Listening to the Land

I first pitched a profile of Jordanian architect Ammar Khammash to Aramco World magazine in 1996. Finally, 22 years later, here it is – incredibly enough, commissioned by the same editor I first wrote to. Khammash is an extraordinary, visionary person – an architect, artist, designer, musician, scholar and polymath, who has influenced the visual language and design awareness of his country in profound ways. The focus here was his nature academy building in Ajloun, north of Amman, but our conversation ranged far and wide, and there is much, much more to be written. The Ajloun building was shortlisted for an international architecture award: George Azar’s beautiful photos are worth a look. For the original story page, click here

Deep in the forests of oak and pine that cloak the hills of northern Jordan, down a side road off a side road, you’ll find a long, low building of pale limestone. It represents the future for a new generation of environmental conservationists, and also embodies the design aesthetic of a boundary-breaking Jordanian architect.

“Architecture is a sin,” says Ammar Khammash, 57. “I don’t want to be visible, and I don’t want my buildings to be visible.”

Standing in the building he designed, this unconventional man—artist, designer, engineer, geologist, musician and polymath—faces a view of dark-green treetops awash in spring sunshine. The forest is silent but for birdsong and cicadas.

He names two world-famous “starchitects” – then explains: “I want to be the exact opposite of them. Architecture is not that important. Buildings should not become monuments or luxury statements. They can be impressive without being expensive.”

We are meeting at the Royal Academy for Nature Conservation, built by Khammash for Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) and officially opened in 2015. The academy stands at the entrance to an RSCN-run nature reserve, established in 1987 to protect forested land beside Ajloun, a town 70 kilometres north of the Jordanian capital Amman.

Though Khammash’s small architectural practice can claim prestigious private and government clients, he is best known for a string of RSCN commissions, from Dana, a remote mountain village, to the heart of Amman. His stripped-back designs, using locally sourced materials, referencing vernacular traditions and exemplifying acute environmental sensitivity, are on show in visitor reception centres, rangers’ offices and rural guest houses all around Jordan, enhancing places that many tourists visit—and that many Jordanians cherish.

Chris Johnson, a British ecologist who worked with Khammash for 20 years, speaks of the architect’s “uniquely Jordanian” style.

“Ammar has an amazing ability to create new buildings that are respectful of their surroundings and Jordan’s cultural heritage,” says Johnson, who directed conservation for the RSCN in the 1990s and from 2005 to 2013 led its sustainable tourism unit Wild Jordan.

Growth in outreach has been mirrored by growth in skills development. Since 1997 the RSCN has trained around 250 specialists a year, from Jordan and across the Middle East, in management of protected areas, conservation research, ecotourism and socio-economic development. Around 2005 the idea emerged to formalise training in a single, dedicated building.

“We had been pioneering capacity-building in conservation throughout the region. With success came demand,” says Johnson, who initiated and managed the project to build the new academy.

For RSCN Director General Yehya Khaled, the academy pointed to a breakthrough in public education on the environment. “We wanted the academy to be a model, representing RSCN values [in] conservation and community development,” he says.

A site was identified inside the Ajloun Forest Reserve but, as Khammash explains, “I kept passing a quarry just outside the reserve boundary, and I said, ‘Why should we cut another wound in nature when we already have this cut? Let’s fix this and celebrate it as a human intervention.’

“Whoever was driving the last bulldozer in the last week this quarry was operating—back in the early 90s—never knew that he was designing the front elevation of my building for me,” Khammash continues, with typical self-deprecation. “He left a cliff, and I followed it. This building is designed by chance.”

Khammash had the quarry pit cleared, but instead of bringing stone in, he used the rubble, which would normally have been discarded, for construction. The result is external walls of unusually small limestone rocks, neatly fitted together. The impression is of a building at one with its setting, as if it has been lifted whole from the quarry and placed on the ridgetop.

To reach it from the road, Khammash designed what was (until he built a longer one last year) the longest masonry arch in Jordan, an elegant bridge extending 30 metres over the now-empty quarry. “This bridge has almost no foundation,” he says. “Its lateral thrust is like when you take a cane and bend it across a corridor: It can’t go anywhere, so the more load it takes the more it pushes into the quarry sides.”

The bridge delivers visitors to the building’s public entrance, a slot in one flank that opens to—almost nothing. The lobby, like its architect, impresses by stealth. You could cross this low, transitional room in four paces, but a glass wall in the opposite flank keeps the forest in view. The ambience is of spacious calm. Free of adornment, displaying a deliberately rough finish of raw concrete, it is artful.

Khammash calls it simply a “void” where the building’s two functions meet. In the wing to the right, a restaurant generates income to help pay for the training courses that are run in the rooms to the left.

The restaurant area draws you out through airy interiors to shaded rear balconies woven about with foliage and forest views. But the heart of this building’s beauty shows in the opposite wing.

Double-loaded corridors—ones that have doors opening on both sides—tend to be dark. Here, though, sunlight moves across the rubble-stone walls: Khammash has opened a glass roof above the corridor and created an end-wall of windows facing west. In summer, cool winds flow through as natural ventilation.

The architect explains how he drew inspiration for this sinuously angled passageway from Jordan’s famous ancient city of Petra, where you enter through a towering cleft between mountains lit from above by shafts of sunlight. “The light pulls you in the right direction,” he says. “And the bending is important. If you expose the whole length of the corridor, it’s too much. Also, the bend mirrors the profile line of the quarry outside.”

Underfoot, Khammash has used ceramic floor tiles that are familiar from Jordanian apartments—but with a twist. “I specified the cheapest tile in Jordan,” he says, “but here we spread them wider and filled the gaps between each one. You end up with this interesting pattern, like a carpet with pulled threads.”

This lack of pretension, eschewing the temptations of Italian marble, Scandinavian wood or even plaster for the walls, can cause confusion: visitors seeing rough, concrete walls and gappy floor tiles ask when the building will be finished—and then tut when they hear it is.

Some think it’s a joke, but Khammash says he is demonstrating how low-budget ideas can deliver high-quality outcomes. “Materials pick up social value,” he adds. “People want to imitate Amman, using expensive imported stuff, but the result is a hodgepodge. This is a crude finish, but very durable, and it should age nicely. It’s a very rugged building.”

Another consequence is an agile minimalism. Khammash’s balconies, for instance, narrow to the slenderest of cement edges, supported beneath by angled beams anchored in the smallest possible foundation. To stand on one is to fly above the trees.

But visuals tell only part of the story. The building, completed in 2013, deploys an array of environmentally progressive techniques, from straw-based insulation and grey-water collection to geothermal energy for heating and cooling. During this two-year, $3.9 million construction project in dense woodland, not a single tree was felled.

Johnson talks of Khammash’s “artist’s eye.” For Khammash, it’s synaesthesia that underpins his particular creativity. “I’m into sound,” he says. “Every time I see light on geological formations, I hear music. It’s like a waterfall hitting rocks, and the light is playing a sound. There’s some strange connection in my brain. The sun plays this corridor differently according to the season and the time of day.”

Once you tune into Khammash’s aural architecture, you find it everywhere. It draws the sounds of the forest—creaking of trees, whistling of wind—into the building. And it sends the sounds of the building—voices, footsteps—spiralling together in unexpected pools and pockets.

“My dream is to teach a course of architecture for blind architects, to force architects only to use the ear, not the eye,” he says. “Architecture has been hijacked by the visual. What about the sound of the building, the smell of the building, the idea of earthing, experiencing architecture through our feet?”

For the conference hall, located in the academy’s sloping western cantilever, the architect examined how opera houses dampen acoustic reverberation with walls of slatted wood. Adapting the science to the local context, he built walls of cinder blocks but laid them sideways, so that their slatted, open cores face into the room. “This is a nice, interesting way of using these blocks. Sound stays in the holes. You don’t need a microphone for a speaker to be heard clearly at the back of the hall,” he says.

Khammash’s architecture blends here with conceptual art. “People could write notes and push them into the holes or keep pencils in there. Another idea was to bring local students to fill the upper third of the walls with branches and twigs pushed into these blocks. Wood is good for acoustics, and this could also help people feel they own the building—they could come back and say, ‘You see that branch? I put it there 10 years ago.’”

Khammash warms to his theme. “Architecture is a beginning. Let others add to your work. You see this in art installations, but architecture can do it too. Buildings can change if you just give people the skeleton to start with.”

In 2016 the academy was shortlisted for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture—“a great privilege,” says Yehya Khaled, not least for international recognition of the building’s potential to deliver a new generation of conservationists. He tells me the RSCN is developing curricula for training programmes that can be run here with international partners, including the University of Montana, and that it has brought local socio-economic projects developing biscuit-making and handmade soap production into the building. Rebranding the academy as “Wild Jordan Ajloun” is next, which will help consolidate the efforts to deploy it for tourism as well as education.

Khammash watches with pride. “Architecture is problem-solving,” he says. “This is the spark for me, and every time I design, that’s in my subconscious: Can we solve the problem without the building? If I can, I will. The site is the architect, and I listen to it. Ultimately I’m just a draughtsman, a technician under the site’s command.”