The Wadi Rum Desert Resort in Jordan


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2016)

Wadi Rum in southern Jordan is one of the world’s most impressive deserts. Rugged, steep rock faces open onto far-reaching desert valleys, the view disappearing on the seemingly endless horizon. Even Lawrence of Arabia had been mesmerised by the Wadi Rum and its breathtaking landscape. This is where he wrote his renowned autobiographical work “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, which made Jordan’s largest wadi world-famous. 

Wadi Rum has been waiting for an hotel that is in perfect harmony with its spectacular surrounding landscape and stunning nature. With Chad Oppenheim, it has now found an architect who has developed a concept that is just as
powerful and challenging as the rocks into which it is built, hence perfectly complementing this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Oppenheim Architecture – headquartered in Miami and New York – has projects in more than 25 different countries. The company also has an office in Europe in the Swiss city of Basel. The firm’s work is built on both a physical and spiritual contextual sensitivity, supported by economic design ideas. Oppenheim projects are characterised by their sensitivity to man and nature, are designed to harmonise with their respective surroundings and are crafted to establish the perfect balance between artistry and economics. The results are timeless architecture that is as beautiful as it is functional. Oppenheim Architecture specialises in mixed-use hotels and resorts, shops, offices and residential buildings worldwide, all aimed at helping to make life better and more beautiful.

Chad Oppenheim is hugely committed to “green architecture” and is an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. We talked to Chad Oppenheim about the “Wadi Rum Desert Resort” shortly before he continued his trip from Jakarta to Japan. 

Chad, why did you choose the Wadi Rum for your spectacular new hotel concept?

This project actually chose me! We were hired by a client, a very prominent Jordanian family who wanted to build a hotel in Wadi Rum. They were working on this idea for more than 10 years. So we went there and we were blown away by this amazing landscape and the place and we immediately wanted to do the project as is it something really challenging and very special.

With this Resort you want to devise a new contract between man and nature. Please explain us your idea.

The idea is not to just build a hotel in Wadi Rum, it is more to completely integrate it into the landscape so that it is very much a part of the land. We are the most connected species in the world – you and I are speaking across the world – but we are also the most disconnected to our habitat. So the idea here was to connect you with the habitat and the environment, on the basis how primitive civilisations were more connected to the land, to the sky, to the stars and to nature. So we really want to reconnect people who come to this incredible site with nature and with the land and not have them connected on their cellphones. So everything would be about disconnecting and then reconnecting.

Not far from Wadi Rum is Petra, the old city of the Nabataeans, where in ancient times people carved tombs with beautiful crafted façades into the rocks. Did the old city of Petra inspire your project?

Yes, absolutely, we were completely inspired by Petra, which is very close. It is the idea of a modern-day Petra. We went with the client to Petra, we met the historians and archaeologists there, we studied the site and we were very much inspired by how they used the land in a very interesting way especially by carving into rather than building. It is actually more extracting and creating the architecture instead of building with materials. That was a very important part of the project: building the way the Nabataeans did 2300 years ago.

The hotel will see three stories carved into rock – two above ground and one below ground. How do they differ?

Well, let’s say there are no conventional stories of that kind you have in a building, it’s more carved into the cliff in different heights so you have different levels. And each carve will be different. We studied the geology – walls, cliffs and rocks. Then we modeled all the site information in the computer and manipulated the data to arrive at something really special and very much connected with the place.

To realise such a big plan means a truely massive impact on the environment, especially during the construction phase, doesn’t it?

We really want to make as little impact as possible. We want to enhance nature, we want to rebuild the eco system and really be very delicate. We do not want to alter the land. It is very much about a delicate intervention into the land, “surgical” if you want to put it like this. Obviously the Nabataeans did it by hand, but our heavy carving will be done by machine. The machines will only be there for a very short time.

The Wadi Rum Desert Resort will establish a new benchmark for design, quality and sustainability in the natural environment. What kind of sustainable features will that be?

We are not really using any materials – everything we’re using is from there. We will bring very little outside materials, maybe glass and steel is one of the few as we need it. All the crafts, all the interior things – the “soft goods” you could say – will be crafted by local craftsmen using local materials. And we are not using power! We’re keeping everything natural and very passive. By building into the cliffs you are able to create a very comfortable climate. In the extreme months of the year when no one really wants to travel, we will be closed for four months – two in winter and two in summer. So there is no power use, only for emergency as it is needed. There’re no lights, it’s all with candles and solar hot water. Everything is as delicate on the environment as possible.

What will be the most challenging part in building such a unique hotel?

That’s the part of the political situation in the country. It is always challenging working with the local approvals and tribes to make sure that everyone is working together.

The Wadi Rum is home of the Jordan beduins. Does your concept involve the local people so that they will benefit from the resort?

Absolutely. We want to create an entire eco system. This is not just a project for international travellers to come and go. We want to make it integral to the community, to the local tribes. We created an entire program to build art schools in the local village and re-teach the crafts to the local people, the crafts they had developed over the millennia. We want to make the local village integral to this and we want them to also grow the food on an organic farm. Also creating all the weavings for the project, so that it is really a closed circle of creating and integrating the entire community into this: re-teaching the people how to farm and how to live closer to the land. They sort of moved a little bit away from it, but still have very interesting cultural habits and rituals, so it’s still there. Many people stopped living in tents for example to live in more modern structures. We really want to make sure that we create a fully integrated eco system and help the local people to live connected.

Is there an increasing demand for more unique and unusual hotel designs? To differentiating and being more competitive?

Definitely! I think that people are looking for real experiences. For us, we believe that there is a market for people who want something very much about the place they are visiting, like very connected, very integrated to the society and culture. We believe strongly about this incredible integration. It is the ultimate luxury – even if you don’t have all the luxury amenities. Those experiences are incredibly luxurious.

What are the new trends in hotel design? What do you think will be the “hotel design of tomorrow” ?

I think it’s about connecting with the place. What makes a specific place unique? Using materials from that place, techniques from that place, art from local artists, food and so on. Really make it context-specific, to savour the spirit of place.

Which is your favourite hotel? Where do you love to stay personally?

We have a couple of homes that I designed that we also rent out. One is in the Bahamas on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, we also have a house in Aspen, Colorado, in the mountains. They are both incredibly beautiful and celebrate the unique spirit of the places where they exist. So for us we love to stay there. I’m also a big fan of the Aman Resort chain. I think they do a very good job of connecting to the place.

Picture credits © Luxigon

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