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Apr / May 2012
Higher Ground

Writer: Rana Aytug / Photographer: Arnaldo Genitrini & Ghassan Aqel

Symbiosis Design is an impressive architectural practice from Jordan that is inspired by dialogue and duality and which has a deep respect for local materials , seeking to work with not against the environment.


Occasionally a building will waltz its way across a skyline, drawing the gaze of a spellbound city, a nation, even (dare we dream?) a global audience.  In architecture school, we are trained to design such buildings, buildings that bow, so to speak.  The sky is your limit, we are all too often told.  However, once the curtains close and the crowds applauding in unison fall silent, we are faced with the reality beyond the aesthetics and the visual entertainment. 

Eloquent, deeply grounded and passionate in a dignified and self-composed manner, Khalid Nahhas, founding partner, director and senior architect of Symbiosis, firmly believes that architecture possesses the power to encompass both space and emotion-filled experiences of value and influence. “I was somewhat ashamed of being an architect,” he confesses, before elucidating. “Some conversations in architecture can be superficial.  When that happens, which is quite often, I feel like I am in the fashion business and it’s disappointing to me.”

Nahhas believes architecture should be about the meaning of a place and how it can be directed towards moving culture forward. “When you start out, you’re easily swayed by flair and glitter,” he continues, “because you still don’t appreciate the depth it takes to make really good sustainable architecture.”

At college – he’s a graduate of British Columbia – Nahhas’  fondness for visually stimulating projects like the early sketches of Zaha Hadid, began to give way to an appreciation of no less experimental but built projects, like that of American practice Morphosis, Canadian husband and wife team Patkau Architects and British architect and designer, Peter Cardew.  Nahhas views their buildings, which display an attention to detail and tasteful use of materials, as “novel, but grounded.” 

Drawing upon his thesis on phenomenology as a foundation, Nahhas and the Symbiosis team make it their work to explore the polarities in architecture, to consciously and deliberately balance dualities and paradoxes, the qualitative with the experimental and to create tension, thereby intensifying the emotional response to a building and recharging the spirit of those that use or view it.

“That’s all in the Blue Fig, for example,” He tells me, launching into the story of the Aga Khan Jury member who dined at this Amman institution on opening night. “He looked at the menu, the projections on the wall, the building, the images on the coasters, the furniture and asked ‘who did this?’ Of course the answer was ‘we did’ and he goes, ‘in Germany this is what we call total architecture’.” It’s an approach Symbiosis tries to apply to every project and we talk about the responsibility it brings.

In designing Vy, a new fitness club in Amman, a project that was about “sports, natural light and tectonics and in some sense, social tension”, Nahhas says that ultimately what he wanted was for “people to sense the construction and not the abstraction.” Contrast this with the recently completed Abu Samra Residence, also in Amman, where the focus was on understanding the client’s needs, spoken or not. “One need was to brand himself, so there had to be an identity to the house that was aligned with how the client wanted to project himself to friends, visitors, family and even to himself as he lived there.”

For Nahhas, understanding the interaction between a client’s needs and a project’s functions comes well before thinking of how to resolve it all in a novel way. “Unless you put yourself in the shoes of the user, the owner, the visitor, the operator, you are never going to get it right,” he adds. “It is like life, you’re chasing many moving parts and you’re hoping that within the time that you’re given, when you stop, you capture something profound. You owe it to each and every client that their project will have its own identity.”

As for Symbiosis, the firm Nahhas leads today with partner Ramiz Ayoub, he’s unquestionably passionate.“I want to tell you about every person I have here. They’re all gifted in one way or another and we really complete each other. When I leave Symbiosis whenever that may be, whether 5, 10 or 15 years from now, I want it to live on as a company with many great people behind it, the Zumthor of the Middle East. I don’t want Symbiosis to die. I might not know what happens after death, but at least I know what you can leave behind.” 

Clearly, he sees both himself and his team, who he playfully refers to as “the last of the Mohicans” as engaged in a long-term mission, not just to build, but to build meaningfully. “Today we have a higher purpose,” he says, seemingly referring not just to his own practice or even just to architects. “It’s about fathering something that involves many people, that’s a huge added value to humanity, that’s sustainable and that pushes new envelopes. I like what Leonard Cohen said. He realises at one point - and I like the analogy of this - that you come to a point in your life where you have to undo yourself to be able to redo yourself properly.” 

Perhaps this is because Nahhas’ unfinished legacy as an architect is so much a part of him. He admits that much of the studio’s best recent work has not been built due to the global downturn. Or perhaps it’s because, like so many others around him, he senses that the imbalances of the last few decades, in every sphere, are demanding redress.

Now, ever more conscious of the reality beyond the aesthetics, I am reminded again of how often we celebrate architects and their work without fully comprehending the many layers and complex forces at play.

“Whatever we are trying to do here, is much more than architecture, it’s much more than the building. It has to be,” Nahhas says, bringing to mind the crisp Abu Samra residence, a series of adobe-plastered cubic forms, ultra-modern and yet in keeping with its context and the simplicity of its surroundings. “Once you realise this, the material world is only one layer, one palette.”

Often we stand mesmerised by an architectural performance, overtaken by the enthusiasm of the crowd, whose acclaim obliterates the questions that pertain to a project’s philosophical, moral and ethical contribution.  That is until someone like Khalid Nahhas, an architect of passion and vision stands before you with his insight, sensitivity and humility and you find yourself applauding, fascinated for an entirely different reason.

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