Listening to the land in Jordan
Jordanian architect Ammar Khammash brings unique perspective to building in the Ajloun Forest Reserve.
Down a side road off a side road deep in the oak and pine forest that cloaks the hills of Northern Jordan, you’ll find a long, low building of pale limestone that represents the future for a new generation of environmental conservationists.
Designed by Jordanian architect Ammar Khammash, the building in the Ajloun Forest Reserve expresses his aesthetic that emphasizes being part of the environment rather than standing out from it.
Architecture is a sin. I don’t want to be visible, and I don’t want my buildings to be visible.
— Ammar Khammash
Standing in the building he designed, this artist, designer, engineer, geologist, musician, and polymath names two world-famous “starchitects,” noting that he wants to be the “exact opposite” of them.
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 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 kilometers north of Amman.
Khammash’s stripped back designs, using locally sourced materials, referencing vernacular traditions, and exemplifying acute environmental sensitivity, are on show in visitor reception centers, ranger’s 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, said, “Ammar has an amazing ability to create new buildings that are respectful of their surroundings and Jordan’s cultural heritage.”
Design by chance
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.’”
Khammash had the quarry pit cleared, but instead of bringing in stone for construction, he used the rubble, which would normally have been discarded. 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 an elegant bridge extending 30 meters over the now empty quarry.
The bridge brings you to the building’s public entrance, a slot in one flank that opens to … almost nothing. The lobby, like its architect, impresses by stealth. The ambience is of spacious calm. Free of adornment, displaying a deliberately rough finish of raw concrete, it is artful.
Sunlight and ventilation
Khammash calls it simply a “void” where the building’s two functions meet. To the right, a restaurant generates income to help pay for the training courses that are run in the rooms to the left.
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 drew inspiration from Jordan’s famous ancient city of Petra, where you enter through a towering cleft between mountains lit from above by shafts of sunlight.
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 gray water collection to geothermal energy for heating and cooling. During the two-year, $3.9 million construction project in the dense woodland, not a single tree was felled.
For Khammash, it is synesthesia that underpins his 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.”
In 2016, the academy was shortlisted for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture — “a great privilege,” says Yehya Khaled, RSCN director general, not least for international recognition of the building’s potential to deliver a new generation of conservationists.
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 draftsman, a technician under the site’s command.”