RESPONSE Amman LAB Workshop

Sep 23 2011 - 4:45pm

RESPONSE Amman LAB Workshop (ALW) brought together scholars and students from five different global universities, the focus of the workshop being response to “public”space within Amman’s centralized historic downtown area. The students and architects conducted research and met at CUMERC,  Columbia University Middle East Research Center in Amman, Jordan.  From CUMERC students worked closely in groups of 3-4 with students from other universities. This added a great dynamic to the research and work, with architecture students from different cultures collaborating to compose what a successful Middle Eastern public space can be. Each group selected, through various site explorations, a public site within the historic urban fabric of downtown Amman to respond to. Sites included abandoned buildings, market places, public stairways, dilapidated retail sectors, and discarded lots.

ALW’s two week agenda in Amman, started with the Amman LAB: Conference 2011 held at CUMERC. Coordinators Kamal Farah and Jennifer Broutin, both faculty members at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), brought together leading architects, government officials and local scholars of the area to discuss the issues of public space within the city. The event was comprised of presentations with such topics as: “The Emergence of Public Spaces in Early Islamic Cities,” “Public Space and Sphere in the Midst of Neolibral Threats and Urban Transformations,”and “Public Space for Protest.” The conference ended with a powerful and thought provoking discussion over the day’s topics and content by the presenters. 
With the ALW Conference as an introduction into the prevalent matters facing public space in Amman, the five teams of excited designers started their work doing detailed site research and contextual analysis further breaking down the conditions and relationships needed in developing their proposals. Each day the lab would meet at CUMERC to have a group round table discussion where students and faculty could discuss, analyze, and theorize over the issues being discovered by the students. The discussions would start with presentations by the students and faculty of their “Daily Rapid Response”. These “Daily Rapid Responses” where meant to be snapshots of each individual’s own daily experience within the city. Responses varied from photographs to artifacts that where discovered on a hike, each unique and personal, allowing the group members to get to know each other a little more by seeing how they were being affected by the culture and their research. 
As the workshop developed, complex queries formulated as the students developed their work and specific issues they wanted to address. My team included Nazlı Tümerdem from Bilgi University and Nida Muhsen from The University of Jordan. We selected a site with several abandoned lots next to a dilapidated masonry public stairway, connecting a historic neighborhood to the public plaza directly adjacent to the historic Roman Theatre in downtown Amman. The site was of interest to the team for several reasons. First, it had been an access point to a historic neighborhood dating back to the Romans ,which was evident by the old limestone boulders composing the retaining walls of the stairway. Secondly, the current connectivity the stairway has to an existing and functioning public space made the site a good choice. Lastly, the steep topography and the architectural relationship that could be fostered with the surrounding abandoned lots, connected to the stairway, was of the most interest to the team. Through very detailed, dedicated, and at times lively debates we developed an architectural “RESPONSE” for the site. Our proposal included an expansion of the stairway, which would take advantage of the historic retaining walls and revitalize the existing terracing occurring topographically on the site. The expansion would branch out the stairway along the historic retaining walls of the site, providing more access points to the neighborhood and reclaimed terrace areas for public space. From here we developed concepts for the types of civic programs that could occupy this hybrid stairway that would answer the question “What is Public Space in Amman?” Program ideas included small playgrounds where women from the neighborhood could feel comfortable bringing their families, pavilions for small gatherings, a market area, several amphitheaters with framed views of downtown Amman, a series of gardens, and a screening area for projections that would cater to small groups.
The RESPONSES were presented at the end of the workshop on July 22 at an exhibition featured in the Electric Hanger Royal Gallery, an old utility structure that had just recently been restored by the kingdom and turned into a new gallery space catering to artist within the community. The exhibition was attended by members of the design community in Amman, royal officials, architects, and students from the various universities in and around Amman. The event presented the accumulation of the five teams’ work over the course of two weeks within the Amman Lab Workshop. The result was a great body of architectural proposals, solutions, and ideas focusing on how to harvest existing spaces within the historic old urban fabric of downtown Amman. Each group’s proposal tested the ways in which architecture can define a community and culture civically to enrich the daily life of Amman’s current and future population.