A Contemporary Traditional House
During the mid-20th century, many of the architectural profession in developing countries began to question the relevance of modernist architectural solutions to the developing world. Architects as well as the common people began to recognise and appreciate their traditional architecture and believed that it could exist alongside that of an aggressively modern one that cut all ties with the past. This response has been recognised in many buildings and projects around the so-called third world. One of the most expressive examples of the use of the traditional architectural language is the Nassif House in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (1974). Jeddah was a medieval walled port and an important town built on the pre-Islamic trade routes between India and the Mediterranean. It was distinguished by its tower houses which were built of coral blocks, with elaborate wooden balconies. In the early 1970s the inhabitants of the coral houses began to build their houses following the new western-style houses along the coast.
The importance of the Nassif house comes mainly from its early idealistic and innovative attempt to revive Jeddah’s lost heritage at the time when it was invaded by the modern office blocks and shopping malls which necessitated the demolition of many of its historic buildings. The house was designed by the renowned Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, who considered the house as an opportunity to reinterpret the traditional architecture of Saudi Arabia. The owner, Dr Abd Al-Rahman Nassif, was among the few to initiate the revival of their own Arabic-Islamic heritage in architecture in Jeddah. Nassif was raised in the historic Beit (home) Nassif, a traditional house in Jeddah, which later became a museum. However, Nassif’s background led him to determine to make an Arab-style house, but one appropriate to the twentieth century.
Old Nassif House, Jeddah (1872 and 1881)
Known as “Al Maskan Al Sha’abi” (the popular dwelling), the Nassif house lies three blocks from the Sands Hotel in the Al-Hamra area, overlooking the Red Sea. The house consists of two storey with a double-height reception hall, ten different rooms, service areas, internal courtyard with fountain and open courtyard with garden pavilion on the first floor. The house featured Arabic Islamic elements including domes, mashrabiyyahs (wooden lattice work), thick walls, enclosed patios and fountains of marble.
Inner courtyard with pavilion
The central courtyard is characterised by a half moon stained glass-window at the top of one wall with a lower level of stained glass, shielded with a mashrabiyyah. Another unique element is the badgir (a windcatcher) with four sides open towards the prevailing wind and closed with shutters similar to that used in Oman, Iraq and Iran. Nassif invented a gadget to open any of the four shutters to the wind direction by a handle. The wind would flow down through the house and be cooled by contact with the water in bowls inset in the badjir’s sides. Old building materials, such as stone, were also reused and that helped and accentuated the traditional character of the house.
Entrance from the courtyard Mashrabiyyah (wooden lattice work)
Undoubtedly, the Nassif house evoked the value of tradition at a time when the influence of the International Style was widespread because of the oil boom of that period. It also drew the attention of the people to their architectural heritage and stimulated the realization that Jeddah was the only remaining example of Red Sea architecture in Saudi Arabia. The mayor of Jeddah, fought to conserve the buildings of old Jeddah by introducing the concept of listing buildings of historic interest.
1. Richards, J. M., I. Serageldin and D. Rastorfer, Hassan Fathy. London, 1985.
2. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, The Coral City of Old Jeddah. The Architectural Review, September 1995, pp. 81-82.
3. Sharief Alkhateeb, Arab Architecture for Those Who Can Really Live in Style. Saudi Gazette, 19 September 1979, p. 5.
4. Sharief Alkhateeb, The New Traditional Home of the Man Who Lived in the Beit Nasif. Saudi Gazette, 20 September 1979, p. 5.
5. Old Nassif House (http://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special%3ASearch&search=nassif+house)
6. All other photographs (www.archnet.org).