, Architecture

On False Dichotomy of Traditional & Modern in Islamic Architecture

Authors: Ziad Jamaleddine, Nabi Agzamov

Classifying Islamic architecture in Western terms—through the dichotomy of the traditional and the modern—denies it its modernity, resisting any sense of development or evolution into the modern period and insisting on always categorizing it as traditional, argues architect and assistant professor at Columbia GSAPP Ziad Jamaleddine.

Below is an excerpt from a conversation between Ziad Jamaleddine and architect and Strelka alumnus Nabi Agzamov, published on EastEast.

Amir Shakib Arslan Mosque. Moukhtara, Lebanon (2016). Photography by Iwan Baan. Courtesy of L.E.FT

Nabi Agzamov: Your firm L.E.FT has designed the Amir Shakib Arslan Mosque. Could we discuss this building? Did your research inform your design decisions or the other way around?

Mohamad Ziad Jamaleddine: That’s a good question, because it is a question that all architectural practices should be asking today: what’s the role of research in design, and what is the responsibility of design practice in furthering research…

Our work at L.E.FT on the architecture of the mosque started in academia. In 2011, my partner Makram el Kadi and I proposed a studio that investigated the programmatic and architectural capacities of the contemporary mosque—the mosque being a building type that is practically absent from design studios at architecture schools in the US. We taught the studio that year at Yale University and were fortunate to travel with the students, touring Syria and Lebanon to visit and learn from the great historical and modernist mosques in that region. We revisited the studio at Columbia University in 2016, this time looking at the history of the Ottoman mosque in Istanbul.

Following the Yale experience, we were commissioned to design a mosque in the rural area of Al Moukhtara in the Shouf Mountains in Lebanon, a region that has had a centuries long history of multiple religious groups co-existing and cohabiting peacefully… Peeling away the modern rhetoric of interreligious conflict that you expect to hear about in the news was one of the main challenges of the design. This commission became an opportunity to push the research and to look closely at the history of the mosque in this specific geographic setting, albeit within the context of a rising regional extremism that held a rigid and deterministic understanding of Islamic history.

Architectural model and sketch for Amir Shakib Arslan Mosque

So, the question we asked was: how can you build a mosque in a place that is not religiously homogeneous? Could the design offer something to the area’s other religious groups, namely Druze community, and if so, in what form? Mosque design came to represent the aspiration held within this question.

Technically, the design, which was an addition to an existing eighteenth century masonry structure, had to respond to and ground itself in that specific geography. The architectural solution corrected the orientation of the space to Mecca by providing an exoskeleton structure whose concave and convex planar geometry defined a multiplicity of semi-exterior spaces around and on top of the prayer area. The design also erased the parking structure that abutted the site, turning it into a public plaza that extended to the roof via a large stair. As a gesture addressed to all religious communities, the design activated the nearby eighteenth century water fountain and connected it to the new ablution area. Both areas provide fresh, potable water to the whole community, as well as to any visitor driving along the mountain road. In a country where water rationing is the norm, this solution, which takes water gravitationally from a nearby river, demonstrates how one can benefit from tapping into the natural environment without depending on the invasive modern infrastructure. Finally, the thin structural metal of the intervention was reinforced with two words: God (Allah) and Human Being (Insan). The words are pixelated into the architecture, conflating ornament with structure. As a message, they celebrate the humanist, universal, and worldly tradition in Islamic thought.

Today, this architectural inquiry has continued well beyond the practice, conducted again with a scholarly rigor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) through design studios and history and theory seminars. It has also been pursued through installations and exhibitions at biennials and triennials, including: the Oslo Architecture Triennale 2016, where “The City of Islams” was first exhibited; the Studio X Istanbul in 2017; the Milan Architecture Triennial in 2019; and most recently, the Sharjah Architecture Triennial in 2019. In parallel, L.E.FT has been hired to start working on a new office for religious, contemplative, and spiritual practices at Vassar College, here in the US. Learning from the body of knowledge explored in the research, the building will thrive to serve more than ten religious and non-religious spiritual student groups who will share and negotiate the spaces of the building and its surrounding landscape. Here we continue this vein of research on religiosity and architecture through design investigations.

I feel that the position of our office, sitting at the intersection of research and design work, is a critical potential model for practice today.

Milan Architecture Triennial, 2019

Praygrounds exhibition. Studio-X Istanbul, 2017

Oslo Architecture Triennale, 2016

Sharjah Architecture Triennial, 2019

NA: What we often see today are attempts to revive traditional architectural languages. However, what we often get is a simple imitation of certain forms, elements, and ornaments, without understanding the principles of tradition and methodology on a deeper level. It often happens that a foreign architect comes and says that he is reviving some tradition or the identity of the region, without actually exploring the roots of the place. What steps can an architect take to avoid being misguided while reviving traditional language?

ZJ: This is an interesting question; it raises an issue that we bring-up every day, both in academia, through theoretical concerns that we encounter during studio trips, and at our practice, which operates globally. There is great benefit, but also a great challenge in borrowing and transporting ideas, in aiming to learn from other cultures and practices from around the globe without falling into the trap of essentializing and reducing them.

But the other point I would like to interrogate here is the wording and the language of your question itself, the way you are framing this challenge…

In the essence of all of its elements, “reviving traditional language” is a problematic phrase.

“Reviving” assumes that the condition you are describing is dead and needs to be brought back to life. It assumes that the spatial and architectural practices you are investigating are a thing of the past, divorced from contemporary ways of working—that by reviving them, we are somehow correcting a wrong. To say that something is worth reviving also implies that it once existed in a pure and authentic original condition. As we discussed earlier, when talking about the hybrid evolution of the mosque, this presumption of an “origin” also needs to be challenged.

“Traditional” establishes a condition in opposition to what is understood to be modern. This is a false dichotomy built on a specific understanding of modernity; one that classifies modernity as emanating from Europe. This dichotomy denies Islamic architecture its modernity, resisting any sense of development or evolution into the modern period and insisting on always categorizing it as traditional. This classification is coupled with a timeline that compares the supposed medieval “golden age” of Islamic civilization with its eighteenth century “decline.” Because of this, you very rarely see the study of nineteenth or twentieth century mosques in the field of Islamic architecture. The so-called Islamic city that we briefly discussed earlier falls within this category. Its characteristics manifest through a convoluted, organic morphology, and while it was built in the medieval period it continued to develop and thrive well into the nineteenth century. This form was never recognized by the Western observer as having any virtue, primarily because it lacked “rationality.” This deprived it of an understanding of its own modernity—for example, the environmental benefit in relationship to density—and instead, opened the space to intervene or “modernize” it.

And then, “language” is the third problematic word. Architectural language brings up the question of semiotics: the meaning of specific architectural elements or their roles as signifiers. When it comes to the mosque, for example, the dome and the minaret have become its ultimate signifier today. The mosque’s complex architectural history has been reduced into these two tectonic elements.

“Reviving” assumes demise, “traditional” excludes the modern, and “language” looks at form outside of its social and historical meaning.

So where do we go from there? For me, it’s about recognizing that these spatial practices and architectural typologies have been continuously evolving and that they continue to evolve. They have obviously transformed, influenced by trends from the West and from the East, and are always reinventing themselves. So, if we ever wish to “learn from them,” then the first thing we need to do is to pay attention to this evolution, to try to map it and understand it. And, more importantly, we need to task ourselves to re-write this history and expand the field, insisting on the history of Islamic architecture as truly part of the global history of architecture.

And, as a practicing architect, I would really like to get rid of the self-referential conversation about “language.” Instead, we should strive to produce an architecture that addresses the social, economic, and environmental challenges of our time; that addresses questions of labor, material economies, and natural resources; and that participates in the construction of communities, encouraging a sense of stewardship to our environment and to each other…

Read the full interview on EastEast.

Mohamad Ziad Jamaleddine is an assistant professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (NY), and co-founder of L.E.FT Architects (Beirut/NY). Practitioner and scholar with a research focus on architecture in West Asia and North Africa, rigorously interrogating topics such as religious architecture and religiosity in public space.

Nabi Agzamov is an architect and an urban designer from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, currently based in Moscow. His work focuses on designing a more sustainable and resilient urban environment. He worked and studied in New York where he was a student of Ziad Jamaleddine at Columbia GSAPP Urban Design Program. Alumnus of Strelka Institute's The New Normal research program.

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