If I had a head’s up that the world was ending, I’d pack up a decent book and head to Jordan’s Wadi Rum where ancient granite and sandstone rocks – set in a giant’s sandbox – warp all sense of time. It looks as it looked a century back when British officer T.E. Lawrence camped out during the Arab Revolt. It looks as it did for thousands of years before that. Pure air, ear-splitting silence and an unfettered view of the nighttime sky; there’s nowhere better to ride out the end of this planet. But would I feel the same if it had a posh new resort?
Also known as The Valley of the Moon, Jordan’s largest valley (wadi) is a magical place carved from ancient mountains by wind and water. It’s a mesmerizing landscape. Colors change as the day progresses. Sunlight and shadow distort your sense of scale. The real show starts at dusk when constellations, shooting stars and satellites start to crawl across the inky sky. It’s a place largely unchanged since prehistoric times. That is, until it isn’t.
A few years back, before the world financial debacle and the Arab uprisings, Miami- and Basel-based Oppenheim Architecture + Design, LLP conceived an ambitious touristic development for an unnamed client that sought to “devise a new contract between man and nature”. Their scheme embedded a new 80,000 square foot hotel into the natural faults and fissures of these ancient rocks, and aspired to set new standards for quality and sustainability.
The architecture is simultaneously powerful and primitive, raw and refined. The structures are intentionally reduced to simple, elemental forms that merge with the natural setting, exploiting and enhancing the beauty of the site to establish a unique luxury lodge. Functionality is inherent within each villas and purpose-driven lodge (spa, viewing areas), all designed as spatial responses to their natural setting.
Boundaries between natural and man-made, interior and exterior are deliberately blurred. The designers aimed to establish a connection to – not a distraction from – nature, nestling the simple forms into the landscape.
Wadi Rum is best known to Westerners for its connection with Lawrence of Arabia, but its wider appeal as a spectacular eco-adventure destination is likely what underpinned this project. It also attracts a more relaxed breed of traveler, who can tour the geography on camel-back or jeep to rock tops from which the Saudi border and Red Sea are visible.
Wadi Rum is best known to Westerners for its connection with Lawrence of Arabia, but its wider appeal as a spectacular eco-adventure destination is likely what underpinned this project. It also appeals to a more relaxed breed of traveler, who can tour the geography on camel-back or jeep to rock tops from which the Saudi border and Red Sea are visible.
Since the 1980’s, native Zalabia Bedouin have successfully developed the sector, setting up tented base camps accessible by jeep and truck. The settlements are off the grid; the few lights are powered by portable generators, water is trucked in, and visitor dinners are cooked in simple earth ovens.
Wadi Rum is now one of Jordan’s important tourist destinations attracting trekkers, climbers, and star-gazers. The designers of this project are cognizant of the wide range of flora and fauna that inhabit the area. The structures are unobtrusive with minimized footprints. But the site is vulnerable.
Increased urbanization of nearby Aqaba is already polluting Wadi Rum’s nighttime sky, obstructing the celestial show along the southwestern horizon. Ongoing and ambitious construction in that coastal city will continue to diminish star viewing, but development within the reserve will have more significant impact.
While on-site power generation is possible, use of renewable energy is unspecified in this development. More problematic is sourcing water to fill the resorts pools and provide for villa use. And how will the larger valley respond to increased vehicular traffic?
This design proposal is beautiful. But is it right?
All images courtesy of Oppenheim Architecture + Design, LLP