Considered may not be the most fulsome adjective to use when describing an architect’s work – especially not in the era of the starchitects and their grand gestures – but in Sahel al-Hiyari’s case, it's a good place to start.
Whether he is compensating for the lack of external views by creating an interior landscape - like the reflecting pool in the heart of a private villa in Amman – acknowledging technical limitations without using them as an excuse to be unimaginative – like the candy-in-a-wrapper shopping and cultural centre planned for an expanding Cairo exurb - or introducing deliberate ambiguity into the layout of a community centre to allow its members to determine how best it may be used, Hiyari’s approach to architecture is not only considered, it is considerate.
Contemporary without being today (and thus one day, to be period) his buildings are designed to age gracefully. In couture terms, think Chanel, not Versace.
“The whole idea of timelessness is very important,” he explains. “It’s easy to create something that is an expression of the moment but it makes no sense these days because it has no longevity and because of funding and the environment, we can’t afford the architecture of disposability any more.”
That doesn’t mean Hiyari’s buildings lack daring. As the dramatically cantilevered HS House and the honeycombed façade of the Al Wathba resort attest, he is more than willing to make a statement when it makes sense and though he expresses an unwillingness to kowtow uncritically to tradition, the prevailing aesthetic or client requirements, he is also unwilling to arrogantly brush them aside.
Instead, he treads a path that allows him to navigate his responsibilities – to clients, the project, the environment, to himself – in a way that permits him to have his cake and eat it too.
“Look, when someone says they want to live in a palace, you don’t give them a shack,” he says, adding that doesn’t mean you build Versailles, either. “You work around it and reinterpret what ‘palace’ means.”
If Hiyari’s thoughtful manipulation of space, light and mass have taken his compatriots a little time to get used to - until recently, he had built more on paper than on the ground – the outside world has been quicker to take notice.
A painter and urban theorist as well, he currently shuttles between home in Amman and a teaching position at Beirut’s American University. For Hiyari, lecturing is as much about learning as it is about teaching and he has also taught at Harvard and in 2012, will begin a year-long residency at MIT.
After studies at RISD in Rhode Island and Harvard, Hiyari began his professional life in Cairo. Curiosity propelled him into a PhD at the University of Venice before a desire to put his ideas into practice took him back to Jordan. He set up his own practice in 1998 and now employs a staff of 12.
This varied experience has clearly shaped his work and while his projects express a global sensibility, they are also undeniably local but then like the better modern(ist) architects of his generation, Hiyari doesn’t see the international and the regional as antagonists or indeed, as one dominating the other.
“When someone [in Jordan] asks what our architectural identity is, do I start with the early Umayyads, the Romans or the Nabateans?” Hiyari’s question is rhetorical. “We’re heir to an incredibly rich hybrid of forms so it’s totalitarian to assume that we are insular and have no external influences. You can’t defend this position, really.”
In 2003, he was chosen to be a part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative and spent a year working alongside legendary Portuguese architect, Álvaro Siza.
The experience taught him an appreciation of working within the constraints imposed on architecture in a developing nation, constraints in terms of materials and technologies that need not get in the way of stunning architecture, as giants like Niemayer, Barragán and Doshi, attest.
“It allows us to create in different ways,” he says, in thoughtful conclusion. “The nice thing about the Middle east is that we are at the margins and you have a lot of freedom at the margins. It’s all still forming and you have a chance to be part of it.”
Originally published in Bespoke
Photo © Sahel al-Hiyari