Sijal Institute for Arabic Language and Culture is taking a more holistic approach to learning – one that is reflected in its refreshing interiors.
Wasim Salfiti, Sijal’s director and co-founder, was living abroad and had long discussed the possibility of creating “some kind of cultural centre” in Amman with his friend, the well-known Jordanian historian Abdel Razzaq Takriti. The pair’s vision was to create an institute whereby Arabic language could be taught in a more rounded environment that would allow students to be immersed in Arabic culture, politics and history. Clearly this vision would need a very special space in which to be realised.
Taking its name from the Arabic term for a lively intellectual discussion in which both sides put forward equally convincing points, Sijal is tucked away in an old Jabal Amman building that is easily overlooked amid showier locations nearby. Behind this modest façade, however, lies a centre that remains rooted in local and regional history, yet which has been updated to reflect its modern context in a way that is both innovative and sympathetic.
The old house was in a sorry state when the Sijal team found it. Thought to be built in the 1930s by a Damascene family, the house is a paradigm of Amman’s expansion at the hands of an influx of Syrian and Palestinian merchants in the early days of the Emirate of Transjordan. These traders imported architectural theories, techniques and materials from their homelands, resulting in an amalgamation of styles that came to represent the new capital’s cityscape. In the 80-plus years since it was built, the property has only had two owners, which has allowed for the preservation of many original features: the pair of fountains on the terrace, the interior doors and windows and, most remarkably, the beautiful, ornate floor tiles. Salfiti was keen to situate Sijal in a building with a sense of history, stating, “The accumulation of experience and memory in a place moves us in an inexplicable way.” However, having been empty for some years, the interiors were suffering badly from damp and were, in the words of head architect Matthew Barton, of Greenwood Barton Architects, “quite miserable.”
Once the damp was dealt with and the basic plumbing and electricity services reconfigured, Barton could get on with making this beautiful, if latterly unloved building into a useable centre. “It was about trying to avoid making the place feel institutional, but rather making it feel open to different uses and to lending itself to different interpretations,” he explained. The classrooms, for example, are arranged and lit in such a way that means they can just as easily be used for public seminars or art exhibitions as for teaching. “The idea was that we would add to Sijal over time,” Barton adds, “but it still had to be a functioning space. There’s not a singular approach to the interiors – it’s more eclectic and organic. In that way it reflects a domestic interior, which also gives it this cosy, intimate feeling.”
As is typical of buildings of this age, the house was built around a central reception hall, with other rooms leading off from it. Internal windows looking into the other rooms allow light and air to enter this otherwise enclosed space, giving glimpses into other rooms and fostering an air of openness. The hall and the study room leading off it towards the garden are painted in a warm, mossy green to visually differentiate them as communal, multiuse spaces for relaxation and discussion. The classrooms, meanwhile, are neutral white with small pops of red, the walls decorated with original paintings by Arab artists including of Fares Rizk and carpets from Salfiti’s family collection.
Salfiti and Barton worked hard to source Sijal’s furniture and fittings from local and regional designers and producers. The red lounge chairs are by Local Industries, a Palestinian design company based in Bethlehem, while the large wooden study table and the low stone tables in the common room were made bespoke by Indoor Furniture and the external metal lamps by a local joiner. The classroom tables and chairs are by Jordanian company Maani, which produces furniture in a factory on the airport road. “We’re always interested in working with local producers and designers,” says the architect. “It’s interesting on projects like this to incorporate one-off and bespoke items.”
A quirk of Amman’s sheer hilliness has led to one of Barton’s favourite aspects of the building. “There’s this really nice sequence of descending spaces. You enter from the street and go down into the lounge space, then you have a couple of steps down into the study space, one step onto the terrace, then several more steps into the lower garden.” This downhill tapering allows for a series of well-framed vistas: down the entry steps, into the common room and through the internal window to the classroom beyond, and from the common room through the study room, out to the garden.
The garden itself is a valuable asset to Sijal. As well as the two bubbling fountains, patterned wooden tables and chairs on the terrace allow students, teachers and visitors alike to sit and take in the remarkable view over Amman’s historic downtown area and across the slopes of Jabal Ashraffieh up to the iconic Abu Darwish mosque. Red geraniums climb up the whitewashed walls, while beds contain a mixture of traditional Levantine plants: mulberry, lemon, olive and pomegranate, to name but a few. Despite being just a few minutes away from the bustling Rainbow Street, this space truly feels like an urban escape.
Although it is a relatively modest space, Sijal feels like a breath of fresh air amidst the aggressive gentrification that is rife across the capital, and nowhere more than Jabal Amman. Both Barton and Salfiti cite as an inspiration the Swiss-born philosopher Alain de Botton’s rejection of architectural “pastiche.” He states that instead of looking back with a kind of faux-nostalgia that negates the present, we should aim for less harsh architecture that reflects the current day without disregarding the past. This complex balancing act has been achieved with aplomb at Sijal; the historic building has been saved from neglect and brought up to date in a sympathetic manner that respects its history while simultaneously reflecting Amman’s modern cultural and architectural reality. Let’s hope it inspires a generation of scholars who can carry this ethos into their studies and beyond.
Photography: Amer Sweidan