Jordanian Artist Abeer Seikaly on Meeting Points

This interview by Jonny Tiernan, edited by Laura McDermott will be featured in The Beam #11 – Power in People. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


 

Abeer Seikaly is a Jordanian thinker and maker who has a keen ability to produce inspiring, thought-provoking and future-focused creative projects. Her work spans architecture, cultural production, and design, combining elements from each discipline to redefine how we approach and understand the spaces we build and live in. Abeer is an internationally renowned practitioner who is in high demand as a speaker, panelist and guest lecturer. We are thrilled to be able to speak with Abeer for this edition of The Beam.

Hi, Abeer! Your practice spans multiple disciplines – art, architecture, design, and more – how did you develop your interest in these areas, and to what extent do they influence each other?

Growing up in different environments and being exposed to various cultural contexts – through studying, working and traveling – has allowed me to channel my experiences through creative endeavours and multidisciplinary approaches. I was raised in a household where art, architecture, design and music were intertwined in our daily lives. They were a main source of inspiration and happiness. My earliest memories and influences revolve around the women in my family who believed in the power of the hands and in making things. As a child, I watched my grandmother work on intricate needlepoint tapestries and observed my mother while she created elaborate flower arrangements made from food. One of the most powerful memories I have is seeing the architectural model for our new house in Amman transform into an actual house and a ‘home’ that I still live in. This experience symbolizes my creative journey and set the foundation for my design and architectural thinking.

Art, architecture, design, and cultural production are all creative practices that are entangled in contemporary issues. In my work, material and technological processes are developed and understood through making and fabricating. My creative experience within those disciplines involve using my hands and craft as a way of thinking through material. This multi-sensory work process turned into an embodied design process that fostered an artistic awareness and a growth – linking the inner world of my memories and imagination with the outer world of my lived experiences – which enabled me to craft new architectural possibilities and collaborative cultural forms. Today, combining various fields of knowledge and benefiting from the wide pool of human experience is necessary for the formation of holistic and meaningful refinements in the current building culture.

How would you describe your career path, and what have been some of your standout moments?

Over the course of my professional life, I have navigated between creative fields and media, creating a diverse body of work and have built a foundation of interdisciplinary skills that span design, project management, art and curation. My work within the fields of architecture, art, and cultural production across cities has helped me broaden my understanding about current issues and address them through creating aesthetic and functional spaces, objects, and experiences.

There are many standout moments in my career. Working with others involves creating true and meaningful relationships and expressing those interactions through novel material objects and spatial experiences.

 

"My interest comes directly from my grandfather, who dwelled in a Bedouin tent woven by his mother. For him, the tent was more than a place but rather an expression of his identity, his values, and his relationship to nature and to people. The Bedouin tent was his home."

 

You have recently launched your latest project, Meeting Points. Could you tell us a little about this project and how it came to be?

Meeting Points is an ongoing development of reconfigurable material systems that advances traditional Bedouin tent-making techniques through a craft-led process and an emergent communal architecture program. It synthesizes traditional Bedouin construction, contemporary design, and community participation within a new cultural form; a material experience drawing on the environmental rootedness of indigenous Bedouin knowledge aims to integrate traditional modes of making into contemporary design and fabrication processes.

The design of this work began with an understanding of weaving, craft, and making as technologies. The novelty of this self-structuring and communally hand-crafted tapestry is in its coordination of various technological meeting points: digital ‘hypar’ manipulation and analogue knitting work culminate in a composite structural network of locally-sourced plant and animal fibre, wood, and steel connectors. By operating at the intersections of material and structure, nature and designed space, designer and community, Meeting Points brings a more communicative and social configuration to conventional understandings of structures as notionally static load-bearing forms. In doing so, it fosters the cultural empowerment of indigenous communities, not through a nostalgic continuation of ancient crafts, but through a forward-looking approach to placemaking.

Meeting Points is an outcome of my ongoing project Weaving a Home – an artistic and communal expression of its vision. It is an exploration into sheltering solutions, the potential of utilizing local resources, and engaging the local community in the process of designing. Through the communal efforts of 58 Rural and Bedouin community members from various governorates across the Kingdom of Jordan (40 of whom were women), the first iteration has already helped foster new opportunities for individuals to contribute to and benefit from the social, cultural, and economic development within their respective communities. Meeting Points aspires to become a model for how architecture and design processes can act as instruments for social change through a communal program that stresses not only what we design and build, but how we choose to design and build.

How do you see climate change impacting how we live, and what impact will this have on architecture and how we build?

Climate change is already impacting how we live, and these impacts extend beyond increases in temperature that affect ecosystems and communities around the world. The things that we depend on for our survival and value are experiencing the effects of a changing climate – water, energy, transportation, wildlife, agriculture, health, home, and so on.

Today, buildings consume a lot of energy, and climate change is forcing us to look at design and materials in a different way. Society will have to learn to do more with less, and architects must minimize the use of energy and carbon-intensive technologies (such as electric lighting and air conditioning) and revive low-tech solutions (such as passive ventilation). Architects will have to switch to cleaner sources of energy, researching ways to advance indigenous knowledge and traditional building methods.

Traditional methods of living and construction mimic how nature functions in terms of its efficiency and natural repairability process. In the past, architecture responded to the climate, and buildings authentically reflected the environment in which they existed. Constructing was a social activity, and people maintained buildings as part of their love and responsibility to their living spaces. I think that this notion within contemporary building methods has disappeared, and I am working on finding new ways to bring back those important notions in my design practice.

Women suffer the most from the impacts of climate change. How do you think architecture and design can help address this? And what other measures or initiatives could be introduced?

When we look at the status of women today, they pay the highest price for the least benefits, whether they are quarrelling in nature or in society. In Jordan for example, women were traditionally tasked with weaving their homes, furnishings, clothes, and artifacts. They juggled working with craft with supporting their homes and families. This purposeful and centuries-old social weaving process has been their means of self-expression in the face of societal submission for centuries – architects silenced in a world of men. For them, responding to the environment has never been an intellectual exercise; it is their way of life. Unlike the structures of stone and concrete – which could one day be deserted, left as ruins in the shifting sands – the Beoudin tent is an architectural and artistic union, a symbol of their voices, an ever-inhabited mobile home within which their daily lives unfold.

I first addressed this issue in a short video piece entitled Matters of Time, which explored the role of the matriarch in the shadow of patriarchal modernization of the Jordanian Badia. This led to the development of Meeting Points, a communal program rooted in a physical structure that empowers the women by giving them work opportunities – and by reminding them that they have the valuable skill of weaving their homes. This design phenomenology and process yields the creation of space and resilience. It is through cultural empowerment and initiatives that give a voice to these women that I believe climate change can be combated.

 

© Weaving a Home is a tent reinvented with a structural fabric, a proud home for the displaced that empowers them to weave communities - and go beyond mere survival. © Weaving a Home is a tent reinvented with a structural fabric, a proud home for the displaced that empowers them to weave communities - and go beyond mere survival.

 

Your work takes into account traditional practices and ways of living. Where does your interest in this area come from, and why do you think it is important to take them into account?

My interest in this area comes directly from my grandfather, who dwelled in a Bedouin tent woven by his mother. For him, the tent was more than a place but rather an expression of his identity, his values, and his relationship to nature and to people. The Bedouin tent was his home.

The indigenous knowledge of the traditional Bedouin tent resided in the silent architecture of everyday life – a knowledge that my great-grandmother embodied. She wove a home using goat’s hair, a process that makes crucial use of her mind, body, and hands – a relationship that is the foundation of Bedouin social practice and knowledge. These days, however, embodied approaches to ‘making’ are increasingly lost to industrial modes of production, and in many ways, our concept of technology has narrowed alongside that transformation. In gaining certain technologies, we have lost others, including the social technology of place-making. My project Meeting Points seeks to reclaim that technology by engaging the community in the shaping of the environment.

Renewing tradition and culture to evolve with the challenges of our globalized, rapidly changing world is of utmost importance. Vernacular architecture reveals this kind of purposeful, iterative, and social design process that offers a powerful parallel to contemporary shifts towards collaborative creation, despite, in most cases, dating back centuries, originating in primitive cultures. Collaborative creation is an authentic method rooted in history, tradition & heritage. This joining together of past and present is key to the revival of our built environment, where living cultural treasures must continue to play a vital role in building a meaningful future – a future where design, be it in architecture or traditional craftsmanship, takes part in everyday day intellectual life and the spiritual/mental health of our nations. The past has given us our spiritual identity through its various designs, and the future must do the same.

 

Still from Matters of Time 2019. Still from Matters of Time 2019.

 

A core part of your work has centred around the concept of home. What does home mean to you, and how does your practice take these ideas of home into account? 

A home is not a place where we just happen to live. It is a place where we come into being. Within the context of today’s global Covid-19 pandemic, the importance of home has taken precedence. Home is a protected space in which we have the opportunity to learn new ways of being with ourselves, being with others, and being grounded – rooted, deep, and still. It is a cocoon where we can feel nurtured and loved. Being at home, in an intimate and familiar space, is a fundamental aspect of human existence. The physical spaces we inhabit form the basis of our cultural, social, and personal identities.

When I designed a shelter for refugees through my ongoing project Weaving a Home, I was responding to a need based on the conditions and events arising from the Syrian Crisis. Initially, my thinking was focused on building prototypes, conducting field testing, and eventually commercializing the shelter. As I began developing the work, I gained deeper insights into other processes that are necessary for the development of the work. These included a broader vision about ‘Shelter’ as a process and an instrument of change, rather than a product.

This process of developing Weaving a Home has taken me far into the depths of myself and into understanding that there is a distinction between a “House” and a “Home.” I have discovered that the elements that evolve a shelter into a home are things like nature, tradition, and – most importantly – community. My creative process while building the tent carried me to other communities where shelter was needed. These on-the-ground experiences gave me deep insight on materials and the building process. It made me realize that shelter alone will never cure homelessness, but the community will. I learned firsthand how architecture can (and must!) adapt to different contexts, social settings, and environments, using local resources and building technologies. The solution cannot be to impose shelter on a community but to develop the design with communities. This empowering, participatory process enhances skills, rebuilds social interaction, and cultivates well-being. In this context, architecture and design are social and cultural practices. “Home” isn’t about where you are. It’s about who you are and how you interact with others and the environment.

Looking to the future, what projects would you like to develop further, and do you have any particular goals or milestones that you would like to reach?

I’ve always seen my projects as an integrated grand project where sight and insight, technology and tradition, mental creativity and hand craft skill interact to create a massive driving force for a meaningful change in our lives and lifestyles. My goal is to gradually weave a new leading example of communal life, whereby each individual could one day discover the massive power of their hands as thinking tools. This will constitute a new revolution – not only in our collective thinking, but also in terms of our ability to develop sustainable solutions for many of our problems.