240_Rasem Kamal: Wadi Rum Excavated Sanctuaries

Rasem Kamal


Location: Wadi Rum, Jordan

Area: 180,000 sq.m

Year: 2015


Advisor: Carlos Jiménez


Wadi Rum Excavated Sanctuaries


This project represents the architectural product of a thesis that focuses on subtraction not addition, subtracting voids and spatial volumes according to users’ need of functions, circulation and natural light. These voids could be excavated in the natural ground in order to create a concealed and non-distracting architectural presence above ground, along with an unlimited flexibility to subtract underground. The motivation behind this subject in particular was based on a debate related to the relationship between external form and internal space. Lately, a great many of prominent architectural practices have been focusing on developing dynamic forms, new building materials, sophisticated details and tectonics as well, while only the minority of these contributes to their internal spaces. Consequently, this thesis aimed to flip the relationship between the explicit and implicit, by diminishing the power of external form along with exploiting all the previous efforts that were used for it to subtract spaces where we will live, experience and enjoy.

Wadi Rum, or valley of the moon, is a vast empty desert in south of Jordan, surrounded by series of fascinating colorful mountains. The selection of this site in particular was for two key reasons; it is an ideal location to excavate natural ground with a high flexibility of horizontal expansion. Furthermore, this site needs a very minimal and sensitive intervention -since it was declared a world protected site by UNESCO in 2011- without adding a new structure above ground that might compete with the existing mountains and distract visitors visually.

Throughout natural and architectural history, there were various precedents ranging from the scale of ants’ colony nests to underground museums. Primarily, the first influence was ants ‘colony nests, where ants subtract their chambers in an organic layout according to needed volumes only, linking them with unexpected circulation routes. However, the challenge of thesis was to experiment excavation in more complex programs - (a train sub-station, an interpretive museum and a sanctuary hotel) as a response for Rum Valley needs; in order to exploit all the opportunities provided by building underground, unrestricted horizontal expansion along with a new definition for building slabs, walls, and maneuvering between spaces by a network of convenient ramps.

The design concept was based on excavating a series of fragmented yet interconnected courtyards which remained exposed to the sky despite being under the sand‘s datum line. These courtyards control all the hotel rooms and museum halls around them in addition to the underground circulation network of ramps and the service loop, but with variations in volumetric experience and lighting quality in each one, because every courtyard was subtracted according to its surrounding functions, circulation’s requirements with distances being set according to a network of convenient ramps, topography, orientations towards site views and intensity of natural light.

As a design strategy, and because of the fact that this project could not be narrated by conventional longitudinal or cross sections, the whole underground structure were sliced into a consequence of repetitive sections in order to study relationship of the hotel with the museum’s functions, the courtyards with their surrounding chambers, the courtyards with the circulation or service network, and finally the relationship of all the previous elements with the changing datum line of sand.

These “Excavated Sanctuaries” announce themselves from their interior not exterior, in other words, this is a new redefinition of the modernists’ phrase “form follows function” into “subtraction follows function”.