Saturday, September 21, 2013

Jordanian architecture

I'm going to write a longer blog post with pictures about my trip to Wadi Rum, which I returned from yesterday. Unfortunately, I seem to have misplaced my camera, and I don't want to write that post without pictures if it can be helped. I fear I may have left it on the tour bus - if that's the case I'll have to try and scrounge up some pictures from other people. In the meantime I will hope it turns up, and write about the interesting ways Jordanians build their homes.

This is a pretty standard Jordanian home, pulled directly off of Google images. I saw dozens and dozens of buildings like this as I rode down the Desert Highway toward Wadi Rum. The only buildings that don't look this way are commercial buildings (like hotels) and government buildings.

The most noticeable feature is the support columns with rebar still sticking out of the roof. Almost every residential building, especially in rural Jordan, looks like this one. Why? It's planning ahead for potential expansion. My host mother, Samira, explained to me that she didn't think the best use for her family's money was to simply let it sit in the bank. "If it sits in the bank, yani, it disappears. We put it back into the house, and it will always be here yani."

A little background on my living situation is necessary. I live with Samira in a fairly large flat in a building in West Amman. The building has three floors; the first two floors have two flats apiece (for a total of four) and the top floor has a large storeroom. Samira's three adult sons live next door and upstairs from us, making this effectively the "family building".

Samira and her late husband, Sulieman, moved back to Jordan after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 (they had originally moved for his job. While in Kuwait, they purchased the land here and built the first floor of the building. After returning, they added on the second floor, and at some point since, the storeroom floor. While their sons were younger, they rented out the other flats, but as their sons got married and had families, they all moved back into the building and other tenants moved out.

Rebar sticks out on the third floor landing of my host family's building, possibly from when the storeroom was added.
When the land on which the family's building stands was first purchased, almost nobody lived in this part of Amman. The neighborhood was largely undeveloped. Today, it is a bustling neighborhood with high property values and is probably among the best places to live in this country.

Samira's long term plan envisions adding more floors to the building, bringing the total up to four or five (any more are prohibited by construction codes here). Presumably, the building would be left to her sons after she is gone.

Most Jordanian families engage in this kind of long term, slow accumulation of literal concrete wealth, which is something I have rarely seen in the US. Part of the difference is cultural: most young people in the US are not going to move back in with their parents when they get married. Jordanians have an advantage, if you know your sons will need a place to live, it's easier to plan for future expansion ten or twenty years down the line.

But the sense of slowly accumulating or building on what you have also seems rarer in a broader sense. I've known exactly one family ever in the US that built a house "piecemeal" in a similar fashion. They bought and assembled the components of a home one at a time, adding them onto a now-impressive structure. They were able to avoid debt almost completely, and don't have a mortgage.

In the "I want it now" culture of the US, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that this is rare. Perhaps the fiscal crisis (and the slowly building student loan crisis) will trigger a new aversion to massive debt and a little more patience when my generation starts building homes.

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