The Nomadic Dwelling

Hind Abusnana, Dina Hirzallah, Abdullah Al Rifai
American University of Sharjah, College of Architecture, art and Design, Sharjah
United Arab Emirates

Project idea

In the beginning of 2020 spring semester, my teammates and I found ourselves in quite a dilemma. University shut down, so we were officially kicked out of dorms. We had nowhere to go, and we felt like nomads.This idea of the pandemic affecting people's lives and habitation, has occurred before in history. Which reminded us of the Decameron, which was a collection of tales by Giovanni Boccaccio. We were intrigued to find a direct link with the frame narrative. The tale, named day one, describes 10 young people who flee plague-stricken Florence to a delightful villa in nearby Fiesole. We decided to move to our own version of the delightful villa, into an apartment in a nearby area.
Our experience as a whole transitioned very abruptly, from being around each other during our classes, to having dinner together, the apartment was our temporary fix. Adjusting after living in dorms for so long, a single space with a kitchen and a bathroom accessible without exiting through a door, to a space that was much larger. We were excited to live together but did not take into consideration how the space was not suitable to accommodate any of us getting the virus.
From our first observations of life after covid, we found ourselves curious about how our covid experience changed the common views we had on normative habitation. And we started questioning how the time that we had spent in that apartment had affected us. We no longer found purpose in labeling spaces based on their programs, since we altered the spaces based on our personal needs at the time. We learned to adapt.

We found three main takeaways from our experience. First of all we had all experienced some degree of isolation. So we were interested in how to celebrate this experience within a temporal domestic habitation. Secondly, We were also inspired by the way that Dina’s loss of certain senses allowed her to move freely by honing in on her new found appreciation of her remaining senses at the time. So what if we could create a home that feels? A home that sees and hears? The third observation was challenging the creation of order and organizing disorder. By Creating a space that connects the user or users to their natural surroundings. Where the understanding of a relationship with the place has a role in the conception and expression of its outcome. An extension to the landscape that has programmatic and enclosure mutability.

Project description

When we first came across the site we were extremely excited to have found a rock outcrop. We had found our starting position. In order to create this architecture of discovery we desired that the project would frame a series of experiments aimed at testing ways of tampering with sensory perception and manipulating spatial conditions specifically through order, within the landscape, celebrating seclusion. We named it la tabula rasa, because to us it symbolizes the unbuilt built environment. Nature had built itself by providing a series of textures and openings, as well as the materiality that we desired to organize our three ideas within.

Using three precedents we were able to create a palette of ingredients. From Chilida we were inspired to celebrate isolation through the act of carving. And the ensemble project highlighted the opportunity for us to take advantage of the site and reuse different rocks to create textures and to create a processional journey. These would be our primary focal points. Finally, the rural house by RCR architects implored us to diversify the use of materials depending on the users needs. To create a sense of disorder, that is in fact ordered. Which would be our secondary components, the light elements within the rock.

Technical information

We were lucky enough to have found an existing rock outcropping on the site which was used as a driving force for the project, in terms of location on the site and so forth. This has allowed us to create a journey through the site, both leading up to the project and through the project itself, using the pre-existing natural elements of the site as a guide to enhance the architecture of discovery, which was one of our main goals. The journey begins from the very beginning, as the wanderer is given clues of where to circulate down to the project itself.

The vehicular circulation ends here, where an extension of the landscape has made way for a parking space, indicating that the journey will be continued on foot. A series of organic rocks, creating steps down the site, guide the individual down the correct path, as the subtle emergence of different yet manufactured materiality start to become visible, such as vertical steel, and using the elements from the site, it allowed us to create a woven relationship between the organic found conditions and the fabricated elements

The site has been treated with the constant thought of maintaining the original nature of what was pre-existing and not wasting any of the earth we have been given, therefore, after the exaggeration of the rock outcrop and after further excavation of the site, what has been carved has been reused in another location on the site, whether that is to create the habitable spaces, or to allow for steps to be laid over the site that act like exterior stairs. This has given us the chance to incorporate and use the stone differently throughout the project, as the thickest walls are the ones standing prior to the carving and they are the ones on the facade of the project. The rock that has been reused and stacked on the site presents another material language that has created a relationship between the interior and exterior and the individual experiencing the project.

Upon approach, you are given a glance into the interior, where the different materiality, the wood, gives a hint that there is something to circulate into, and that it is not just a large stone quarry. The relationship between the different treatments of stone and the wood and steel play a role in differentiating the public spaces from the private ones, as the steel has been used in the public spaces, and the softer wood has been used for the intimate spaces, creating order out of the organic disorder of the carving and the stone.

The sections present this relationship between the materials and highlight the different spatial conditions that have been created through the use of the materials. Looking at the stone, both carved and stacked, it presents a non-normative scale for the human body, which is then quickly taken away by the direct interaction with the wood and steel, changing scales quickly and drastically, signifying a programmatic shift, allowing one’s instincts and perception of the spaces to guide them through the project. Due to the large scale of the project, both vertically and in the thickness of the stone, in relation to the human body, you feel engulfed as you progress through the spaces, making the individual feel isolated from the outside world and completely immersed into the earth, celebrating this experience entirely.

The renders walk one through the approach. At first one finds themselves directed by a clearing within the lower canopy of the trees. To come across a natural looking ledge, which is the first hint. Then as one proceeds down from the ledge, you start to get a glimpse of what seems to be rocks piled on rocks. As you get closer these large blocks start to emerge from the landscape. You can see that exterior rough surface entices you to come into the project, by allowing the user to feel their way in. Once you enter the project the interior surface has a smoother finish to imply that you have reached the inside. You are then met with subtle indentations, where you may become intrigued to investigate the corten steel adaptable moments.

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