‘Work is where I have found myself’

Salma Samar Damluji, 51, is an architect, author and the leading authority on mud brick building in Yemen and the Middle East. Her exhibition, ‘The Architecture of Yemen’, is at the Royal Institute of British Architects, Portland Place, London until February 9. Divorced with a son of 27, she lives in London but is creating a home as well as a hotel in Masna’ah, Yemen.

You are an Iraqi, born in Beirut, educated in Baghdad, living in London. Is it important to you where you live?

I used to be happiest when I was travelling and working. It made me feel stateless. But when I was working in Abu Dhabi between 2001-2004 I was completely cut off from my life, my books, my friends and I realised what an important base London had become for me. I was doing all my work on Yemen but no one there or in the Arab world was interested in any of it. On the other hand, everyone I knew in London – colleagues, architects, friends and institutions – was always riveted by the work I was doing.

Why is Yemen so important to you?

It is the only Middle East country with such a distinctive tradition of architecture. It has cities and villages that have been created in a vernacular that should be an influence on building everywhere in the region. These cities are imbued with pride and wonder and built by master builders using sun-dried mud bricks. When I went to Yemen I found it was far more sophisticated than anywhere else in the Islamic world. You have to realise that there are high-rise buildings made of mud that go up four, five, even nine storeys. Their beauty, the skill of the work and their ecological value cannot be overstated.

Mud brick building seems so archaic. Why does it matter?

If you look at modern Middle East buildings you can see how far they have deserted tradition. Today the Yemen government is putting up schools and hospitals in concrete, steel and cement prototypes so that one school looks like another, badly designed and part of a hideous bureaucratic system. Everyone is looking to Dubai, which is an invented place, a disaster, the Las Vegas of Arabia. The contractors come from the north and Saudi Arabia, bringing in trash. They don’t believe in architects, preferring to download designs from the web.

When was your interest in architecture ignited?

It began when I was studying for my baccalaureate. After the revolution in 1958, when the US invaded Lebanon in an attempt to shore up the pro-western government, my father, who was an Iraqi, and my Lebanese-Christian mother took the family to Baghdad. There was a very interesting modern architecture movement in Iraq at the time, probably the only creative thing that has happened in modern Arab architecture to this day. Everything since has been reused badly and poorly interpreted. I won my baccalaureate when I was 17 and moved to London in 1972 to join the Architectural Association.

Who or what inspired you?

I had been completely mesmerised by a movie [Pier Paolo] Pasolini made about Yemen in 1964 and after my first year at the Architectural Association, when I was on holiday in Beirut, I bumped into an Egyptian architect called Hasan Fathy who specialised in mud brick building. That meeting changed my life. I immediately knew that this was the type of architecture I was interested in. It was meant to be.

Have you been back?

The last time was in 1988 when Saddam Hussein was there. I couldn’t go back when the wars with Iran and the invasion of Kuwait were being fought. It was bad then, but it is much worse now. Give me Saddam any time.

How does the dislocation make you feel?

After living in Beirut and Baghdad, whenever I returned to London I felt I was in exile. The war in Lebanon that began in 1982 affected me a lot because I was attached to my life there. I returned to London to study for my PhD and felt isolated and lonely. Also my marriage had broken down.

Where do you live now?

I have been in the same apartment in a red brick mansion block on the Old Brompton Road, London, since 1975.

Have you changed it much in those years?

Not very much except in the way it is being used. Now this is where I work.

Would you say you define yourself through your work?

Yes. It is where I have found myself.

And is work more important than place?

Yes, but when I was working in Abu Dhabi in 2000 I thought that I didn’t want to come back to live in London but instead move to Beirut. I came back to the UK just to spend three weeks to rent out the flat or sell it and, as I was walking along the streets, I found I was falling in love with the city like I never had before. I felt suddenly so attached to the streets, to the houses, everything.

Ideally, where would you live?

For me it is going to be very difficult to live in one place but I could live in Yemen for ever because I have a lot of work there and many friends will come and visit. But I could only be there if I am on a job such as the restoration work I am supervising in a village called Masna’ah in the Humradat region.

Why is it so special?

The houses that were built towards the end of the 19th century belonged to the Ba Surrah tribe. They ruled with the agreement of the sultan until the British left in 1967. You can see a crown on one of the towers. From the outside the village looks like a fort with its houses so tightly built together. Some of them are seven storeys high. The mud brick works beautifully with Islamic curved windows decorated in blues and red-ochre. The supporting columns are painted green with floors of black and white tiles while the ceilings are elaborately decorated. The doors are heavy, picked out with brass studs. It is a treasure trove spared from mediocre development. From my terrace I have a spectacular view of the wadi with the cliffs towering on each side. The houses are the same earthy colour and at first glance it is hard to see them the way they merge against the hillsides. On the floor of the valley is the stream with its palms where the vegetables are grown. It is very peaceable and cool in the breeze.

What are your plans?

I am restoring 8-10 houses in Masna’ah and designing a small hotel with a cultural centre and art studios. I have an apartment there but have my eyes on a house just on the edge of the village that is bigger and more private. Strangely enough, I like the quality of time there. When I’m there I read a lot and I don’t miss material things or, say, going to the cinema. If I miss friends I can talk to them over the phone.

If you were to settle there would a part of you want to return to Baghdad?

I would love to go back. I don’t like what’s happening in Iraq at the moment and the more time this occupation goes on, the worse the fundamentalists and religious zealots are becoming and the more sick the environment is becoming. It would be very difficult to go back to a Baghdad that I don’t relate to.

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