Villa AnBAR, Saudi Arabia
"MUSLIM SEXUALITY IS TERRITORIAL. ITS REGULATORY MECHANISMS CONSIST
PRIMARILY IN A STRICT ALLOCATION OF SPACE TO EACH SEX.
SOCIETY DOES NOT FORM DIVISIONS PURELY FOR THE PLEASURE OF BREAKING THE SOCIAL UNIVERSE INTO COMPARTMENTS. THE INSTITUTIONALISED BOUNDARIES DIVIDING THE PARTS OF SOCIETY EXPRESS THE RECOGNITION OF POWER IN ONE PART AT THE EXPENSE OF THE OTHER.
ANY TRANSGRESSION OF THE BOUNDARIES IS A DANGER TO THE SOCIAL ORDER BECAUSE IT IS AN ATTACK ON THE ACKNOWLEDGED ALLOCATION OF POWER.
WALLS AND VEILS ARE AN ANTI-SEDUCTIVE DEVICE. TERRITORIALITY REFLECTS A SPECIFIC CONCEPTION OF SOCIETY AND POWER."
FATIMA MERNISSI, BEYOND THE VEIL
(AL SAQI BOOKS; LONDON, 1975/85) PG 137
Critique by Jeremy Till. First appeared in AD.Architecture & Anthropology, pg 71, June 1996
At a cursory glance, Peter Barber's Villa Anbar may appear as a piece of sophisticated modernism. The white walls, free external spaces, pure light, roof garden and stripped aesthetic all build to an image of a villa belonging to a known architectural quantity. But it does not take long to realise that there is something much stranger going on. A window, like an eye, surveys the main entrance court; a tilting block protrudes through the body of the house; a strip window slides past the face of a wall. These, and many other examples, indicate that a set of known rules are being manipulated to reveal a much deeper reading of the building. Where early modernism is grounded in a spirit of benign emancipation, the Villa Anbar takes a far more critical stance to the society and place in which it is conceived. Because of this, a discussion of the Villa Anbar at the level of aesthetic or pure form is fruitless. Instead one needs to understand its genesis, and a series of social factors that influenced the design.
The Villa Anbar is set in Saudi Arabia, a country in which a dynastic regime structures a society of segregated race, class and gender. The client is a woman who has spent much of her life outside the country-both aspects which clearly run against the grain of Saudi male nationalism. It is built by immigrant labour, with the architect acting as foreman, labourer and engineer. During construction, a nearby medieval settlement was razed to the ground by the government, because its spatial complexity made it impossible to monitor the subversive elements who had settled there. It is clear that the situation in which the villa is grounded is not neutral. When faced with such a loaded set of conditions, the temptation would have been to retreat into an exercise in pure beauty, with the piercing sun and those blue, blue skies. However, Barber's response is to confront the issues through the means of architecture. This he does by quietly upsetting the domestic conventions which structure and control Saudi society.
The plan of a typical Saudi house is determined by the patterns of the society. Women and men are thus segregated and the male domain assumes a hierarchical superiority within the house. Servants are equally suppressed. Finally, the family is separated from the outside world by means of a walled compound within which a series of increasingly private spaces gravitate towards a central courtyard. In the Villa Anbar, these rules are reinterpreted to create a new order.
The reinvention of the Saudi house starts at the entrance. A gate gives a partial view into the courtyard, but a wall to the right prevents the gaze penetrating any further. The threshold is defined by a lintel gateway which slips over the top of the occluding wall. The entrance is at once defined and the denied, as something else beyond is hinted at. The lintel serves a double function, taking water to the swimming pool on the other side of the wall. The sound of water brings the presence of the family at their most private and vulnerable (unclothed and at play) to the most public setting. Through the manipulation of simple elements, wall, water and lintel, a charged scene is established in which the family is neither completely shut off nor completely revealed. Barragan may use these same elements with an exquisite formal skill, but the result does not have the same social resonance.
The entrance sequence anticipates the formal and social gestures employed in the rest of the Villa Anbar. The architect continually alludes to something happening beyond, so that a tension is set up between spaces which should otherwise be separated. The window that surveys the swimming courtyard belongs not to the master but to the driver. Even if the window is blocked up (which by now it may well be), the presence of the servant is always felt in the wall of his room which obliquely breaks through the structure of the end block in an emancipatory gestures. The same inversion of mistress-servant relationship is seen in the positioning of the maid's room. Whilst located away from the main body of the house and thereby acceptable within the prescribed structure, it sits in the roof garden, the spaces which in canonic modernism gives privileged and redemptive status. Furthermore, the window from the room ios connected by a series of cuts to the central courtyard. The gaze of the maid thus enters the heart of the house, promoting the control of previously suppressed female and servile aspects.
The order and containment of the lower courtyard is contrasted with the freedom of the roof garden. From here, views to the outside world area allowed. The authority of the nearby mosque is put into context through the contrast of its minaret with the tilting block on the roof of the villa-the symbolic stability of the one juxtaposed with the playful strangeness of the other. This reading is reinforced in the framing of the minaret through a curiously mocking opening, made by one of the labourers on site.
The interior spaces continue the interpretation of social practices, but here, the reinscription is less obvious. To a large extent this is because the traditional plan is so highly determine by cultural factors, with the separation of men and women an inviolate rule. The architect can therefore only deal in tiny shifts which begin to question the status of these rules. The women's room is raised up a few steps from the men's room, with a tiny opening cut in the dividing wall. The client's family immediately objected to this window and remanded a shutter to be placed over it. Ironically, the shutter charges the boundary to an even greater extent; because it is located on the women's side, it is they who have control over the view. Elsewhere the wall that separates the dining room from the men's room stops just short of a high level window which slides across its face. The two rooms are thus connected by implication, even if no actual views are allowed to pass between.
These small formal devices (with their larger social implications) are executed with a precision that reminds one of the villas of Adolf Loos. The same tensions are set up here as one finds in the Villas Muller and Moller. It is known that Loos made continual adjustments to his buildings when on site. The same is true of the Villa Anbar. The drawings set the general structure, but the fine tuning and precise control was achieved by Barber's continual presence on site during construction when he was able to manipulate relationships which are impossible to accurately predict (or now read) from the drawings alone.
The success of the Villa Anbar is that it acts as a critique of the place in which it is conceived, without resorting to rhetorical or symbolic gestures-it works subliminally rather than obviously. At this level it is highly architectural, affecting the perception and inhabitation of the building through the deployment of space, light, and views so that one is made constantly aware of things that might otherwise be taken for granted. But it is also highly political, immersing itself in a series of difficult social relationships and subtly inscribing them. It is not normal for architects to take a political stance in their work because it demands making judgements. Architecture is usually seen in a rational framework, where the burden of the decision making is placed within the logic of the system. Clients' demands, cost constraints, contractual procedures, technical problems-all these aspects compound to allow architects to avoid confronting the political and social dimensions in which their buildings will be situated. Architecture is thus reduced to pure form (aesthetics) or pure technique. The triumph of the Villa Anbar is that it transcends such considerations. It points to a direction in which modernism is not seen as a style but in terms of its unfulfilled social and political potential.