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A Decade of Designing a Muslim-American Identity

September 9, 2011 11:42 pm


By: Maryam Eskandari

This weekend, the world marks the tenth anniversary of the horrific events of September 11th.  This tragedy pushed the Muslim American community to the forefront, forcing us to discover who we are, as a collective.  This grueling process of defining identity can be traced through architectural designs where various attributes have been explored.  From the relatively unknown Islamic inspired architecture of the World Trade Center, to the Islamic Center in Manhattan, we start to see not only a pattern of expression, but also a community coming into our own.

The World Trade Center in New York, an iconic masterpiece stood majestically around 1300 feet high.  Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, an architect praised for merging modernism with Islamic architecture, recreated Mecca’s courtyard within the busy Financial District claiming the World Trade Center’s plaza was, “a Mecca, a great relief from the narrow streets and sidewalks of the surrounding Wall Street area.”  Three decades ago, Yamasaki, the desired designer of the 1970’s, was commissioned for his ability to merge Islamic and postmodern design, an amalgamation of defining a renowned form of architecture. He was applauded for his innovation.

He spent project after project perfecting his mathematical obsession for ornamental pattern work on the Eastern Airlines Terminal at Boston’s Logan Airport, the Federal Science Pavilion at Seattle’s World Fair, and at the North Shore Congregation Glencoe in Illinois. In doing so, he merged Islamic architecture into the other Abrahamic faith, Judaism, and we all stood back in astonishment. In fact, we all stood back and commended Yamasaki for his ability to weave the structural ribbed arches, replicating the mosque windows known as the “mashrabiya,” often found in “Islamic architecture”; into a post modern design.  Yamasaki’s intention was never questioned nor viewed through an Islamophobic lens when he stated that the World Trade Center was to be “a Mecca.”

Fast forward 30 years, when a postmodern building, a tenth of the height of the World Trade Center, with its “contemporary ‘exo-skeleton’ mashrabiya” was commissioned to be designed to accommodate the vast growing neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, the Park 51 project. The proposed performing arts center, a 500-seat auditorium theater, swimming pool, basketball courts, gallery/exhibition space, emulated “Yamasakian design style” and mimicked the programmatical functions of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and Jewish Community Center (JCC). The perception that a Muslim developer, or an “Islamic Community Center (ICC),” two blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center, was questioned. Park 51 aspired to be a post-modern icon of pluralism, alongside its other two Abrahamic faiths, Church of St. Peter and Battery Park Synagogue, both a block away from architect Michael Arad’s World Trade Center/National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

Prior to Yamasaki, another architect was already flourishing. Mario Rossi, the Italian-American Architect commissioned in 1949 and completed the Islamic Center of Washington DC in June of 1957.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the grand opening praised the Islamic world stating, “traditions of learning and rich culture” which have “for centuries contributed to the building of civilization.”  The eclectic design of Rossi, played on the concept of memory, was to be a precedent mosque for others in the United States, representing all the Muslim countries. The Islamic Center of Washington DC became the icon of American-Muslims, settling on the concept of cultural nostalgia, with luxurious gifts from Egypt, Iran, and Turkey.

However, three decades later, Skidmore Owing and Merrill (SOM), was commissioned in 1987 to build the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. SOM decided to redefine the American-Muslim identity, departing from “cultural nostalgia” and instead embracing the American-Muslim identity through a post-modern design. Mimicking Yamasaki’s “weaving” of Islamic Architecture through a modern approach, SOM often found itself interrogated for its architectural designs to the 46 Muslim countries sponsors particularly to its key donor Kuwait, who expressed that the “iconic mosque” design should be implemented.  For example, SOM perceived the minaret as juxtaposition between architecture and identity. SOM design of the minaret was just a simple cylindrical form with a balcony on top. However, the Amir of Kuwait did not find this acceptable in a mosque design under the notion that the design was not “Islamic.” Nevertheless, the minaret was built after the completion of the Islamic Cultural Center to appeal to the demands of Kuwait’s Amir.

Conversely, SOM and Kuwait often find themselves designing mosques with a whole new Islamic architecture vocabulary. Most recently, Kuwait commissioned star-architect Zaha Hadid to design a contemporary mosque at the Avenues Mall in Kuwait City.  At Arcapita Bank Headquarters in Bahrain, SOM designed a prayer space emulating the Ka’aba in Mecca, a simple cube form with light being punctured at an angle. Furthermore, even Mecca is at the height of architecture design. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is on the forefront of cutting edge architecture design, particularly at the Ka’aba. Recently, during the lunar month of Ramadan, the clock tower in Mecca was inaugurated. These bold architectural designs, often question the identity of Muslim-American’s when designing a mosque, or an Islamic Cultural Center. For example, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, a 52,000 sq. ft. facility that serves the whole community with its pool, gym and school, has been under heated debate over its architectural identity.

Granted an Islamic Center in Manhattan, such as Park 51 or the Islamic Cultural Center design by SOM, will differ in design and form in comparison to another: as apparent in Abiquiu, New Mexico, or Dar Al Islam’s design by Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy in the early 1980’s, of which is one of the most sustainable Islamic Centers in America. Nevertheless the 100-plus Muslim prayer spaces in New York City are unique on their own, and each center across the United States is challenged with design problems to meet the needs and demands of the users and  to accommodate the American-Muslim community; but each building should have the ability to serve the community, practice sustainability, celebrate the American culture that surrounds it, and be a design solution that can be easily fabricated in American urban context.

As we approach the decadal anniversary of September 11, we must remind ourselves, that the World Trade Center, as the late Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture Oleg Grabar expressed that the “filigree of complex geometries alludes to a higher spiritual reality,” is the ideal and perfect example of another dimension of the multi-faceted design solutions of “Islamic Architecture.” Nevertheless, there is a new generation of architects on the rise who have the ability to continue Yamasaki’s inter-woven, spiritual concepts of “Islamic Architecture”. This generation of architects are well versed in Yamasaki’s design amalgamation and allude to a “higher spirit” by primarily designing their own identity through a more spiritual, and sustainable architecture, and redefining or better yet reverting back to essential elements of a more spiritual “Islamic Architecture”, where the Divine is expressed as light, purification is through elements of water and the earth is preserved.  As Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr once explained that “the elements of the spiritual universe of [the religion of] Islam are not visually symbolized, [rather] there is an inner nexus between ‘Islamic Architecture’ and Islamic cosmology and angelology.”

Maryam Eskandari is an Architect and a graduate of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and MIT.  Follow her on twitter @MaryamEskandar




1 Comment

  • Love this history of a time in which anything arab/muslim related was an exoticized aesthetic–and not a symbol of hatred & racism. Tho i disagree: 9/11 didnt bring me to awareness of my religion as much as it became more about my unravelling of my spirituality and once again, trying to find that cultural & spiritual center outside of politics and propoganda.

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