Al-Burj: Amman's neglected legacy

Once an icon of commerce and social life, Al-Burj has been abandoned for over 20 years

Al-Burj building, in Prince Mohammad Street, Amman. (Photo: Nayrouz Ali/JNews)
AMMAN — It was introduced to the public in the 1980s as a “small commercial world connected to the entire world”.

One of the most iconic buildings in Amman, which has been officially designated as a heritage building by authorities, the Comprehensive Commercial Center (CCC), known locally as “Al-Burj” (The Tower), was once a hub of leisure for Ammanis on one of the city’s most vibrant commercial streets at the time.اضافة اعلان

The tallest building in Amman at the time, the 91m-high building consisting of 22 floors was constructed between 1979 and 1985 on Prince Muhammad Street by contractor Consorzio Trocon Percoco and owned by Jordan-Royal Estate Establishment, before it was acquired by the government.

It is considered part of the city’s cultural heritage and is one of the earliest examples of contemporary and Brutalist architecture in Jordan, in which an “English-style” Western character and Jordanian identity were merged together in the reinforced concrete.

“In one of the most beautiful, dynamic, commercial, and crowded areas of Amman, and one of the most important strategic branching sites of the capital between the Third and the Second Circle, towards Prince Mohammad Street, this great tower is located, overlooking the city from a height of 100m and from all directions,” the project’s pamphlet read when it was launched.

Situated on one of the main commercial arteries that emerged as part of the expansion to the hills of Amman, the optimistic design gave the street its distinctive image and introduced the concept of streets being utilized as part of the public realm, be it for commerce or different forms of leisure.

Once housing a cinema, a high-end rooftop restaurant overlooking the city, and multiple spacious offices and stores, today the iconic building is mostly vacant and abandoned.

Today, the building houses the Income and Sales Tax Department and “Al-Kanz” night club, which was still functional pre-COVID-19. The ground floor includes some new retail stores for formal menswear, a watch shop, a thrift store, and a women’s garment shop that has been operating since the 80s.

What used to be “Philadelphia Cinema” is now the new home of Al-Balad Theatre, following the cultural organization’s eviction from the Jafra building in downtown Amman, and they are investing in restoring and renovating it.

Abu Ahmad, who has been running a tailor shop in the building for the past seventeen years, bore witness to the massive change in the popularity of the building and the street, with his shop being a direct victim of the area’s transformation.

He points out that the presence of cabarets and night clubs in the whole area might have been the main factor for the reluctance of people to visit Al-Burj and Prince Mohammad Street, describing it as “unsuitable and uncomfortable for families and women at certain times.”

In order to revive the building, the whole street and its urban context must be taken into consideration, Abu Ahmad told Jordan News.

Al-Burj is not the only significant cultural building that has been neglected and abandoned; Amman is full of examples of special structures and urban fabrics that have suffered the same fate.

This pattern can be seen in the abandoned cinemas scattered across the city, as well as in areas like Al-Thaqafeh Street, Wakalat Street, and the Jabal Amman neighborhood, among others. Each of these areas was the hub and heart of the city at some point, which brought with it investment into these landmarks. Once the public’s attention turned elsewhere, moving onto another area, investments dried up.

This does, however, give startups and entrepreneurs the opportunity to breathe new life into these buildings. Renovating landmarks can offer an ethnographic approach to the understanding of local history and can help preserve the cultural heritage of the city at the same time.