Maryam Eskandari

MIIM Designs

Modern "Islamic" Architecture

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.

This weekend, the world marks the 15th anniversary of the horrific events of September 11th. This tragedy pushed the Muslim American community to the forefront, forcing them to discover who they 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 mosque architecture in America, not only are patterns of expression, but also a community, coming into their own formation of identity.

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 of Manhattan, claiming the World Trade Center’s plaza as a, “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 innovations and design philosophy.

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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 the patterns and ideas of the Muslim cultures into our American urban cities. In astonishment, we all commanded Yamasaki for his ability to weave the structural ribbed arches, replicating the mosque windows known as the “mashrabiya,” often found in buildings throughout the Muslim world; into a post-modern design.

Given our political climate, as we near closer to the presidential elections, this November 2016, the public's beliefs guided by the mass media would have questioned Yamasaki’s intention, but rather, during that time, Yamasaki was never questioned nor viewed through an phobic lens, when he stated that the World Trade Center was to be “a Mecca.” Prior to Yamasaki, another architect was weaving Islamic patterns and structures in the urban fabric of Washington DC. Mario Rossi, the Italian-American Architect was 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 set the standards and be a precedent mosque 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 with a generous gift by the Rockefeller brothers.

Conversely, SOM often find itself designing mosques with a whole new "Islamic" architecture vocabulary. 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 architectural design, particularly at the Ka’aba, excavating history and culture, rather than preserving the holiest city, belonging to 1.7Billion Muslims. For example, 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, and has allowed for a deeper discussion on the term "Islamic architecture" or "American mosques", in the states.

As we approach the fifteenth 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. 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 and vernacular 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.”

adapted from an earlier essay to commemorate the tragic day of September 11, 2001

Maryam Eskandari, founder of MIIM Designs, and an Advisor at Harvard University for History of Art and Architecture and serves on the Board of Open Architecture Collaborative . She holds a Masters of from the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and MIT.

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