Interview with Jordanian architect Ammar Khammash

“I discovered as a child that I was interested in the earth – in the land,” said Ammar Khammash, an architect, academic and artist based in Amman. “When I was in high school, I started to paint landscapes mostly with watercolour. It was traveller’s art, meaning I’d go to a site and understand the landscape and nature through painting it. Painting was like a systematic way of understanding something.”

Though he still paints today, Khammash is largely known for his work through his studio Khammash Architects. Dotting the Jordanian and neighbouring landscapes, his projects span different fields, from hospitality to education, residential to the public sector. His portfolio of buildings includes the Wild Jordan Center, the Royal Academy for Nature Conservation, the Darat Al Funun workspace and the Columbia University Middle East Research Center in Amman.

Having studied architecture at Indiana University in the early 1980s, Khammash went on to work with various institutions, but it wasn’t long before he’d return to academia to further his understanding of Middle Eastern history, societies and cultures, from Palestine to western Saudi Arabia.

“I realised that at a certain point architecture doesn’t supply you with the set of tools that I was looking for, so I enrolled in a master’s programme to study archaeology and anthropology,” he said of his two-year experience at Jordan’s Yarmouk University. “There, I was able to acquire the tools I needed to read the existing landscape. I could now understand things like kinship and how family connections shape elements like the courtyard. I learned about nomadic and sedentary lifestyles. It gave me a new way of seeing the land.”

Keenly interested in building materials as well and their different applications throughout history, Khammash would often examine the value and intelligence of material – from Jordan’s plentiful limestone to Iraq’s burnt riverbed brick. And his architectural projects manage to combine and reflect all of his interests. Made from earthly materials sourced from surrounding environments, featuring forms that blend into the rolling hills of the outskirts of Amman but that still pierce the stillness of the desert land, Khammash’s buildings demand to be understood – and they demand you pay attention to the greater site itself.

“All that wealth of knowledge combined with how to be in terms of material and shapes — for me, all of that becomes architecture. I become a draftsman under the hand of the site once I understand it through all of these disciplines,” he said. After graduating from Indiana University, Khammash unofficially launched his architecture firm. It was around 1988, and his office was his backpack. “I was a nomadic architect,” he said, “writing proposals to different potential clients to do work on archaeological or cultural heritage sites, and most of the time I was getting these jobs and the funds I needed.”

The first 10 years of Khammash Architects saw mostly renovation work on archaeological sites, like the Church of the Apostles in Madaba, which consists of a rebuilt Byzantine church, and the Dana Guesthouse, which sits amidst the dramatic cliffs of Jordan’s Dana Biosphere Reserve. His buildings became interventions and included traveller lodges and interpretation centres. Khammash would also occasionally produce the content of a site, communicating its story via visuals and text for visitors.

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