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Project by the Jordanian architect in collaboration with Sissel Tolaas presented at the Central International Exhibition of the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale, 22 May - 21 November 2021, curated by Hashim Sarkis.
Petrichor depicts the typology of courtyard house through the convention of plan-making as its main compositional conduit. It demonstrates the immense proliferation of this typology as a consistently valid space of cohabitation through its capacity of adaptation and emergence in multiple formal and spatial expressions. Such varieties, sampled through a series of engraved floor plans located at the threshold of the space summon the idea of an ancestral home, whose familiarity is further solidified by means of an olfactory layer of soil, which permeates the space to evoke a visceral and primordial connection to earth. Petrichor is a domestic fragment that proposes an archetypal response to the question of future cohabitation and its uncertainties. (Sahel Alhiyari)
By Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt, 31 August 2021
B & H: In your statement you write that your piece alludes to the courtyard house typology. As far as we know, the oldest examples of courtyard houses were found in the central Jordan Valley at sites of the Neolithic Yarmukian culture. Obviously designed in those ancient times as response to environmental and social needs, they are also widespread throughout many regions of the world along history, but not so much in the last centuries until more recently. Why did you choose this typology for your piece?
SA: The choice of using the courtyard typology as a reference was actually a response to the question or subtheme of "households" within the general theme of "how we will live together?" The attempt was to answer a question pertaining to the future through an examination of repeated patterns or viable solutions of domestic space. The courtyard type is perhaps one of many that have persistently developed and recurred over millennia in an array of many formal varieties emerging across various geographies and cultures. As a type it may be considered as an integral part of our collective memory in spite the fact that within possibly the last two centuries its use has diminished. The question of a future home and future cohabitation cannot be really addressed if seen though contingent conditions and transient needs. In the same way architecture must possess a capacity to address and transcend change in a manner that ensures its longevity. So basically, the choice reverts the question to an archaic form of architecture that is still valid and that has the capacity to accommodate future needs.
B & H: When realizing that the title Petrichor refers to "the smell of rain," even if one is just looking at the photographs, it immediately sparks your scent imagination, and you can smell it and feel the relief that it usually means. How did the cooperation with Sissel Tolaas come about? Is it a drawback that the piece is exhibited outdoors, and will this aspect of the work last until the end of the show in November?
SA: I met Sissel Tolaas in 2010 and I was really fascinated by her work or rather interdisciplinary art which uses chemistry as its primary medium to explore smell and its molecular structure. The collaboration on Petrichor explores the potential impact of smell on space and memory, by means of using a primordial smell that earth or soil emits when it comes in contact with moisture. This connection to earth solidifies the archetypal quality of the work to evoke a familiar connection to earth as the collective home. Of course, there were challenges in terms of maintaining the smell constant in an outdoor enclosure. It meant that periodical application of the earth molecule would have to occur in order to ensure the presence of the smell.
B & H: The structure of Petrichor has a whirling rhythm, with staircases projecting it upwards, open axes to enter it, and open sight lines that integrate the surrounding landscape. Are the floor plans engraved at the threshold the historical anchor to encourage visitors to rationally reflect about it beyond just enjoying it through the senses?
SA: Engraved at the two thresholds of the installation are a number of floorplans, which constitute part of a research that was done on the spatial composition of the courtyard house typology across various periods and geographies. The random selection of the engravings or floorplans allows the visitor a glimpse of the vast history of the typology in one instant. In a way the engravings could be also regarded as an abstract narrative that evokes memory through the convention of plan making. The plans are indeed there to engage the visitor in means other than those that are strictly sensorial.
B & H: How does Petrichor relate to other projects of your career as architect, artist, and curator?
SA: I believe that all works that we do as architects are a result of interlinked interests and thought trajectories, which at times may appear as contradictory or inconsistent. Such is the necessary process for the development of the work in general. I normally try to avoid creating an intentionally consistent body of work - or in other words a signature. I believe that such a tendency can be quite limiting and thinking of a body of work as in terms of a unity is even more problematic. I believe continuity can emerge through various fields of interest. Yet how such interests translate or permeate each project is an entirely different discourse. Here context plays a fundamental role at defining the work.
(© Interview: Sahel Alhijari, Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt)
Sahel Alhiyari is a Jordanian architect, and the principal at Sahel Alhiyari Architects. He holds Bachelor Degrees in Architecture and Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design, and a Master of Architecture in Urban Design from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. He carried out post-graduate work at the School of Architecture at the University of Venice, where he also taught from 1993-1995. In addition, his teaching activities include design studios Arch Lab organized by the Centre for the Study of the Built Environment (CSBE) in collaboration with the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2002 and 2004, as well as an option studio at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design (fall 2010), and a vertical design studio at the American University of Beirut (fall 2011). He has lectured at Columbia University, Physical Development Research Centre in Iran, Jordan University of Science and Technology, Harvard University, the American University of Beirut and ETH Zurich. His work has been published internationally, as well as exhibited in Jordan at The Khalid Shoman Foundation and in New York at The Center of Architecture. In 2002, Al Hiyari was chosen as the first architect to receive the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, according to which he has been a protégé of architect Álvaro Siza of Portugal. He has served as a reviewer and a member of the Master Jury for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Additionally, he is a painter and has exhibited in Jordan, Lebanon and Italy.
Cover photo: Sahel Alhiyari - Petrichor.
© Photo: Andrea Avezzù. Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia