What kind of Architects is Amman turning us into?

“There is no doubt whatsoever about the influence of architecture and structure upon human character and action. We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives.”- Winston Churchill

As architects, our sources of  architectural knowledge aren’t limited to the design studios or lecture halls we study in, but on the very contrary, they exist beyond those walls, stretching over the entire scape of the cities we live in: with their buildings, streets, and landscapes.

We learn to design long before we enter schools or universities, influenced by the architecture and the built environment we live in. The entire city gets deconstructed into syntax and semantics that are subconsciously fed into our brains, forming the linguistics of architecture as we know it.

That being said, I often contemplate: What kind of architects is Amman turning us into? What are we learning from our city, and what reflection does its architecture have on our architectural identity?

“The Ammani Identity”
One of the hottest topics of discussion in architecture schools in Jordan is the question of the Ammani architectural identity and the elements distinguishing it. In response, some professionals characterized it based on material (stone) and landscape (mountains): the use of stone as a local building material and the cube shaped forms terracing the mountains. Others stated that due to its heterogeneous demographic growth, the architectural style is quite diverse from neighborhood to neighborhood, and even within the same neighborhood, reflecting different personal styles depending on access to ‘non-local’ materials, socio-economic background of the inhabitants and technologies available during the construction period.   

Between these two views, young architects struggle with the issue of finding a local architectural identity that manages to reflect the needs of their time, the ambitions of the future, while still respecting their heritage and culture.

Driving around Amman, the thin line that separates modern from historical, international from local, is very blurred, with buildings that look very futuristic up to the point that make them look more like spaceships, and others that blindly and superficially duplicate old buildings with the use of stones and arches without any added value or meaning. More often than not, these two contrasting buildings are found next to each other with a notion that emphasizes confusion.

Lack of good architecture
Expecting an architect to design a museum, a public park, or a theatre, without having experienced one (or several for that matter), is like expecting someone to prepare an exquisite meal without having been in a kitchen: You might know what you are aiming for, but do you really have the ‘feel’ for it’?  So how can we expect young architects to design good public buildings if they haven’t grown up regularly visiting museums on school trips, heading to the parks on weekends with their families, or having enjoyed an evening of music or arts in a local theatre?

While beautiful in many ways, Amman has a lack of well-designed public buildings that introduce the values of public life to the local community and inherently explain their functional requirements and spaces to those who might soon become designers of such spaces themselves. Technology today and ease of access to the internet have undeniably made information available everywhere, and to many extents, that is a good thing, but it cannot replace the ‘feeling’ of being inside a well-designed building. Experiencing the flow and movement within a museum or feeling the warmth of the light that shines through the stained glass of library windows will always have a different effect than watching a video or reading about such designs.

The spaces where architecture students are learning aren’t that helpful either, with lecture halls and studios often being in poor shape and in need of renovation and maintenance; a juxtaposition that doesn’t practice what it preaches. And while renovation might be costly, adding a few touches of design can often be done without restraining budgets.

So, instead of remaining as passive participants in the public life of our city, maybe we should ask ourselves about the values we want its buildings to represent and the quality of life we want it to incubate, in order to design structures and spaces that will become the facilitators of that vision. By recognizing “the influence of architecture and structure upon human character and action” we can slowly shape our cities into the kind of influencers we aspire for them to be.

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