East Wahdat Upgrade/ Preservation of Cultural Identity: Islamic Architecture and Traditional Motifs

Though the upgrading plan of East Wahdat area was proposed by the World Bank with the assistance of a British firm, Halcrow Fox and Associates, as consultants, in which both of them shared similar Western backgrounds, the resulting plan for East Wahdat Upgrading Programme was surprisingly not of a Eurocentric design nor a rationalized grid plan, but responded to the specific cultural dimension of the intended users, the Islamic inhabitants, mainly ‘Jordanian-Palestinians’. It was therefore awarded the Aga Khan Prize in 1992 for having a sensitive and responsive architectural design for the local community, apart from just being an economic and efficient model (Hasan 1989). The strong presence of Islamic cultural identity of the inhabitants are largely preserved, or even emphasized, meanwhile the living conditions are being successfully upgraded after the implementation of the programme.

A typical Islamic house emphasized on privacy, modesty, and hospitality, which is strongly reflected in the design of the houses. For example, the architecture usually has a low-key appearance. The houses are usually white cubes with a few punched holes on the façade, which are carefully positioned and with limited decorations. Also, there is usually an introverted courtyard or a gated garden to promote privacy. A uniform construction of height in response to the neighbors are also encouraged due to the reason of privacy, so that the neighbors would not be able to overlook into the houses next door from a higher point. There are also varied levels within individual units so as to achieve multiple light sources to create a more hospitable space (Ragette 2003). All of the above are features that related to the central idea of privacy, modesty and hospitality.



Before the implementation of the upgrading programme, the architects, Asad Shaheed, who was trained in the United States, had placed quite a lot of effort in studying the Islamic architecture before drawing up the final plan so as to design the most suitable housing for the residents of the East Wahdat area. As quoted from the architect (Yarwood 2011):

…It was an unusual project to receive the 1992 Aga Khan Award for
Architecture, a prestigious award that up till then had recognized beauty
and the continued promotion of Islamic art and architecture…

In response to the culture of emphasis on privacy, the architect had originally designed a 1.0 m high compound wall as an upgrade for fencing the individual plot and separating the houses from each other. However, as it turned out the 1.0 m high compound wall was too low to provide privacy and that nearly all of the residents had modified the wall into 1.5 m high after the construction. In view of this, the Urban Development Department (UDD) of Amman had to give in to this change and the 1.5 m became the new rules. This was how the local culture informed and modified the initial design ideas.


Fig. 2 changing process of the compound wall

On the other hand, the preservation of cultural identity are also seen through the modification of the façades and the addition of decorative features and traditional motifs by the end-users. As it came off after the upgrade, the punched holes on the façades were positioned according to the Islamic tradition, where the sight-line from the outside were above the headline of the interior. It was so that the person inside the house, especially women, would not be seen from the outside, so as to achieve privacy (Othman, Aird and Buys 2014). Furthermore, the addition of traditional motifs or Arabic inscription on top of the entrance, and the Islamic patterns on the window screens and on the steel grilles also added to the cultural uniqueness of the site of upgrade. This reflected the habitation of the traditional Islamic inhabitants in the area, and the successful preservation of cultural identity.


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Fig. 4 Traditional Motifs



Bahammam, A.S., 1987. Architectural Patterns of Privacy in Saudi Arabian Housing (Master of Architecture/Thesis). McGill University, Montreal.

Hakim, B.S., 1986. Arabic-Islamic Cities: Building and Planning Principles. KPI, London.

Hasan, Arif. 1989. Technical Review Summary 1989: East Whadat Upgrading Program, Aga Khan Architecture Award. The Aga Khan Award for Archtitecture.

Myriam Ababsa. The Evolution of Upgrading Policies in Amman. Sustainable Architecture and Urban Development, Jul 2010, Amman Jordanie, Jordan.

Othman, Z., R. Aird, and L. Buys. 2014. “Privacy, Modesty, Hospitality, and the Design of Muslim Homes: A literature review.” ScienceDirect 12-23.

Ragette, Friedrich. 2003. Traditional Domestic Architecture of the Arab Region. Edition Axel Menges.

Yarwood, John. 2011. Urban Planning in the Middle East: Case Studies. Cambridge : Cambridge Scholars Publishing.


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