Jordanian designer and architect Abeer Seikaly draws on Bedouin tent-making and culture to reimagine architecture for the 21st century
Last month, the third Amman Design Week showcased artists and designers from across the Middle East and North Africa. Among them was Abeer Seikaly, the innovative Palestinian-Jordanian designer and architect who has drawn on Bedouin and ancient Arabic traditions to create architectural structures that are uniquely modern and beautiful and perhaps even visionary.
An alumnus of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design in the USA, Seikaly caught Western media attention a few years ago with her “Weaving a Home” project. At the time, the Syrian refugee crisis was in the news on a daily basis. Rather than responding with outrage, however, Seikaly thought about the problem differently, looking at the huts of nomadic tribes to design modern disaster shelters for refugees.
Seikaly’s designs were -- and are -- intended to provide experimental yet practical solutions to global problems. Yet, there is no hint of the modernist credo of “form follows function” (coined by architect Louis Sullivan) or of the stark, cold, calculated aloofness of modernism.
“When I first designed those tents,” Seikaly told ORTTU recently, “it was a response to the crisis that was happening in the region because of the war in Syria. Visiting the camps and seeing the conditions that people were living in really prompted me to think about alternative solutions.”
Woven from ogee-shaped fabric membranes, the shelters were designed to be not only easily transportable but to be self-sustaining temporary homes. The shelters are capable of collecting rainwater and trapping solar radiation and turning it into electricity (to heat the collected water, for example). And the shelters can also allow in air and light as needed.
While the traditional Bedouin tent (beit al-sha’ar or “house of hair”) might not have been equipped with such modern technology, it is clear that they provided a model, or an archetype, for Seikaly’s work.
“If you look at the Bedouin tent, it is really an adaptive response to the environment,” says Seikaly. “It’s really fascinating to study indigenous communities and how they live. Within their survival modes and methods, there is a clear relationship to nature and to the climate, which, over time, developed a very strong cultural entity.”
Culture matters as much to Seikaly as finding technical solutions because, for her, design and architecture are not end products but living traditions that draw people together in communities. And, being living traditions, they must also interact harmoniously with the environment. “At the end of the day it’s all part of a process,” she says. “Architecture is part of a process. Identity is part of a process.” But the process is one of renewal and of adapting tradition and culture to meet new challenges in a rapidly changing world.
Nevertheless, there is a highly personal aspect to Seikaly’s work. Her grandfather was a Bedouin and lived the traditional Bedouin lifestyle. And Seikaly heard stories about it all as a child.
“Stories play such an important part in forming our cultural identities and our understanding of ourselves,” she says. “So, listening to these stories growing up definitely formed a connection -- to a place, to a person, to a history -- and I find myself on a quest to go back. You know, it’s almost like we spend half of our lives trying to get away from home and the next half trying to come back to it. I’ve lived abroad, I’ve tra