A conversation with the jordanian architect, archaeologist, painter, musician and critical thinker Ammar Khammash. The interview was held as part of a research project on the characteristics of space in the context of islamic architecture, culture and landscape in Spain, Egypt and Jordan.
Website: Khammash Architects
Moritz Ruben: To put this conversation into context briefly: my current project is focusing on architecture in the Islamic World spanning from southern Spain over northern Africa to its origin on the Arabic peninsula. The focus here being on the different contexts of that very distinct architectural and cultural space. With your work as an architect in Jordan and your very context-based approach to your profession you took a lot from those cultures and the landscape they inhabit and transform it into contemporary practice. In the beginning of your career for example you did an analyzing work on village architecture in Jordan in which you noted the fast-changing character of those villages. This documentation is now 33 years old. What has changed since then?
Ammar Khammash: You know that was my 5th year in the US and for the graduation project you could reject it and write your own proposal. And I was studying in the US in Louisiana which is a wood-country, it basically has no stones. And I said let me do what I can use in my future, in Jordan. So, I refused the graduation project which all the class had to work on and I wrote a proposal to understand the Jordanian traditional architecture of the late 19th to early 20th century, let’s say 1890 to 1930. And I felt that they had given me all the basics but when it comes to context and how the landscape has hidden messages, I was telling them that there was no way they could really teach me what I should be taught. I told them that my new professor is the old lady in the village, I wanted to understand from her why she takes a certain decision. Why her and her husband would take a design decision from the ecology and the landscape and the site at large. I came on the purpose to study the very remote villages that are not urban and actually don’t have a style. I was against style in architecture. I wanted to look at survival architecture, how they take a decision almost like a bird makes a nest. I wanted to go to the very naïve and basic of it. And it was really shocking because you had those villages that are built almost in the style of early bronze on sites that have Roman, Byzantine or even Hellenistic or Nabataean monuments with very fine architecture. And what was exiting to me was to actually look at architecture without any urban stylistic fashion of the past. This was the best way to understand how ecology and environment and material produce architecture without the decorative additions.
MR: Basically, architecture as a construction of pure space?
AK: Absolutely, yes.
MR: Those villages are also reacting to their environment in a way, as did early Islamic culture based on the nomadic styles, where architecture was not taken so seriously as a virtue, maybe only seen as something temporarily.
AK: Well, we must be careful not to assume things in a fixed way. Actually, I don’t think these people ever constructed these houses to be temporary. I think the Arab to East-Mediterranean mosaic of ethnicities, excluding maybe the Bedouins, really genetically wanted to build something forever. These villages were heavy structures, and they were not necessarily Bedouin, some villages were semi-nomadic, they had a double life. The main root was the village but, in the spring, they would go out for two months with the goats and they would live in a tent. But the purely Bedouin tribes had no construction and no agriculture. That’s another story altogether, that was a parallel live. Like a plan B in case of wars or diseases that lifestyle became the strongest alternative in the middle east. I think in human biology there is probably a hidden agenda making sure that we have a survival strategy in having those tribes that were betting on an opposite lifestyle. And in museums we see all the chronological civilization but then we have the Bedouin line which hasn’t changed, going parallel. And it’s so beautiful because in a way it is even more solid, much more resilient and minimalist.
And concerning the village architecture I felt like I’m going to see the last movie, the last scene of that film. And I knew it because I was born in a cement house in Amman and Amman was exploding already in the eighties in terms of building materials, but I felt that there is something missing. I knew that I would be very lucky to see some of these last examples. And some of these houses were still used. So, I made a very quick harvest, I only had about six month here. I lived in these villages to make this documentation and write my impression on them and to understand what shapes them in this very pragmatic approach.
MR: And for that you also went on studying ethnoarchaeology?
AK: Yes, when I finished from the US I went to AA for a very short period. But the AA was too kinky, too idle for my taste and I knew they would not give me the tools I needed. They were actually found in archaeology and anthropology, so I studied ethnoarchaeology. I wanted to acquire a new eye, a strong eye that could look at hidden decisions of the past. Because archaeology is the opposite of architecture. In architecture you make a drawing and then you make it reality. And in archaeology you have reality, then you excavate and make a drawing.
MR: Before starting your company, you were 'a nomadic architect' as you said. That is a very different approach since most young architects get consumed quickly by the work inside the office. What could you learn from that time and what can you recommend young architects on how to develop themselves?
AK: I used that word for a practical purpose, it really meant that I had no office. I was a nomadic architect not because I was interested in nomadic architecture but because I was personally nomadic. My office was a Rucksack. I started taking notes and writing proposals. And one of the very early clients of mine was the German embassy. I wrote them a little three-page idea and they liked. It was a very small budget, about 10.000 Euro for a museum. And I worked a year without budget while others went to offices. I hated the business side of architecture. I felt like there is this blind machine running like crazy just to make more square meters per year, for me this was so boring. I didn’t want to be sitting indoor drawing, I wanted to understand how much a man can carry. When I started designing, I understood exactly how much to cut in the mountain, how much cubic meter of material gives how much cubic meter of space. And also, the wages, because I knew how much the workers were payed, how much they needed to eat. Here anthropology came back in. And I wanted to look at architecture from the eye of the individuals implementing it on the site and then go backward. How can I design it differently so that they have a better life and I can pay more money to them then to material? This is called labor intensive architectural design with the criterium to spend the budget more into the people’s pockets.
MR: That is an interesting approach, I found the labor-intensive aim of those projects really captivating.
AK: But I don’t think that labor intensive designing is a solution for architecture around the world. It cannot really produce the amount of needed housing for our growing cities. But we must push for responsible architecture, one that has modesty and roots in the ground. And not this kind of obsession of being published in the magazines, regardless of what the architecture really is about but how it looks in the virtual world. I have a major problem with what happened in the last 20 years in architecture because it was hijacked by this kind of weird virtual image. But biology also does a lot of this if you look at birds and their dances and colors. You must be careful; you cannot be too much against it because in evolution this kind of bullshit was one of the tools of evolution.
MR: So, it is part of a cultural evolution. That’s interesting because today’s architecture undoubtedly has a dependence on its visuality to sell good and get published. But there are also architects like Patrick Schumacher from Zaha Hadid Architects proposing a type of anarcho-capitalism in architecture, basically to deregulate it, leaving its boundaries to the market. What do you think about that approach?
AK: I think the market will always be tricked to make ridiculous experiments and I’m not against it. I don’t think we should have like an architecture police. Because maybe it is just disgusting for me because you have different priorities in the world. There is global warming, hunger, social justice. And these are areas where architecture should be working in my opinion, not just perfume models and a circus of morphology. But that has a market, and I don’t mind theatre. I’m an artist myself but what makes me feel unfair about this is that as an artist you can make amazing and crazy stuff as long as it is with your own money. In fact, art should be irresponsible. Art should not serve anything; it should make problems. But architecture should solve problems, it’s the exact opposite. If you as an artist or a writer are not starting problems, you are not a good artist. You should really challenge your process, challenge society, challenge beliefs. But in a building in a public space, owned by everybody, costing millions?
MR: Should there be more of a social process trying to find out what the people actually want? Because there are some movements trying to do this using social media platforms.
AK: It’s happening and there is a comeback a little bit. I think there is now starting a re-thinking about what is the role of architecture. And now you have generative design and you have nano technology and 3D-printing and drones. And then you have the very interesting new fields in architecture working on overlap between architecture and medicine, architecture and psychology, architecture and acoustics. This is the exciting stuff and tools are getting cheap, even labs are cheap. Now actually on your phone you can download apps that make you a lab.
MR: So, you would recommend exploring more on the boundaries of architecture?
AK: Absolutely, and forget about style, put it aside if you want my advice. You have different options of course. You could join a good office and be part of their production machine, it’s fine if you like to do that. Some people prefer to do repetitive work. But there are other people who get bored very fast and those are the innovative ones. Innovation is the habit of getting bored very quickly, to say “Okay I understand, what’s next?” Keep looking for novelty. Look what happens now with architecture in its periphery. With architecture and sound, not just the acoustics. The whole idea of resonance, sonification of forms or the opposite. The sound in terms of energy and sound as healing medically. Another thing is architecture and neurology: Can we give architecture the sense of pain using sensors? Because then it can jump into biology or biomimicry. What happens if you have real time sensors in a skyscraper or bridge. As a designer for example you get feedback from the stresses of that structure, which is like pain. And then your next bridge is evolving from that. This is how biology works, a species makes a mistake and dies, and another corrects for it. So, then that species goes on shaping evolution.
MR: This is a prevision for the future in terms of highly developed technology transcending architecture. But even when focusing on sustainable architecture there are currently two very different approaches, while one is focusing on high-tech, modern building solutions that need advanced planning and skills to be constructed the other is based on basic knowledge, simple materials, incorporative processes and might not include a high technical standard. Which one of them do you think is more promising to lead us in a sustainable future?
AK: It’s not a crossroad, I don’t think we have to take one and forget the other. Because the extreme high-tech is also extremely fragile and only few people might have access to it. But also, I don’t think nature could really afford that we build out of stone and mud for all the people on the earth. And mud is not that sustainable and ecology-friendly but when you remove it from the land sometimes an entire habitat is destroyed. I would stress that we cannot look at traditional construction methods in this romantic way that it could be solution for making a city like Stuttgart or New York. I think the future will not be that we go back and built-in traditional architecture even though that solution should be kept. It’s like in Japan where you find very traditional Japanese carpenters doing the most beautiful work. And that is important, they are very important to our brain. But we cannot solve the problem of Tokyo with those amazing artisans.
MR: So, have we already entered an area where we already design bi-lingual, one side being the context of self-constructing modern cities and the other being closer to nature? Or is there still one language unifying those two contexts?
AK: I don’t know to be honest. But what I know is that there are two poles, two pulling ends. If you are doing a building in Dubai, it is now designed and built in a fashion very similar to the way a car or an airplane is made. And that is increasing because there is no way to house two hundred floors on top of each other without that level of technology. And this is one direction that has a lot of power because it has 99% of money, politics and employment behind it. And then you have the 1% which is this beautiful little house on a Greek island built from simple stones brought with a donkey. Built extremely smart, just designing according to the shape of the rock, without cutting. With a simple bed here and the breakfast area there because then the sea has a better angle. And then the shadow of the tree and the wind. That beautiful space, which even the biggest Sheikh in Dubai can’t dream of. But he will probably go and buy that island later. But that way of building is not disappearing because some people really see its quality. We evolved more on that Greek island than in Dubai. I think we must look at those models of traditional architecture because there are some hints in them and responsibility and then look at Dubai and ask ourselves how to make it better. In Dubai I’m more interested in the Bengali workers who have sunstrokes, or the Egyptian guy who is making a little money to send to home. I would like to go to their village and see how they live. Because for me final architecture is so boring. But the process, the metabolism of us humans, that weird species that is shaping material and spaces and giving it new function. We are really the animal that is mastering corrupting material and space. I’m interested in the process of that manipulation not the final product as a masterpiece.
MR: To get back to your profession, you claim that the site is the architect, and you were cited in an article 'Often I think the site is much more beautiful before an architect touches it'. Also, you said in your speech at the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture that generally architecture is a sin because it is always about extraction. How can you profess as an architect with that mindset?
AK: Absolutely, architecture is a sin. So, I try to approach it with extreme caution. Every time I go to the site of a client, I think 'It’s so beautiful, who am I to ruin this beautiful empty space?'. But if architecture is a sin, it means that we really have to make that sin carefully. It’s not the more the better, always ask the client, 'Are you sure you want to build a 1000 m², can we make it 500 m² big?', 'Sure, you want to make a statement? Can we make it invisible?'. The phrase 'architecture is a sin' has really started pushing me to mitigate the sin as much as possible and be modest about it.
But let’s go back 10.000 years and zoom out from architecture. If architecture is a sin, then tools are a sin because it is already manipulating. They are an extension of our body to increase our possibilities. You make a flute because your mouth can not make all the notes, you make a hammer to hit harder. You make a knife or scissors because your nails are not good enough. You make a blender because you cannot chew, eyeglasses because you cannot see. And these are all sins, good sins.
MH: So, we have to build more modest and minimalistic in a way to mitigate unnecessary sins? Kind of could remind of the way Bedouin and Nomadic culture evolved in the desert. Where you were forced to build in this survival driven way.
AK: But also, the Bedouin tent is another issue altogether, it is a kind of architecture that is closer to spinning a jacket, almost like the spider making a web or a bird making a nest. It is a totally different alternative because their circumstances made them keep that invention and there was no evolution. Almost like sharks keeping the same design for 300 million years. The reason was that they had a lot of raids and they had to follow the grass, so having fixed architecture would have been impossible for them. The whole idea became a solution, not architecture for the sake of architecture but a perfect way of symbiosis between people and the landscape.
MH: Since you touched on sustainability, I just learned about the precarious situation of ecosystems and water-supply in Jordan. When considering the prevention or mitigation of future issues through water usage, sustainable energy supply or better architecture, how is the situation there in Jordan right now?
AK: I’m very much involved in the issue of hydrology and I try to give a different direction to the government if they listen. My interest in hydrology is coming from my obsession to understand the Jordanian landscape which also includes the history of water in terms of Nabataean water-engineering and Roman dams. I am also interested in the paleoclimate. To understand what happened in the last 200.000 years with the ancient lakes in the desert and the glaciers, all the way to hydrology through archaeology and hydrology in terms of geology. To understand what the structure underneath the city is. The other problem is that Jordan has a very harsh neighborhood politically. We have the Israelis, the Syrians and the Iraqis and that is adding to the problem. Secondly there is now a drastic global warming and climate change which is causing the average rainfall to drop drastically. But let’s focus on a city like Amman, where in the last 2 to 3 years we started having more pulse rain causing flashfloods, normally happening in the first quarter of the winter. So, there are these rains in a city that is not permeable, with amounts of water the city cannot absorb. In the area of Downtown streets overflow and the rest of the year we don’t even have enough water to drink. And we are exposing people to the danger of drowning when there is a storm. I think the only solution is to make a national discussion that produces a common vision that is based on certain facts and certain possibilities. Personally, I think we should be concentrating on harvesting the fresh water we get above Amman, which is about a foot every year. Currently we lose up to 97% of that fresh water due to evaporation. My solution would be to inject it underneath the city immediately. Not necessarily all of it, if we are now collecting 3% and rise it to 6%, we already double the amount of water in the spring in Downtown.
MR: How would the specifics of that solution look like?
AK: It really needs some experimentation and research; it would basically mean taking a neighborhood and tapping their roofs. Because very little of the water that falls on those roofs goes to the aquifer, it ends up on the street where it is collected and causes a flood in Downtown. The solution would be to take a neighborhood and equip them with a recharge well, basically a big pipe. And for this you look with sensors for little vaults or little gaps, called Karst, which is dissolving bedrock. When it’s raining, you just inject the water down. Away from pollution, away from evaporation, away from engine oil on the street. Just store it below in the natural reservoir already in place.
MR: So, you don’t think the best solution would be to design sustainable houses, rather it should be an integrative process between architecture and geology?
AK: It is similar in Germany, making solar energy as a unit is not feasible unless you make it for a neighborhood. The same applies for Amman, collecting water from your roof in a tank is not feasible. First this will only be enough for three months. Secondly the cost of that space and material is too high. If a whole neighborhood wants to make a tank, then it is more cost effective. But why make a tank, the entire bedrock under downtown Amman is a natural tank. It just needs water.
MR: Also, the City of Amman is continuously depleting its aquifer, right?
AK: The problem in Amman is that first we have deprived the aquifer of Amman and now the ministry of water even concentrates on the deep aquifer. Which is not a smart thing because first of all they are too deep, you have to put so much energy to pump its water. Secondly, when you go very deep the water becomes saline, hot and radioactive. We shouldn’t start digging even deeper because the deep aquifer is also fossil water, so it’s finished after 40 years. If every year we get one foot of fresh water, just put it in the sponge beneath us and then use it all the year. And I’m not into mega projects, I’m not into making a big dam in Amman. I would make 200 small dams each as big as this swimming pool. And they could be in the walkway and you don’t know that there is a box below you that has gravel and when it rains it fills in the gravel. I tell you another problem, now 40% of the Amman water comes from Disi-Aquifer, which is fossil water that goes all the way into Saudi Arabia. About a month ago, one guy ruined the main pipe by removing things. So, Amman panicked. And that water passes through four different tribes. So, if some of the tribes don’t like something in Amman, they can cut the blood line of an entire city. And when talking about resilience of a city, Amman is a city that depends on sucking the blood of other landscapes.
MR: This means the solution would be more of an urban project applied to the whole city.
AK: Yes, because a city is like an architectural fabric, it is like a skin. And your skin cannot work in one cell alone, you have to deal with it like with a tissue. So, all these houses must work together in terms of hydrology and energy. I think when you decide to live in a city, then you sign a contract, a social contract. Old cities had a wall, so if you are inside the wall of Jerusalem, you had to behave. Now the contract is shaped by police, law and also noise and pollution. You could probably make it mandatory that you have to store the water that falls on your roof. But again, that is too expansive. Or you give it to the public, and we store it below the city. Actually, this is very similar to older courtyards in traditional architecture. Because cities like Jerusalem, or Madaba or those mountain top villages, they were too high to have springs. What they do is they don’t allow the goats to go in the courtyard and they clean all the roofs with a broom. They prepare them for the rain and all the drainage goes to cisterns in the courtyard. And these cisterns were also strategic, because they are inside the courtyard. If there was a problem, they could lock the house and it was like a castle. And we can take the same metaphor here in Amman if you want.
MR: On your website I saw the design for the Jabboul guesthouse. Which kind of reminded me of Bedouin houses with its domes or also of the additive process mosques were built. What was the inspiration for that?
AK: Actually, Jabboul was very straight forward, it was a swiss governmental project to protect wetland in Syria, a place for bird migration. It is where the birds cross from eastern Russia to Africa, directly on a highway of birds. It has two lakes, a freshwater lake and a salty lake with pelicans and other beautiful birds. And next to it there are very poor villages. We looked at the project and decided we need to work with the local people and give them some kind of income, maybe birdwatching. So, I was asked as an architect to make a concept and start designing an ecolodge. I went there in this landscape and I knew roughly before that they had these beautiful cone shaped domes. And I felt that the best thing is to take that evolution, the dome has evolved in areas that have no wood because it is made without shattering, no scaffolding. It is made from corbelled stone rings. So, I said I use their cell. The general dimension was like 4,5 meters by 4,5 meters in a square and I just made a grid from that. Which is repeated as much as you want and if they have more tourism, they can make additions and it can grow like roots. And then I played with the grid, in one cell maybe you can have two beds and the cell next to it can be split in half and have a bathroom. And there the domes are unfinished to have sunlight and a garden. And for the bedroom the dome maybe is complete with small glass holes for the light to get in, to save electricity. And with that idea it became very pragmatic, because I if you know how to do that unit, you can make 45 units. And the entrance would be 3 of them, the lobby 6, and the restaurant 16. And for the outdoor seating you make them without the walls. I even thought to build hybrids, a concrete grid like a table and put the dome on top. So, you have just columns, and it is a much lighter space. I don’t think traditional architecture should be dealt with as something holy, I like to push it. So that was the philosophy there, but then things didn’t continue because the problems in Syria were starting and the situation got worse until the project was cancelled.
MR: You are involved a lot on heritage sites and designs on sustainable tourism. Is something called sustainable tourism even possible? And if so, is there a potential in it?
AK: Well, tourism is destructive by nature. And if it is left without checks and balances it destroys itself in the end. But sometimes it is the only solution we could come up with for the conservation of nature. Sometime the demographic explosion of people on a landscape is so alarming and their economy is so destructive, like goats or mining for example. Then tourism, with its nastiness and destructiveness sometimes becomes the best option. And we tell people “You shouldn’t mine or cut the mountain and sell your rock as stone. Maybe your mountain is so beautiful that we can bring tourists and then we have less destruction”. So, tourism can be the least level of sin. And then also it has other factors like politics, it makes people learn about others. Also, funny enough tourism is an area that is changing and is interested in authenticity and experimentation. But I have a mixed feeling about tourism even though there is no way around it. I couldn’t find a better excuse for the people around Petra for example to protect the site, but for tourism. Politically it becomes important because Petra brings money. Not because of identity or beautifulness, because it is a milking cow. So, you have to make more of the milk of that cow, so the cow becomes more protected. And the same applies to natural heritage as it does to cultural heritage.