Principles and pastiche in Islam

An Architecture for People - The Mosque and the Modern World
January 9, 1998

What is Islamic architecture? The answer may seem simple and straightforward, as the term is widely understood to define the architecture of the Islamic lands, recognisable by predominant features such as vaults, arches and domes. This perception, however, is relatively modern, conceived in the West in the 18th century and reinforced by travel accounts and orientalist drawings and paintings. Vaults and domes are features of masonry and brick structures and were never the monopoly of Islamic architecture. Gothic architects mastered the former, those of the Renaissance the latter, and the Byzantines used both. The Islamic world, on the other hand, was spread far and wide, with diverse types of architecture manifested in different climates. For example, in the deserts of Africa pise architecture shaped the cities, and in the tropical regions of south and southeast Asia, structures were built of wood and masonry architecture was virtually unknown.

In the Islamic world itself, the western notion of Islamic architecture remained unknown until quite recently. It began to be imported only between the wars, when Islamic nations were afflicted by a confusion between patriotism and religion and between progress and cultural identity. To find a resolution, they frequently looked to the West for defining modern values. It was during this period that K.A.C Cresswell, under the patronage of an Egyptian monarch, produced the monumental volumes Early Islamic Architecture and The Muslim Architecture of Egypt, and A.U. Pope, under the patronage of a Persian monarch, produced A Survey of Persian Art. Through these books and other, earlier works, the Muslim nations began to re-evaluate their architecture through western eyes. While the western definition might make sense in the context of the indigenous architecture of the Middle East, outside the region other Muslim nations began to produce - and are still producing - pastiche buildings totally alien to their culture.

In the meantime, modern technology has been changing the characteristics of traditional architecture worldwide. Steel frames and concrete shells have made thick masonry walls redundant, and increasingly wide spans can be built without the need for vaults and domes. The "International style" that transformed European and American architecture early this century started to replace traditional architecture in Islamic countries two or three decades later. The question of architecture in relation to national identity became a subject of passionate debate between architects and intellectuals of the Islamic world and is reflected in the design of modern buildings.

The nature and scope of the debate is demonstrated in two recent publications. While there may be diverse views on an appropriate definition for Islamic architecture, there is one building type that can be defined as truly Islamic: the mosque. This is not only a place of worship but also of public and political assembly and, as such, a focal point for the community. In The Mosque and the Modern World, Renata Holod and Hasan-Uddin Khan present a survey of the most distinguished mosques built throughout the Islamic world after the second world war. The large and detailed photographs together with architectural drawings make the book a valuable source for modern architectural trends in various Islamic countries. The authors do not enter directly into the controversies concerning the ideologies and concepts behind Islamic architecture, but their informed description of individual buildings and information on architects and patrons provides an extensive insight into Islamic architecture in different modern Islamic societies.

In general, the cliches of domes and vaults prevail, occasionally fitting into the design but often appended purely as "forms" over an unrelated structural system. The unhappier examples are perhaps the Masjid Negara and the Abu Bakar as-Siddiq Mosque at Kuala Lumpur, and the Sultan Omar mosque at Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei - but the most bizarre are perhaps some of the buildings that purport to represent Islamic centres in the West. The 1889 mosque at Woking in Surrey, for example, leans on Mughal sources rather in the manner of the Brighton Pavilion. The London Central Mosque in Regent's Park, with its dome and minaret for the sake of form but irrelevant to the structure, was designed without understanding the role of the simplest, and perhaps only, liturgical component of a mosque: the mihrab, a niche in the wall oriented towards Mecca, indicating the direction for prayer. After the completion of the building, a wooden mihrab, looking more like a piece of furniture, was set up against the wall.

The book focuses on the clients and patrons of the mosques. Such large public buildings have traditionally been built as prestigious monuments, mainly by political leaders - the caliphs, monarchs and local governors - as a demonstration of wealth and power, tempered with piety. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of the most outstanding Islamic monuments were created under the patronage of the most repressive tyrants. Smaller mosques might be built by local benefactors - a head of the community, a wealthy merchant or a religious leader - in the humble hope, as the inscriptions put it, of heavenly reward, but at the same time serving to uphold and enhance the donor's social status here below.

Today the situation has hardly changed: most major monuments are built by state or local governments, and smaller - but equally interesting - mosques are constructed under local community or personal patronage. Some of the grander mosques are in oil-rich states or are produced elsewhere with their help or that of their wealthy citizens, but the book depicts many other impressive mosques chosen throughout the Islamic world, from Morocco to Indonesia.

The examples illustrate a variety of designs that will interest a wide audience, not just architects and designers, but also perhaps political analysts and social scientists. With the exception of a few mosques, almost all of the buildings chosen employ modern architectural design and technology. In some, expensive technology itself is on display, perhaps to signify the progress of the modern Islamic nations, or at least those who govern on their behalf. The irony is that among such showpieces are the concrete shell of the Masjid-i Tooba in Pakistan, and Louis Kahn's magnificent Capitol Complex Mosque in Bangladesh: both in two of the poorest Muslim countries.

Most of the buildings represented in the book are lavishly decorated, using traditional Islamic patterns, sometimes copied from earlier designs and on some occasions tastefully interpreted with modern motifs. For their maintenance, almost all of the buildings rely on air-conditioning systems and other costly technological devices. The underlying assumption seems to be that the greater the expense involved in building and maintenance, the better it will express the grandeur of the patron.

In such an architectural current, it is refreshing to see a few buildings, such as the Pahang State mosques in Malaysia, the Sea Front mosques in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Hassan Fathy's New Gourna village mosque in Egypt, as well as the Dar al-Islam at Abiquiu, New Mexico, which do not serve merely to give an illusion of wealth and power, but display in their design a firm grasp of the qualities of traditional architecture and inexpensive local materials. The internal climate is maintained by factors such as the thickness of the walls, natural air circulation and the control of light and shade through carefully located windows and openings.

Among modern architects of the Islamic countries, Hassan Fathy (1900-1989) stands well above the others. This is not simply for the modest and pleasant look of his buildings and their agreeable internal environments, but for his wider intellectual view of architecture. When there was little concern for the environment in either the West or the Islamic world, Fathy was among the first to argue for a sustainable architecture. He hardly used this kind of terminology, and in his pioneering days it would not perhaps have conveyed its present meaning. Nevertheless, from his early days of practice in his homeland, Egypt, his approach towards design was to create a simple but tasteful environment that was familiar to the users and did not rely for maintenance on electric power, which was then scarce in most parts of the country.

Fathy's lifetime achievement, presented in An Architecture for People, has now been widely recognised, but from the beginning of his career in the late 1920s he remained for nearly half a century an isolated voice in a distant land and his architecture peculiar and old-fashioned. Later, at the end of the 1960s when his concepts were better understood, some of his principles, such as "architecture for the community and by the community" could find a sympathetic audience among a new generation of young architects. However, it is only now that we are understanding gradually the wider scope of his view of an architecture that provides a comfortable environment for living and yet demands little from the earth's resources. James Steele's book investigates Fathy's whole career. It is divided into chapters covering different periods and also provides a chronology of his buildings with a brief description of each structure and a useful bibliography.

In art historical terms, Fathy's designs can be seen to be firmly based on "Islamic architecture", but this falls far short of what his work represents. In his view, the architecture of the Middle East is not a reflection of any particular religious or national identity, but is a direct result of thousands of years of the evolution of building types suitable for the local climate. Every detail encapsulates messages that, if understood, can be employed in modern design. Because of this, his buildings transcend artificial concepts of Islamic or western architecture and are concerned with sustainable design for specific climatic regions. His architecture is not of the past, but of the future.

Mehrdad Shokoohy is reader in architecture and urban studies, University of Greenwich.

An Architecture for People: The Complete Works of Hassan Fathy

Author - James Steele
ISBN - 0 500 991 8
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £19.95
Pages - 208

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