella and the other at Umm Qeiss (ancient Gadara). Pella , a short drive from Amman, is part of the Decapolis: the ten Graeco-Roman cities southeast of the Sea of Galiliee. It is among the most important archeological sites in the region. Most of its visible structures date from the Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic periods. The huge ancient city continues to be excavated with evidence of inhabitants dating back as far as 10,000 years. Umm Qeiss is no less significant. There Khammash renovated the former house of the Ottoman Governor.

His construction of the two guest houses represents a revival of Jordan's traditional architecture, including labor intensive methods. Both sites were built entirely by the local population.

Khammash points out that 75 per cent of Jordan's work force is employed by the government. He wants to end that trend by turning consumers into producers beginning with an expansion of the labor force used in construction.

"At least two thirds of construction costs should go to labor," he says unequivocally. Therefore, his design concepts are geared to that end. Khammash is reviving traditional construction methods in order to reintroduce communal building techniques as an alternative to the industrialized systems that require imported materials and outside specialists. As a result, the Pella and Umm Qeiss construction sites serve like training workshops for masons, architects, students, and the rural community.

"These buildings," he says, "are equipped to serve the tourist public while being an integral part of the local aesthetic, educational, and economic community."

Reconstruction at Pella and Umm Qeiss is part of the Jordanian Tourism Ministry's strategy to put the Jordan Valley on the world tourism map. The project is funded by a grant from USAID and managed by the American Center for Oriental Research.

The rest house at Umm Qeiss combines new structures with existing ones. The whole complex achieves a sensitive harmony between the architectural style of the late Ottoman village and the functional requirements of a modern rest house. The site also offers breathtaking panoramas of the Golan and the Sea of Galilee.

Khammash even had a hand in designing the restaurant menu, which he illustrated with indigenous artifacts and utensils. "I want to educate even those eating a bowl of humous about the cultural context of their meal."

The Pella rest house is a new structure, situated east of the main Tel. It is perched on a mountainside overlooking Pella's attractions and offers a spectacular view of the Jordan Valley with the West Bank mountains for a hazy background.

One of Khammash's newest projects is construction of the Hijaz museum which is part of the Ottoman Hijaz Railway Station, but, in fact, he appears to be at the vanguard of every important creative project in the kingdom.

For example, he was commissioned to renovate the old house in Amman that today is the Darat al Funun art center. True to his style, he incorporated a library, exhibition hall, workshops and other uses of the space without destroying the original plan and ambiance of the residence built in the 1930's by the Hamoud family.

Through Khammash's work, the center, which is funded by the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation to promote the fine arts, has achieved a fitting environment for its purposes.

His dream project is to do a "massive Cristo-like site-specific thing." But in contrast to Cristo, the artist who has wrapped whole buildings and landscapes in plastic sheets, Khammash would like "to create something useful that involves the community," more specifically, to build an aqueduct: He would make Umm Quess, where there are a springs and a suitable stratum of rock, the starting point.

Constructing an elevated aqueduct would maximize the use of land and utilize gravity instead of other energy forms to transport water.

Khammash is critical of Cristo for wanting to "reshape the earth and for creating mass pollution," Nature, for the most part, knows what she's doing, he believes and it's best to work within the natural structures she's created utilizing, not recomposing.

For example, he'd like to see Jordan's Wadi Rum make music.

"I'd like to place an organ there and play the whole valley as an instrument," he says enthusiastically. "Throw a note and it will go out to the mountain and come back just in time to reappear at the exact moment in the score. Nature is a measure. A valley has music and acoustics. Like an organ in a church. The organ measures the entire volume of the church. When the sound begins to vibrate you know that it has reached the limits of the construction. One perfect tone can fill the whole space."

"You can't extend your arm to reach the end of the Wadi but you can extend your voice. Your voice can measure the exact distance of Wadi Rum."

Listening to Khammash I can see his visions come to life. Jordan's creative Wonder Boy is a prophet for creative preservation.

"I've been to the Taj Mahal and saw the Imman pray there. God allows the voice to carry to the exact limits and cuts it off at the top of the tower," Khammash says.

It is an image that fits. Khammash, too, wants his creative voice to carry, but within the limits of environmental or cultural authenticity. In doing that he has become an influential force in Jordan's own quest to be a cultural home for its people and a rewarding destination for travellers.

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