Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books


Jean Hannoyer
Seteney Shami

Deuxième partie. Formes et usages de l’espace à Amman

Villa Architecture In Amman: The Current Spectrum Of Styles

L’architecture des villas à Amman : Styles et courants actuels

Ihsan Fethi et Kamel Mahadin


Le concept de villa, vaste maison autonome et individuelle, est longtemps resté étranger à la culture et à l’architecture de la ville arabe traditionnelle. La villa a été introduite dans la région à partir de la seconde moitié du xixe siècle par les colonisateurs européens. Elle est rapidement devenue le modèle de résidence favori des élites bourgeoises arabes. Les courants et les styles architecturaux des villas dans l’Ouest de Amman permettent d’identifier six catégories de villas : moderne, postmoderne, islamique, « cottage », classique et éclectique. Chacune est étudiée dans le contexte des dynamiques culturelles à l’œuvre aujourd’hui à Amman.

The concept of a villa - a large, autonomous individual house - has never been indigenous to traditional Arab city architecture or culture. The villa was introduced into the region around the latter half of the 19th century by European colonialists and quickly became the preferred model of residence for the Arab bourgeois elites. This paper explores the stylistic trends of villa architecture in West Amman and identifies six categories of villas: Modernist, Post-modernist. Islamicist, Cottage, Classicist and Eclectic hybrids. These styles are discussed within the context of the cultural dynamics of contemporary Amman society and their respective architectural clues.

Texte intégral


1It is always difficult to confront the question of style. It is even harder to investigate architectural styles in a relatively young city such as Amman, which does not possess a strong architectural tradition, or a definitive past stylistic momentum. Despite this fact, in view of the tremendous growth of Amman since the economic “jump” of the mid-1970’s, and the sudden proliferation of thousands of villas in Amman, current architectural styles warrant serious examination. This paper attempts, perhaps for the first time, to explore current stylistic trends of villa architecture in Amman.

  • 1 Ihsan Fethi and Taleb Rifaï, Traditional Houses in Amman, Amman (in press).

2It must be emphasized at the outset, that the paper is limited to West Amman and is, consequently, limited to villas inhabited by the middle-class and bourgeoisie. Other areas, such as Central and East Amman, were excluded though they were also scanned by the field survey conducted by the authors, because they did not contain enough stylistic variation or aesthetic interest. Central Amman, especially Jabal Amman and Jabal Alwaibda, are comprised largely of traditional “central hall” type villas from the early 20th century and modern villas which belong mostly to the 1950’s1. On the other hand, in East Amman, where lower-income groups live, housing is remarkably uniform in style but architecturally uninteresting. Its houses have little or no conscious attempt at elaboration. Indeed, it was very surprising to find little architectural “kitsch” in Eastern Amman. The pervading uniformity, it seems, is essentially the result of economic hardship; any stylistic exhibitionism not only incurs extra costs, but also requires a certain hitherto uncalled for aesthetic preference or bias. Thus the “typical” modern house of lower income groups in Amman, or elsewhere in Jordan for that matter, shows remarkable indifference to architecture, and appears “transitory”, especially in view of the fact that it contains, more often than not, concrete columns with reinforcement bars sticking out obnoxiously from roof tops.

3This inherent “incompleteness” of modern pop or vernacular buildings in Jordan is perhaps consistent with our contemporary culture of consumerism: reflecting the anticipation of a forthcoming wealth - namely the addition of another floor in the near future. Indeed, pop modern architecture is perhaps more characterized by its rejection of the idea of a “completed” building. Indeed, it represents an idealized composition of some definite formalistic balance that does not accept any sort of building addition or future expansion. In contrast, one finds the villas of higher-income groups in Jordan, and in the Arab World, full of visual cues, signs and symbols, conjured by the architect to reach a “finalized” building form. This is a completed and usually thoroughly worked out architectural image. It is as if the owner of the villa is saying: “this is it, either you take it or you leave it”.

4It is not the aim of this paper to dwell on the socio-cultural reasons which cause these differences in attitudes, important as they are. The main objective of the study is to investigate stylistic differences as indicators or cues of socio-architectural preferences in the present time. Hence, it was felt that external observations of such villas would, within the parameters of the survey, suffice to provide the material necessary to conclude some initial, albeit generalized, comments. Therefore, typological and interior arrangements remain beyond the scope of this paper.

5In determining the effects of the physical environment on people, Amos Rapoport identified three different thoughts:

6Determinism, where the physical environment determines human behaviour ;

  • 2 Amos Rapoport, Human Aspects of Urban Form, Pergamon Press, 1977. pp. 2-3.

7Possibilism, where the physical environment provides possibilities and constraints within which people make choices based mainly on cultural criteria; and Probabilism, where the physical environment provides possibilities for choices and is not a determining factor, but some choices are more probable than others2.

8Within the context of Amman and its socio-cultural milieu, it seems that “probabilism” is more applicable than the other factors identified by Rapoport. This is attested to by the very wide range of choices and architectural cues employed by owners, and by the fact that most villa designs seem quite explicitly to ignore climatic and other environmental factors. This can be seen through the architecture and style of the house. Perhaps more than any other building type, the house provides non-verbal (visual) cues of social communication. The style chosen by the villa owner (or architect) functions as a declaration, a socio-cultural statement, which hints of his/her status. However, if these cues are not easily understood by people, then their communicative message becomes obsolete. In other words, the style chosen, with its plethora of cues, should be decodable in order to successfully transmit the intended message.

  • 3 Mohammed Arkoun, “The Meaning of Cultural Conservation in Muslim Societies”, in Architectural and U (...)
  • 4 Mona Serageldin, “New Popular Housing in the Middle East”, in Architecture and Identity, Geneva : A (...)

9Yet, in most Arab societies today, which are undergoing very rapid socio-economic and cultural transformations, the overwhelming majority of people seem to have lost their traditional cues and, therefore, find it extremely difficult to appreciate the intended message. Stylistic messages, therefore, remain very elitist. The nexus between material objects and mental images is a dynamic function of society. It generates meanings and associations into signs and symbols. According to Arkoun3 and to Serageldin4, there has been a marked disintegration of traditional cultural systems in contemporary Muslim societies which previously played a cohesive role in the built environment. Arkoun believes that this breakdown has led to the substitution of a populist culture for popular culture:

  • 5 Arkoun, op. cit., p. 27.

10“Populist culture is characterised by the predominance of signals, and the current inability to read or use symbols and signs which have been invested in all traditional forms of culture. If we study the mosque built during the last thirty years in Muslim societies... the aesthetic values in furniture, clothes... we discover in each level the disintegration of symbols and signs into signals, slogans, and rigid aggressive expressions cut off from traditional legacies”5.

11The collapse in the close relationship between the built form and environment, has resulted in the loss of building traditions and the relentless invasion of alien value systems through Westernization. Thus, we find not only that Western styles are copied, but that they are often misused, used out of context, or even hybridized with ridiculous effects. Moreover, this is by no means exclusive to clients but, most remarkably in the Arab World, also to architects who are supposedly regarded as intelligent technocrats who know what they are doing!


  • 6 Andrew Jackson Dowing, Cottage Residences, New York, 1942.

12Without delving into the meaning of the word “style”, it is employed here to indicate, in broad terms, a mode of architectural expression peculiar to a certain school of thought, or a specific trend developed at a certain time of period and which provides: the “Principle of Expression of Style”. This consists of two things: first, “beauty of form” and secondly, “the sentiment associated with certain modes of building long prevalent in any age or country”6.

13Although this simplified definition may lack precision - as all definitions do - it nevertheless furnishes sufficient basis for broad classifications. Six major stylistic categories were identified in the villas of Amman: modernist, post-modernist, Islamicist, cottage, classicist, and eclectic. The difficulty encountered in this classification was the fact that, perhaps with the exception of some “modernist” villas, most other styles were categorized through approximation. In other words, there always existed a certain degree of “mix” or eclecticism in most styles.

The Modern Style

14This style refers to villas consciously designed along architectural vocabularies developed by the modern movement. Most notably, it follows a “neat”, or puritanical formal composition. It is austere in its overall appearance and “honest” in its representation of internal functions. Moreover, it lacks specific flavour and local identity. In other words, it could be found anywhere in the world.

15The intended “message” portrayed through this style is to indicate that the owner has “good” and “uncluttered” taste, and little egotism to show off. It also alludes to a “Western” lifestyle in its clear rejection of local stylistic tradition and even environmental constraints. This style has been seen in Amman in the 1940’s and is still potent though it has gone through several local modifications and hybridizations, most notably, the introduction of arches and pitched roofs.


  • Formalistic composition use of slick lines.

  • Masses clearly expressed (cubist)

  • Joints clearly expressed

  • Large windows in horizontal shape

  • Flat roof with an horizontal emphasis

  • Little or no decoration - No frills.

Post-Modern Style

17This style refers to villas consciously designed by architects to allude to the “latest” stylistic developments in the West. It is even more modern than modernist. The style was introduced by young architects in the early 1980’s to indicate that they were in touch with the latest styles in the West. These were transmitted largely through architectural magazines. But this style has yet to pick up momentum, and is unlikely to do so.

18However, the use of decorative elements and motifs in this style seems, superficially at least, to offer interesting possibilities for architects and designers. The re-use or recycling of Islamic motifs in unusual scales or contexts remains unexplored. The use of the ablaq technique (alternating courses of red and white stones) seems to have become very popular as a historical reference (also used by post-modernist architects in the West).


  • Formalistic composition, use of slick lines

  • Tendency for symmetry which is sometimes broken

  • Masses clearly expressed (cubist)

  • Large openings and glazed elements presented in the stage squares and corner windows

  • Flat roof usually horizontally emphasized

  • A stress on motifs, colours and decoration.

The Islamicist Style

20This style refers to villas designed to appear “Islamic”. This is often done by using several stereotyped motifs, particularly using arches as cues to indicate that the owner “belongs” to the culture of the region. The apparent rapid diffusion of this style is an obvious reflection of the popularization of Islamic revivalism in the region as a whole.

21This “Islamicist” style, however, is not revivalist in a literal sense. There have been few examples of complete replicas of historical models. No historicist renaissance has emerged through the use of this style, but rather historical allusions and references. The prevailing tendency here is to employ several historical elements, such as arches, domes, ablaq elements, courses and decoration to give a superficial Islamic flavour to the building. These have failed to attain a degree of integrity and, thus, remain largely experimental and unconvincing.


  • Formalistic composition

  • Tendency for symmetry

  • Smaller openings and arched windows

  • Main attention to Islamic patterns and decoration

  • Employment of Islamic motifs and building techniques such as ablaq, arches, riwâq-s, muqarnas, columns with Islamic capitals, wooden screens, and iron grill-work.

The Cottage Style

  • 7 Scully, Vincent J. The Shingle Style and the Stick Style, University of Yale Press, 1974 edition.

23This style refers to villas designed to appear as though European or American vernacular7. These villas, and even multi-storey apartment blocks, are identified by their prominent red tiled pitched roofs. The use of a pitched roof has now become a definite status symbol in Amman, a sign of wealth and Western life style. The intended message here is to be strongly associated with the West and its country style.

24Although inclined roofs have always been present in the Mediterranean region, including Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and the Maghreb region, it was never the tradition in Jordan. The latest pitched-roof mania in Amman is often employed with the full panoply of cottage-style paraphernalia - Italian red (or green) roofing tiles, dormer windows, gables, and chimneys. It is of interest to note that the inclined roofs are often constructed with reinforced concrete and then covered superficially with tiles.


  • Less formalistic composition - picturesque

  • Prominent pitched roof or roofs with dormer windows and chimneys

  • Smaller openings and bay windows

  • Plant creepers considered as essential part of the setting.

The Classicist Style

26This style refers to villas consciously designed to allude to Western classical architecture, usually a corrupted form of Palladianism or Renaissance. The owner here is deliberately and explicity - perhaps even unashamedly - trying to indicate that he has a Western aristocratic taste. The total rejection of local style and tradition by the users of this style is a remarkable indicator of the extent of Westernization in contemporary Arab societies.

27The employment of classic replicas or pseudo-Palladian villas is new in Amman, though it has been used in the Arab Gulf region. It may be suggested, therefore, that the slow creeping of classicist style is “Gulf Fallout,” transplanted here by those who worked in the Gulf region, made their considerable wealth and returned home.


  • Formal composition - classical orders

  • Prominent entrance - pediment and colonnade

  • Smaller openings with pediments

  • Much attention to detailing - eaves, mouldings, carvings, capitals, cornices

  • Absence of colour.

The Eclectic

29By definition, “Eclectic” cannot be regarded as a style in its own right because it refers to a miscellaneous, and often heavily hybridized, mixture of several styles. Nevertheless, it is used here to include all “undefinable” categories which may be broadly classified as belonging to either “acrobaticism” or “kitsch.”

30Structural acrobaticism refers to villas which employ an incredible array of structural and formal acrobatics, such as inclined walls, large cantilevers, suspended arches, curved elements and all sorts of architectural “tricks.” Here, the architect (and client) is showing off his best; that is, his imagination and masterly use of the full potential of reinforced concrete. Similar “fantastic” villas can be found in the Gulf region. This formalistic way of exhibitionism can either be related to a good sense of humour, or simple cultural bankruptcy and egotism.

  • 8 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary 1981. See also: The Art and Architecture Thesaurus, Oxford Univ (...)

31“Kitsch” is rapidly taking hold in Amman and elsewhere in Jordan. “Kitsch” can be defined as artistic or literary material of low quality designed to appeal to current popular taste8.

  • 9 Rapoport, op. cit., pp. 2-3.

32Here, the owner exhibits a large array of signs and symbols to the point of overkill, or “information overload,” as Rapoport would describe it9.

33In addition to architectural “ploys” and “tricks” of all sorts, which are used in total disregard and/or ignorance of their stylistic integrity or context, the owner embellishes his villa with many accessories, such as statues (lions, eagles and similar figures), or gnomes and fountains in the front garden. The “buzz word” or message here is to make an architectural salad or a cocktail-mix, come what may!


34In surveying the current spectrum of villa styles in Western Amman, the following observations may be suggested:

  1. The wide variety of styles employed indicates a high degree of egotism and individualism among higher-income groups.

  2. This variety is often encouraged by the architects themselves.

  3. The lack of predominance of one style over others reflects a state of stylistic flux - part of an on-going evolutionary process.

  4. In nearly all styles identified by the authors, there is always some degree of eclecticism or “Kitsch” and a clear tendency to blindly mimic Western styles.

  5. Municipal by-laws and building regulations in Amman, especially in regard to obligatory stone-facing, have largely failed to create uniformity or urban homogeneity.


1 Ihsan Fethi and Taleb Rifaï, Traditional Houses in Amman, Amman (in press).

2 Amos Rapoport, Human Aspects of Urban Form, Pergamon Press, 1977. pp. 2-3.

3 Mohammed Arkoun, “The Meaning of Cultural Conservation in Muslim Societies”, in Architectural and Urban Conservation in the Islamic World, Geneva : Aga Khan Trust for Culture, 1990, pp. 27-28.

4 Mona Serageldin, “New Popular Housing in the Middle East”, in Architecture and Identity, Geneva : AKTC, 1993, p. 14.

5 Arkoun, op. cit., p. 27.

6 Andrew Jackson Dowing, Cottage Residences, New York, 1942.

7 Scully, Vincent J. The Shingle Style and the Stick Style, University of Yale Press, 1974 edition.

8 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary 1981. See also: The Art and Architecture Thesaurus, Oxford University Press, 1990.

9 Rapoport, op. cit., pp. 2-3.


Department of Architecture University of Jordan
Department of Architecture University of Jordan

© Presses de l’Ifpo, 1996

Conditions d’utilisation :


Volume papier