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How a Middle Eastern City Could Reuse Its Abandoned Buildings

Paige Vickers

Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers. This month, we visit Amman, Jordan.

The early aughts were a dusty time in Amman, Jordan. Fueled both by optimistic real estate developers hoping to replicate the economic success of Dubai, and by an influx of Iraqi refugees across all levels of the economic spectrum, property prices and construction spiked. After 2008's financial crisis, though, much of that construction halted. The city was littered with abandoned structures, from high-density mixed-use towers to luxury villas, left to molder in varying stages of completion.

Last year, Studio-X's Amman lab—the Jordanian outpost of Columbia University's worldwide network of architecture and urban planning research labs—set out to catalogue these abandoned buildings. Around the city, they found the shells of dozens of buildings: retail spaces, offices, government structures, private homes. Their developers are still waiting for enough money to complete them.

One shell in particular captured the imaginations of the participants of a design charette, led by architect Jawad Dukhgan, aimed at examining these structures. Originally, the plot of land on which the two Jordan Gates towers were constructed was a public park in a residential neighborhood, a small green oasis in a city in which public parks are scant. In 2005, the Greater Amman Municipality sold the parkland to investors from the Gulf Finance House, and construction commenced on two mixed-use towers that would hold a hotel as well as retail and office space. But the construction halted after 2010, when investors and the city failed to come to an agreement, Jawad says, on how to solve the infrastructural issues of such a large project within a residential grid.

For the last five years, the 180-meter-tall Jordan Gates towers have stood, nearly complete, atop one of the highest hills in Amman. The parcel on which they sit is isolated by high fences and entirely closed off; where previously, area residents crossed the square parcel of land to move through the neighborhood, now they walk around the gated plaza beneath the large, empty structures. Area residents complain that they are enormous black eyesores, entirely un-reconciled with their surroundings and prominently empty.

Though many other abandoned structures dot the city, the two towers—the second- and third-tallest buildings in Amman—are some of the most potent visual reminders of a previous era. They are, as Dukhgan puts it, "decaying testimonies of the city's unrealized vision of itself."

Studio X and its student participants devised a plan to return the land on which the Jordan Gates sit to the surrounding neighborhood without losing the possibility the towers present to future investors. "The cornerstone of this proposal was to generate outdoor space, reclaiming the public space that was snatched away," says Dukhgan.

With minimal landscaping, the area beneath the structure again becomes a public park. Intervening in the space to create a public promenade allows the neighborhood to adopt the space as needed. And by peeling off the glass cladding on the first five stories, the Studio-X team modifies the relationship of the skyscrapers to the neighborhood around it: rather than brashly imposing, they appear to float atop the hill. The parkland's greenery and the surrounding homes can be viewed through the structure's now-transparent base.

Dukhgan and the participating students and architects propose expanding the public space underground, into a basement level that was intended to house services for the towers once they were completed. Puncturing the surface with light wells offers the underground area natural light and ventilation "as a strategy to activate some of the dead areas in the lower levels and establish a connection with the more open upper levels," says Dukhgan.

The team envisions a space that the community can decide to use as it sees fit: as an occasional bazaar, as a space for public programming, or merely as the park it always had been. The point, Dukhgan says, is to return the parcel to the surrounding community, un-freeze it, and allow the neighborhood to adapt it to fulfill needed requirements. And not only that, but to do so while "maximizing the use of existing infrastructure, working with existing strengths and limitations, and imagining possibilities for improvement." Nearly a decade after these construction projects began, it's time they were put to use.

This project was developed with the following team:
Directed by: Jawad Dukhgan
Collaborator: Rand Abdul Jabbar
Research: Noor Lozi, Khaled Almasri
Participants: Nida Alhamzeh, Maher Bata, Adam Ishaqat, Noor Lozi, Hani Qudah, Sama Saket
Critics: Ramiz Ayoub, Matthew Barton, Tha'er Qubaa, Farouk Yaghmour

· The Architect's City archive [Curbed]