Amman is a city built on stone. Its unique topography leaves numerous homes perched on rocky crags and many of the century-old stone houses downtown were built using materials taken from the overlooking Roman citadel walls. The rest of the city still follows this aesthetic, with stone-based grandiose villas and apartment blocks fitting loosely to French and Classical styles and so it has become a metropolis copycat designs, Xeroxed across the rocky expanse.
Pitched on the outskirts of the city, however, is the Abu Samra residence, which works against the grain. Instead of stone, it uses high-quality plaster finishing of the same warm earthy colours of the soil surrounding it and although it is a novel concept, it demands a level of craftsmanship as meticulous as that required of the finest Levantine mason.
Khalid Nahhas, the principle designer and founder of Symbiosis Design, says his main objective was to ensure the design fitted and reflected the clients’ character. ‘The clients are a husband and wife team. They are young, well-travelled, exposed and have a very nice art collection, so when we started off it was designed in many ways to be a gallery, and the concept of walls was very important because of their artwork,’ he tells us. Art and aesthetics are the primary points of the residence and Abu Samra Residence is situated so that although it turns its back to the street, it offers some stunning views of rolling hills.
Greeted by a seamless, windowless façade, it might assume an uninviting appearance to guests, but its shape is a private and elusive configuration that exudes the Abu Samra family’s own personalities through depth, warmth and charm. This is emphasized by the division of the house into two main clusters; one for social use, with saloons, a formal dining area and office space, and the other for the family with four bedrooms and a living room. Its opaqueness to an outsider, yet openness to guests, is what offers a fluidity of design that blends so well with the clean lines of the panorama. Nahhas explains: ‘There was some dichotomy between presence and absence. We formulated a starting point where a lot of elements were pushed forward to the street and a lot pushed back.’ This offers a fixed focal point for the home that adds a sense of permanence to the structure, yet a fluidity of design, which invites guests to explore the residence. Khalid emphasises the fact that ‘there was a lot of this push and pull of the forms, there were very minimal openings and it becomes fluid. If you approach the street from a higher distance, or from a higher street, you won’t see a single opening, just a combination of walls playing with shadows. Then, if you make your way around the corner, you will see start to see doors and window.’ The thick exterior walls present the idea of ‘wall-ness’, which guides viewers along its expanse – from the street, through the building, and back outside, towards the views of the surrounding landscape. Outside, the wall also acts as a natural gallery of sorts, encouraging shadows to play on the exterior walls in a free flowing communion between the fixed and the fluid. Inside, the walls display some of the Abu Samra family’s most prized art pieces, which link a cluster of buildings for personal use to the residence’s reception and entertainment facilities, presenting a dialogic relationship between these two arrangements.
The wall-length windows also act to embellish the tree-encrusted hills outside, and nurture a refined sense of contemplation that encourages the family to stroll, at leisure, throughout the building. It’s about dedicating oneself to the finer aspects of life – to admire the family’s artwork, stunning scenery through the open vistas, and enjoy a sense of detachment from the outside world. The functionality of the house, with its emphasis on space, is also reinforced by a reductionist approach to the upkeep of the interior that keeps ornamental use to a minimum, bringing relevance and necessity to each and every feature in the home. This uncompromising commitment to minimalism makes a bold statement in the stone-clad city of Amman, where ornamentation is a norm. ‘Because there’s not too many openings it looks gloomy and dark from the outside, but on the inside it’s very light,’ Nahhas says. ‘The whole house, whether it’s the plaster or the tiling, belongs to the same tonality. There’s no articulation, just as little material as possible,’ he adds. Privacy is not so much enforced but adopted from its surroundings, and the landscaping of the gardens keeps the residence in-tune with the villa’s outer environment.
The fact that such a pronounced design could find such relevance in the area is due to its ‘passive-aggressive’ style, as Nahhas describes, finds a happy balance between minimalism and an assertion of its existence.
There were other ways in which the Abu Samra Residence adapted to the area. Jordan is a country currently suffering from acute water shortages and it is predicted that this problem will only exacerbate in the future. To counter this, the Abu Samra residence uses only ‘local trees and shrubs that only needed water for the first year, after than they can flourish by themselves,’ Nahhas says.
The self-sufficiency of the residence is further enforced by an attention to the proper use of water, including grey water treatment for drip irrigation and rainwater harvesting. All materials in the construction of the home, with the exception of a few materials, were sourced locally and the extremes in climate were countered by ensuring the home was well insulated, with deep set windows to provide shade from the intense summer sun. Such an embrace of the natural environment, and juxtaposition with nature in all its elements of design, has given the house a sense of belonging.
Photographer: Ghassan Aqel