Salma Samar Damluji on power of master builders in reviving architecture in Yemen

STIR @ Women in Design 2020+: The Beirut-born architect talks about mud brick architecture, her rehabilitation work, and being inspired by Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy.

by Meghna Mehta Published on : Feb 28, 2020

Salma Samar Damluji believes in the power that lies in the local architecture of Yemen and strives towards reviving it. Her Daw’an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation brings the local people together in an attempt to protect and develop the architecture, and empower the new generation by educating them to preserve their craftsmanship and indigenous techniques.

Damluji has been working on the architectural rehabilitation of important places in Yemen since 2005, and is currently a professor of Architecture of the Islamic World at the American University of Beirut. She founded the Daw‘an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation in 2007, which is based in Mukalla, Yemen.  

In India for the Women in Design 2020+ conference in January this year, she gave an inspiring presentation on how she entered the field of architecture, and her work that includes earth construction, and the rehabilitation and post-war reconstruction projects in Yemen and the Middle East.

The three-day conference in Mumbai saw more than 35 women architects, designers, thinkers, artists, directors, political and social leaders from across the globe coming together on one platform and indulge the audience with their stories, thoughts and ideas.

  • New Baris, a rural settlement that was partially built in 1965 by Hassan Fathy | Salma Samar Damluji | Daw’an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation | Women in Design 2020+ | STIRworld
    New Baris, a rural settlement that was partially built in 1965 by Hassan Fathy Image Credit: Courtesy of Viola Bertini

Here, in an interview with STIR, Damluji speaks about her studies at the Architecture Association in London, working with Egyptian architect Hasan Fathy, moving to Yemen, her inspirations, and the men who contributed immensely to her education and knowledge.

Meghna Mehta (MM): You talked about your book Architecture of Yemen, Hassan Fathy’s book Earth and Utopia and earth architecture in your presentation. Since you have worked with Hassan Fathy, can you share your experience with us?

Salma Samar Damluji (SSD): My experience with him was invaluable. It made me discover the architecture I want to do. In my book I mention that I met him when I was in my first year of education, studying in London at the AA (The Architectural Association). That summer I went to Beirut and my parents were there because we spent the summers there and I did not know how to break the news to them that I did not want to study architecture further. So, I shut up. I did not say anything.

  • Salma Samar Damluji  | Daw’an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation | Women in Design 2020+ | STIRworld
    Salma Samar Damluji Image Credit: Courtesy of Salma Samar Damluji

Then suddenly I met this friend who lived in Egypt and she said, “Oh, are you studying architecture? I must lend you this book of this Egyptian architect. I am sure you would find it interesting.” So, she gave me the book called Gourna: a tale of two villages, which was Fathy’s book that the MIT had then published as Architecture for the Poor. That night I started reading that book and suddenly I said to myself, ‘This is the architecture I want to do. It is not that I don't want to practice architecture, but I don't want to do the architecture they are teaching me.’

And guess what? Three weeks later I met the man in Beirut. By pure coincidence. I walked into a café and I saw some of my colleagues from the AA there. They got up, hugged and kissed me, we were talking and suddenly this small man got up and he said, don't I get a kiss too? I said, 'Yes, of course, but who are you?’ He said, ‘I am Hassan Fathy’.

Masna‘at U‘rah, Daw’an, Hadramaut Governorate, Yemen, 2009  | Salma Samar Damluji | Daw’an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation | Women in Design 2020 + | STIRworld
Masna‘at U‘rah, Daw’an, Hadramaut Governorate, Yemen, 2009 Image Credit: Courtesy of Daw‘an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation

MM: Wow! That’s a fantastic coincidence.

SSD: Yes, then I asked him, can I come and work with you? So that summer, before I went back to the AA, I went to Egypt to visit him. Two years later I took my year out and spent my fourth year with him, and of course, I got permission from the chairman at the time, they were so forward thinking then, that is what encouraged me. It is at the AA in London that I discovered Islamic architecture and it is there that I discovered Hassan Fathy and it was an amazing experience. I finished my studies in London in 1977 and then lived in Beirut and then I went back and worked with him in 1983 and 1984 and then I again went back to London to do my PhD in Yemen.

Masna‘at U‘rah, Daw’an, Hadramaut Governorate, Yemen, 2012  | Salma Samar Damluji | Daw’an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation | Women in Design 2020 + | STIRworld
Masna‘at U‘rah, Daw‘an, Hadramaut Governorate, Yemen, 2012 Image Credit: Courtesy of Daw‘an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation

MM: I noticed a lot of ‘local’ influence in your work, where you try to bring in the local people and the traditional architecture.

SSD: I depend and believe entirely in the master builders of the building culture that we have. They are the men who informed this culture. They are the men who have excelled, and I consider them as noble cast and noble strata. There is a tribal system in Yemen, and I consider that the builders are the noble men among them.

I, for the longest time, have said that this is not my work. This is my work with these people and not for once do I believe that I will be able to produce anything without them. I have tried it, I don't think I have succeeded yet or maybe I have, I don't know, to inspire the younger generation to work in the same way.

It is very difficult in our architectural education, which is so individualistic and self-centered, to convince young architects that it is not important for your name to be there, it is not about creating landmarks or creating your name, it is about a movement. A movement that is part of the environment, part of the equality, part of the community and part of the culture. - Salma Samar Dalmuji
Shaklanza Mosque, al Shihr, Hadramaut Governorate, Yemen, 2019-20  |Salma Samar Damluji | Daw’an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation | Women in Design 2020+ | STIRworld
Shaklanza Mosque, al Shihr, Hadramaut Governorate, Yemen, 2019-20 Image Credit: Courtesy of Daw‘an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation

MM: What has been your core inspiration over the several years? One could be the area and region you work in, but besides that what keeps you motivated?

SSD: What essentially still inspires me today is the fact that when I went to Yemen, I discovered hundreds of towns and hundreds of cities that were built in such an ingenious way that is difficult to invent or imitate now. This is what I have been working on, by documenting this architecture and trying to understand it because it was never documented.

Interior view of Shaklanza Mosque, al Shihr |Salma Samar Damluji | Daw’an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation | Women in Design 2020+ | STIRworld
Interior view of Shaklanza Mosque, al Shihr Image Credit: Courtesy of Daw‘an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation

For example, in my book, the Architecture of Yemen, I created the glossary of 1000 building terms. Because this is a language that nobody knows anymore, except the master builders, and we are losing them. I tried to fight the importation of building forms that are inappropriate when you have such amazing buildings that are so sophisticated.

I felt that I was entrusted with trying to regenerate this architecture as an architecture for the future and not of the past. My call has been to work with resuscitating and regenerating this architecture as a model for contemporary and future.  – Salma Samar Dalmuji
Aerial view of Shaklanza Mosque during reconstruction, al Shihr, Hadramaut Governorate, Yemen, 2019-20 | Salma Samar Damluji | Daw’an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation | Women in Design 2020+ | STIRworld
Aerial view of Shaklanza Mosque during reconstruction, al Shihr, Hadramaut Governorate, Yemen, 2019-20 Image Credit: Courtesy of Daw‘an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation

MM: You talked about the area of Hadhramaut in Yemen on which you did your PhD as well. Is there anything peculiar and unique that you discovered over your years of research and work there?

SSD: Here, we are looking at structures that can stand for up to 300 years. Six and seven storey buildings built out to sun dried mud brick in a way that no contemporary architect can build today. In spite of how gorgeous some of these slick minimalist buildings can look. These traditional buildings are also minimalist at the same time and very comfortable, interiors are cool during the day, there is a difference of 15 to 20 degrees between the outside and the inside and there is fresh air. Everything is designed in such privacy, with discipline and rules, there is not a single one that infringes on the other because it is against the culture.

Aerial view of one of the al-Habib Abu Bakr Domes during construction, al Shihr, Hadramaut Governorate, Yemen, 2019-20  | Salma Samar Damluji | Daw’an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation | Women in Design 2020+ | STIRworld
Aerial view of one of the al-Habib Abu Bakr domes during construction, al Shihr, Hadramaut Governorate, Yemen, 2019-20 Image Credit: Courtesy of Daw‘an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation

MM: You also spoke about reconstruction of certain buildings and domes in religious structures in Yemen.

SSD: It is not that I am trying to reconstruct. I have reconstructed buildings that were specifically destructed as war crimes, they were destroyed as a result of certain groups coming and detonating and desecrating these buildings that were highly revered and an important part of the spiritual heart of the communities. I was torn at the time I learned of this.

I considered if I can succeed in reconstructing these, I would be making a huge statement against the war crimes and I have done that. I do not know how, but I have done it.

I will continue to reconstruct anything that gets destroyed, which is part of the culture, memory of the people, country, an area that I have worked in for the past 30 years. It is my duty.  – Salma Samar Dalmuji
Al Habib Abu Bakr domes, al Shihr, Hadramaut Governorate, Yemen, 2019-20  | Salma Samar Damluji | Daw’an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation | Women in Design 2020+ | STIRworld
Al Habib Abu Bakr domes, al Shihr, Hadramaut Governorate, Yemen, 2019-20 Image Credit: Courtesy of Daw‘an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation

MM: Which project is closest to your heart?

SSD: I think the most important projects for me have been what G.I. Gurdjieff quotes as, 'meetings with remarkable men' in my life. From my father who made me who I am and told me and my sister that we are not women like the rest of the women around us, and that we are going to leave home and study abroad and go to England. We both did that because he believed in us and that was essential. I don't often talk about this.

Then to meeting an architect in London who was of Iraqi origin, who taught and inspired me in geometry. His name is Issam al-Said, the grandson of Nuri al-Said, the president during the period of monarchy in Baghdad. Then my tutor at the AA, Keith Critchlow, who worked more in geometry and then Hassan Fathy. These men have inspired me tremendously.

For me, it is not the amazing projects but these men who enabled me to do essential projects that I am still using in my life as tools. These men in a lot of ways contributed considerably to my education and knowledge and then there have also been the master builders of Yemen. Probably the best project I have done in my life is to have gone to Yemen.

Interior view of Shaikh Ya‘qub dome, Mukalla, Hadramaut Governorate, Yemen, 2019-20  | Salma Samar Damluji | Daw’an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation | Women in Design 2020+ | STIRworld
Interior view of Shaikh Ya‘qub dome, Mukalla, Hadramaut Governorate, Yemen, 2019-20 Image Credit: Courtesy of Daw‘an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation

MM: What is the way forward for you?

SSD: The next important project in the future for me is when I set up my foundation, which is the Daw’an Mud brick Architecture Foundation. The best thing I did was to appoint people to create that foundation who were all Yemeni. We keep growing and having people join our foundation. The last projects after the reconstruction of all these disrupted structures has given so much empowerment to the young generation that when we opened the door and took in volunteers, we had 1500 volunteers wanting to come.

Shaklanza Mosque, al Shihr, Hadramaut Governorate, Yemen, 2019-20   | Salma Samar Damluji | Daw’an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation | Women in Design 2020+ | STIRworld
Shaklanza Mosque, al Shihr, Hadramaut Governorate, Yemen, 2019-20 Image Credit: Courtesy of Daw‘an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation

MM: Do you think mud brick and earth construction can become a global phenomenon?

SSD: A lot of the architects who are working abroad are also now using earth, like Rick Joy in America. They have all been inspired and they all use the model of Yemen when they talk about such architecture.

Shaikh Ya‘qub domes during construction, 2019-20  | Salma Samar Damluji | Daw’an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation | Women in Design 2020 + | STIRworld
Shaikh Ya‘qub domes during construction, 2019-20 Image Credit: Courtesy of Daw‘an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation

Everything that I am demonstrating, which appears to be local, is actually what is exciting the European architects and students to work with, developing these techniques, although not in such a sophisticated way. It is not just a local element, it is quite international and the potential is massive.

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About Author

Meghna Mehta

Meghna Mehta

An architect by education and a journalist by passion, Mehta pursued a crossroad between her two interests. Having completed an M.Arch from CEPT University in Ahmedabad, she has worked in the field of architectural journalism for over 5 years. Besides content generation for STIR, she continues to teach in architectural schools in Mumbai.

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