In memory of when a magazine cared about an article on Khammash and Associates Architects

In his study, “Notes on Jordanian Village Architecture”, Ammar Khammash writes of the village of Hmud:

As in all Jordanian villages, looking at the stone walls from the west gives us a different impression from looking at them from the east. The western view is clearer, and, in the case of Hmud, a sharp contrast between the black and white stones gives the west view a  poignant vividness. This difference in appearance is caused by the direction of rain that comes every winter to wash the village walls facing west, while the walls facing east
have been accumulating dust since the beginning of this century.

Khammash, an eloquent writer on materials is speaking literally, but, of course, in the pervading neo-Orienatalist discourse of the present, it is difficult to escape a metaphoric interpretation of this passage as well. The weather conditions that the buildings of Hmud experience in winter may wash away the dust of centuries, but the clarity they reveal may also be deceiving. As Khammash’s architectural oeuvre has demonstrated, materials are not innocent of their history, however starkly revealed they may be. “Matter has its own intelligence,” he told me. This intelligence he describes as a kind of “intrinsic spirituality” that corresponds to concepts like location, composition, and, he says, “the spiritual needs and literacy” of the individual who encounters them. This recognition of the significance of the biographies of objects, if it is to be truly encompassing, must also take in dialogue—if that is the right word, perhaps colonisation is an equally apposite one—between objects and the human beings who employ, exploit and claim mastery over them.

The human impact on the landscape, both the built and natural landscape, is an increasingly urgent matter both in Jordan and the wider world. Smartphone screens seem to be endlessly scrolling images of anthropic interventions in the contemporary Middle East. The latest hyper-construction in Dubai is quickly replaced by the latest architectural snuff film posted by Daesh, which is then replaced by the image of fallout from a missile or drone strike. These interventions, both commercial and military, of course, take place against the backdrop of the natural environment, a fact so obvious as to require emphasis, an emphasis which Khammash is keen to make in the works his office creates. Writing of the Rangers Academy ecology park his firm designed, Khammash uses the term “wounded nature” to describe the ways in which human intervention have changed landscapes and ecologies. In response to a question about his use of the term, Khammash said the following:

When humans impact nature in a drastic way, causing “wounds”, (…) deep and sharp cuts
in the bedrock or the backbone of Nature. These wounds can be everlasting ones that are
difficult to heal, but at the same time they can mimic some of the natural behavior of
cliffs, exposing a section in the stratigraphy of the mountain side. It is possible that my
preference to expose or even celebrate the wounded nature as part of the design decision
comes from my subconscious  dislike of artificially trying to heal nature by something
like land-reclamation often used in quarries, and often covering or filling the wound.

To ignore or overwrite these incisions into the literal bedrock and backbone of the earth is to deny these sites their history. By placing his Rangers’ Academy in one such “wound”, the building evokes the concept of the “networked” creation discussed by David Joselit in his essay, “Painting Beside Itself”. Joselit begins by quoting the German painter and installationist, Martin Kippenberger’s, statement that “simply to hang a painting on the wall and say that it’s art is dreadful. The whole network is important … When you say art, then everything possible belongs to it. In a gallery that is also the floor, the architecture, the colour of the walls.” Such sentiments perhaps resonate with Khammash, himself an acclaimed painter–though he denies any direct correspondence between his visual art practice and his architectural concerns: “art–at least my art–is private” he says, “architecture should never be private”. Nevertheless the “infinite dislocations, fragmentations, and degradations” to which Joselit suggests painting is submitted in the contemporary era would also seem to hold true of architectural structures. Some of these dislocations and fragmentations are deliberate, others inhere in the substances used to create them.  Khammash’s buildings could, thus, despite his own protestations, be thought of as being networked in the same sense as Kippenberger’s works: they integrate not merely their surroundings, but the layers of activity that preceded their construction. The building consists of its materials, its visual presentation, its uses, and the history of all these components, including the history of the architect.

In 1994, Khammash built a house for himself near the ruins in the Jordanian city of Pella which, in its structure, its materials and the process by which it was built, reified the Kippenbergerian notion of the networked creation. Constructed without the direct intervention of machinery—vehicles were not permitted within 60 metres of the building site—the house is rendered as an Ozymandian disruption along a scrim of mountains in the near distance. Human endeavour is both celebrated and contextualised in all its frenetic futility in the construction. Khammash’s humanism is not inflated with a false sense of the capacities of human creativity, nor the shadow side of human creative endeavour that haunts every construction. Khammash sees the house as an extension of an organic process. When I asked him about its construction he said the following: “Architecture is, in a way, an extension of the human body,” recalling the words of the Irish architect Eileen Grey, Khammash characterised architecture as “our shell; our micro-adaptation to the natural environment”. This micro-adaptation will continue as long as humans exist: “architecture-making is continuous material-and-void engineering, an ever-evolving process to serve a growing and changing organism. It is the metabolism of matter and non-matter.”

The networks within which a given work is enmeshed must inevitably involve politics and, equally necessarily, the failure of politics.  Khammash’s buildings exist in one of the most politically volatile regions of the world and, it is as a result of the current instability that one of his most ambitious projects, the Middle East Modern Art Museum remains in a preliminary stage. Digital images of the Museum show an otherworldly structure, a mass of stone and glass hovering over a cleared section of ground against a backdrop of cirrus clouds and blue sky in the midst of an olive grove. The Museum was in part the brainchild of Salameh Neimat, a collector, artist and journalist who proposed the idea to Khammash. As museums spring up all around the Gulf States, the idea of what a modern art space can mean in a region riven by geographic and political tensions is inherently inscribed with meanings that transcend the aesthetic. But, where states like Dubai have opted for hyper-sleek space age designs, Khammash’s construction, with the help of the kind of mathematics the region was once most famous for, instead proposes recycled stone for its construction. The placement of the gallery in an olive grove also touches on one of the most ubiquitous, and increasingly inflammatory, images of the Middle East, the olive tree, as a semiotic interlocutor. The symbol of permanence, peace and civilization is distinctly at odds with the precariousness of the contemporary historical moment in the region. Khammash himself is troubled by recent developments. He described the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring” as “a bloody miscarriage”, but, he noted, he remains hopeful about the region. “The Middle East with North Africa, Turkey and Iran has dormant genes of genius,” he said. “Now, with real-time free and interactive communication, I, personally, see no boundaries, thus, some sparks of brilliance will add to the universal project of hope”. If one believes that objects have a biography, then perhaps it may be possible to believe that objects may also contain ambitions. If so, perhaps the network of materials and relations that Khammash has marshalled to bring Neimat’s idea to digital life may yet exert their prerogatives and the universal project of hope will move one small, but exhilarating, step forward.