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'A lament for dying traditions'

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An influx of polyvinyl sheets, damp-proof courses and concrete construction threatens the unique architecture of Yemen, writes Peter Davey

The Architecture of Yemen. By Salma Samar Damluji. Laurence King. 304pp. £40.00

Down in the south-west corner of the Arabian peninsula, the Republic of Yemen is the poorest Arab state and, partly as a result, its extraordinary heritage of stunning buildings has largely been preserved – until now. In some ways, Salma Samar Damluji’s The Architecture of Yemen is a lament for dying traditions. Many people in the West are vaguely aware of the magical towers of Sana’a, with their lacy decoration and intricate street plans but, while they and the amazing fortress city of Shibam receive a modicum of international aid for preservation, Damluji argues that ‘the rest of Yemen’s cities lack concern, recognition and serious intervention’.
Believing that Sana’a and Shibam have been covered in her own earlier publications (and pioneering works by Ron Lewcock), Damluji’s book looks at some of the neglected regions, ranging from the mountainous Lahij governate, with its sinister-seeming dark stone towers, to the often gaily colour-washed mud buildings of the Wadi Hadramaut, the oasislike lush river valley carpeted with orchards
and date palms that runs through the middle of the desert. (Rain falls in the mountains and runs down the wadis, which are often arid in dry seasons and peter out among dunes.)
Predominantly, Yemeni houses are towerlike, with a single opening at ground level – a defensive pattern that evolved separately in lawless places as distant as Sardinia and the Scottish Borders. But there, towers are usually isolated fortresses, while in the Yemen they are clustered to form settlements as tight in plan as any Italian hill town, but much more consistently tall, with individual
buildings tightly jammed together and climbing to six, eight or (on hillsides) even more storeys. Towers usually end against the sky with a terrace, below which is the men’s common room, where male members of the family gather in the evening to chat, enjoy the cool night breezes and chew the narcotic leaves of qat. The density of urban development results from the fact that settlements
had to be built so as not to eat into fertile land, to be defensible, and to be near water and fields.
Damluji ’s book is unusual for contemporary works in that it compounds chatty travelogue with rigorous technical and historical analysis. The author’s own measured drawings show how house and mosque types vary between different regions. Interviews with builders reveal how tradition is still influential but is gradually being modified by modern technology. For instance, flat roofs in the Hadramaut now include polyvinyl sheets as well as woven palm-frond mats, beaten earth and mud.
Cement damp-proof courses are common, but concrete construction is becoming a threat to all traditional Yemeni architecture.
Damluji has been well-served by publisher Laurence King (who launched this book at the RIBA’s Architecture of Yemen exhibition), with masses of her own colour photographs, well-reproduced drawings and a large format. But plans should be arranged properly, with the lowest floor at the bottom; a bibliography is needed and the glossary ought to be extended. But these are comparatively trivial problems. The book is plainly a work of passion. It is the result of many years of study,
often in difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances. Damluji should be encouraged to make a further book (in smaller format perhaps) that covers all her Yemeni studies, and provides a comprehensive picture of architectures that are not only amazing in themselves but have much to suggest to the rest of the world in terms of understanding urban density, green use of materials, and appropriate response to site and climate.

Resume: This study of Yemeni architecture has left Peter Davey wanting more – perhaps a more comprehensive book in a smaller format? Laurence King take note

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