Manar Moursi

 
 
 

"Regional Exchange and Knowledge Transfer through Building Practices: The Work of PACE in Yemen, 1968-2016," Published in Pan-Arab Modernism 1968-2018, edited by Dalal Musaed Alsayer, Ricardo Camacho, Sara Saragoça Soares, Actar Publishers, 2021. Below an excerpt from my piece:

The typical urban house in Yemen was tall and with a square plan. Standard features of the tower house were its height, with homes ranging in size from three to nine stories high, around 20 to 50 m high. Houses overlooked communal gardens and orchards. In the most basic form, the house, even those that were one story and constructed of mud, divided into rooms for living, keeping animals and storage. Openings were from the roof and not through windows, and there were no sanitary installations within the house. As for the more urban tower house typology, bathing and toilet facilities as well as kitchen were included in the house, and more space was given for living quarters not just for the family but also for the receiving of guests. Circulation and services typically faced north, whereas the best rooms faced south in the highlands region. The reverse orientation was found in hotter regions such as the Tihama region. Room uses also changed seasonally, accommodating different functions according to the weather and their propitious positioning. The typical tower house was articulated with hierarchies of privacy ascending upwards. This ascending privacy also aligned well with defense and protection intentions. Rooms led to rooms with circulation occurring with stairs but no corridors and lower levels were typically dedicated to storage with no windows.

Three factors affected the façade design of vernacular houses: the first one is the variation in the style of the openings, with different forms typically arched, as well as their placement in other locations, making the facades more dynamic. The second is their decorative ornamentation, while the third is the actual building materials, with the lower part of the facades usually built of stone, which had the advantage of thermal insulation. In the higher parts, brick was more commonly used. Depending on geology, climate, and availability of materials, the other widely used vernacular construction material was mud bricks.

There were connecting passages between houses on the upper floor in some homes, built-in for defensive purposes. These passages also allowed women to go between houses without descending in the public sphere of the street. They provided additional shading for the street below. The top floors had terraces to allow people to sleep in the open air in the summer months.

The transition from vernacular construction to modern buildings was abrupt. After years of isolation, Yemen opened up to the world in 1962 after the September revolution in that year. Foreign consultants and planners arriving in the scene in the 60s considered the vernacular city cores as slums that needed to be cleared to make way for modern grids. These grids would have wide roads that accommodated vehicular traffic and modern housing typologies that extended beyond the center onto the agricultural extents of the city in the north and the south to accommodate growth. Concrete and other imported materials were introduced. Concrete optimized speed as its production was industrial compared to the more labor-intensive stone and mud construction methods. By the mid-1980s, an annual budget of 55 million dollars was expended annually solely on importing concrete.

Rural-urban migration increased steadily during this period due to economic growth in cities and the need for proper housing to accommodate the influx. In 1962 the city of Sanaa's population was 55,000, and the land occupied by them covered 300 ha. By 1977, the population had tripled and spread over nine times that area.

PACE's approach in the context of Yemen had the power of dogma: framed in universal terms, it reflected a particular method and aesthetic forms. Beyond the formal and architectural ambitions, the buildings imparted a strong message of modernity through their programmatic roles as secular higher education, western medicine, and multi-family urban housing.

The first buildings designed by PACE in 1968 were located in Hodeida and Taiz and were of a total built-up area of 3600m2. As with all PACE projects in Yemen, the General Board for the South and the Arabian Gulf (GBSAG) was the commissioner. The project was intended to address the afore-mentioned new housing needs and provide a model for new housing construction. It consisted of two residential buildings that were three stories each, with three apartments per floor and a ground-level dedicated to a commercial frontage on the street. The project also included two mosques. In some ways, this project, along with other early residential buildings built at the time by Egyptian and other foreign consultants, foreshadowed a typical pattern for housing types in Yemen as Varanda describes in his thesis: "Sana'a typifies the co-existence of a variety of new typological concepts. Generally, development is heralded by single-story commercial frontages along major arterial as much as in local streets. Upper floors may be added later, displaying various degrees of aesthetic treatment ranging from complete indifference to determined formal expression. In contrast, the 'villa' neighborhoods are characterized by a regular layout of streets, wide enough for the expected traffic, lined by the high yard walls surrounding one or two-story houses."

In the Hodeida-Taiz project, balconies are introduced to the units, an element that is not traditional in Yemen at the time. On the exterior, the buildings articulate a horizontal expression in contrast to the vertical vernacular. Reinforced concrete frameworks allowed this horizontal expression with longer spans. Original spans in traditional buildings were much smaller because local timber from acacias came in irregular shapes giving a maximum of 3.5m. Therefore, in the conventional type, programs were spread over multiple levels in vertical units. Here, the buildings are elongated, and the horizontality is emphasized through the exposure of the concrete floor slabs on the facades as horizontal ribbons that wrap around each floor. There is no ornamentation on the exterior, and the windows are rectangular in contrast to the typical arched typology that is characteristic of Sana'a's architecture until then. Corridors were also introduced within the unit to access different rooms. This contrasts with the vernacular distribution, where rooms were accessed through other rooms and stairs in a layered hierarchy of privacy. Overall, the horizontal massing enabled through the use of reinforced concrete, the introduction of balconies and rectilinear windows in the façade, and corridors for circulation made the residential building in Hodeida-Taiz, more modernist in its references and articulation.

Later buildings by PACE diverged from pure modernism to respond to climatic needs and accommodate a regional vocabulary while maintaining a modernist programmatic, functional approach. At the time, PACE was already collaborating on projects in Kuwait with Rifat Chadirji, the father of modernist architecture in Iraq. Chadirji was concerned with developing a language of regional modernism that was in touch with the times in terms of construction technologies, using modern materials and programmatic organizations, but still had regional elements that responded to the particularities of the climate projecting an image of modernity with a local brand. It is important to note also that at this time, working in the PACE office on the Yemen projects, was a majority of Iraqi-trained architects, including Akram Ogaily and Said Yousif. Chadirji was teaching at the university in Baghdad and already set a regionalist modernism plan through his pedagogy, publishing, and building.

One such building by PACE that departs from pure modernism is the Hostel for the Students of the Ministry of Education in Aden. Commissioned by the GBSAG in 1973, the building was completed three years later in 1976. The project accommodated 200 students with a clubhouse, library, and restaurant. It is a three-story mixed-use building spread over a large plot with a total built-up area of 3200m2. In some ways, the hostel resembles the Hodeida-Taiz residential buildings. A horizontal expression is again emphasized in the massing and exposure of the floor plates in the façade as a horizontal ribbon. However, the difference here is experimentation with bringing the vernacular recessed arched window type to the units and eliminating the more unfamiliar balconies. Instead of working as a commercial frontage, the ground floor is instead occupied by the public programs of the hostel.