Amman Design Week


18 September 2016

Fayez Abu Awwad has been supplying watermelons in Amman, the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, for 28 years. He can guess the weight of the fruit from its size. He knows how ripe it is from the sound it makes when he taps it with his knuckles. “This one will be spoilt soon,” he says, pulling out a watermelon from the middle of a pile.

For the first edition of Amman Design Week (ADW), a nine-day event that opened on 1 September, Abu Awwad was invited to collaborate with the Karpouz Collective, a trio of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)-based architects, to build a public installation of seven watermelon pyramids. “Watermelons are a national fruit in Jordan, and we wanted to pay homage to this. Building the pyramids wasn’t easy, as the fruits vary in size, weight and density,” says architect Hashem Sarkis, Dean of Architecture at MIT’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning. “Fayez and his assistant had the experience assembling pyramids, they became our construction partners.” Abu Awwad recalls the building process, which took two days: “They came to us with plans produced on a computer. They estimated they would need 1334 watermelons, but in fact we used 6380.”

The installation’s pyramids are shaped like the seven hills that make up Amman, a city of 4 million people that is home to over 40 per cent of Jordan’s population. The strip at the bottom of the valley, known as Downtown, is where the original inhabitants of the city once lived before its expansion in the 1950s. “By hosting Amman Design Week here," says Abeer Seikaly, who co-directs the fair alongside Rana Beiruti, "we are going back to the roots of the city.” Its three main venues – the Hangar in a disused warehouse of the Jordanian Electricity Company, The MakerSpace exhibition at the Jordan Museum, and the Crafts District – curated and designed by architect Dina Haddadin – at the Raghadan Tourist Terminal – are within walking or a short taxi ride distance from each other in Downtown Amman. “Our aim is to create a cultural corridor, to bring people back to Downtown Amman, and connect different parts of the city,” Seikaly explains. “As well as designers, we’ve also involved suppliers from the local market and craftsmen." Seikaly was awarded the Lexus Design Award in 2013 for her designs for tent shelter fabrics in Jordan’s refugee camps.

Collateral initiatives, such as an outdoor food court curated by Namliyeh, an architect-run practice specialising in food design, and a series of street interventions lead by urban planner Dana Halasa, connect each of the three venues. Though Downtown Amman has a bustling market, these three cultural spaces are empty for most of the year. “Amman Design Week is the first event in Amman to use these three venues at the same time. It spreads across the downtown area,” says Halasa. There are also events hosted across the city’s galleries and cultural spaces, including the annual Trendsetting exhibition featuring works by local designers at the Nabad Art Gallery.

Public engagement and design education form an important part of the ADW's programme. Over the past year, Halasa has worked with a group of volunteers, mostly design and architecture students or recent graduates living in Amman, to introduce public crossings and bus stops across the busy streets of Downtown. “We worked by night to paint zebra crossings and bus stops on the road. It was a pilot project for ADW, but we now have support from the municipality”. The MakerSpace, an exhibition dedicated to design and technology in an empty wing of the Jordan Museum, also hosted a series of lectures and workshops. At the space, Hanna Salameh Designs, a locally-based architecture practice, contributed a public sculpture made up of circular and moveable stacked disks. It echoed the functionalities of parametric design. “It’s a simple object that shows the infinite range of shapes that can be generated using this technology,” director Hanna Salameh explains.

Jordan’s depleting water resources and its natural environment were also addressed critically. Salameh is well known in Amman for his proposal to turn the Jordan Gate Park, a large scale hotel development project in which two towers were built but never completed, into self-sustaining public spaces. The proposal launched as an online video earlier this year. It went viral overnight in Amman and also attracted international investors. Elsewhere, Hashem Joucka, an Amman and Dubai-based designer, exhibited a series of prototypes based on his experiments with biomimicry and generative design. Among these, are experiments with sand and a 3D printer, “we have a lot of sand in Jordan, so this is one way of trying to use it for construction,” says Joucka.

Meanwhile, a curated show of designers from Jordan and the Middle Eastern region was held at the Hangar. Unlike the neighbouring trade fair, Design Days Dubai, which showcases limited editions and collectible products, the Hangar focused on the different approaches to design, building and making. Bespoke furniture by Beirut-based design practice David/Nicholas was exhibited alongside chairs made of recycled materials by the Ramallah-based studio Shamsard. Yasmeen Hamouda, a recent architecture graduate from the American University of Sharjah, uses generative software and industrial materials like resin to produce a series of chairs that look organic in their form, colour and texture. “People keep asking if they’re made of honey,” says Hamouda.

Although many Jordanian designers such as Joucka and Hamouda work in neighbouring countries like the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, the exhibition sheds light on a growing design scene within Amman itself. “Access to big manufacturing industries and new technologies are limited in Jordan, but local designers have found ways to compensate for this,” says curator Sahel Al Hiyari, an architect who has served as a member of the jury for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. “As well as recycling materials, designers are still closely connected to handmade work”.

Amman-based fashion designer Tanya Haddad employs a team of local craftsmen, including an Iraqi-Armenian seamstress from Baghdad, to produce her clothing. She sends fabrics to be printed at the Stamperia Fiorentina in Tuscany where she worked as a designer after graduating from the Polimoda Fashion Institute in Milan. Since setting up her studio, she has shown her collection at Paris Fashion Week in March 2016, and received her first online order from a shop in Shanghai. “Moving back to Amman has been great for me,” says Haddad. “The imagery I use in my prints is based on road trips across Jordan.”

Crafts and vernacular forms of making play an important role at the fair. “I discovered a lot of people who were not trained designers, but who make things and have hobbies,” says Al Hiyari. Ahmad Jaloul, the owner of an underwear shop at the market of Downtown Amman, was invited to display a collection of glass vases and objects at the Hangar exhibition. By applying heat to used glass bottles, Jaloul reshapes them into new objects which he sells in his shop. At the Crafts District locally-based designers and NGOs were invited to display and sell work that engages with Jordan’s cultural heritage. The Ghor al Safi Women’s Association is a cooperative run by 12 women from farming families living in the Jordan Valley. “We cut and die the fabric ourselves using natural dyes,” one of the organisers explains. Elsewhere, Amman-based designers are reinterpreting bedouin traditions for urban households. Nour Nweishat has been producing furniture by recycling bedouin crafts such as rugs, ovens and tables. “These objects often have a story as well as a functional role,” Nweishat explains.

The emphasis on local crafts comes at a time when cultural heritage and diversity is under attack from ongoing conflict in the region. It is also an attempt to revive Jordan’s bedouin and tribal traditions, which have become obsolete in the country’s urban centres. Amman is also home to displaced communities from Palestine, Iraq, and more recently Syria, who settled in the capital or in refugee camps. As such, traditions such as Palestinian embroidery techniques had a strong presence at the fair, with works by Ziad Qweider at the Hangar. Engaging with such issues of cultural heritage and conflict is the MIT-based artist and architectural historian Azra Aksamija. Her project, The Memory Matrix, includes a series of workshops at the Maker’s Space. Participants drew examples of a piece of culture from their home that has vanished. These drawings are then laser cut into plexiglass squares and combined in a public installation of collective memories. “The responses to the workshops in Amman have been strong, as the exposure to conflict and displacement runs deep among the participants” says Aksamija.

In its first edition, ADW presents a tightly curated fair, that acts both as a window onto design practices in Amman and regionally. It is an attempt to revitalise the downtown heart of city, and engage communities from both Amman and across Jordan through design. For scale and exposure, the heart of the design market in the region is likely to remain Dubai, which hosts the trade fair Design Days Dubai and recently opened its ambitious D3 Design District. However, Amman Design Week distinguishes itself by focusing on the processes of making, whether these are done by hand, with industrial equipment or rendered digitally. Al Hiyari believes this to be an important aspect of design in Amman and the wider region: “Visitors will find a combination of grass roots and high end design. In this context, they feed off each other.”