"GENERIC MOSQUE", by Azra Aksamija

The concept of the “Generic Mosque” investigates the representation of contemporary Islamic practice in a secular context. It explores the idea of a mosque as a multifunctional space, through so-called Generative Design Principles, a set of conceptual design guidelines that I derived from my study of Islamic architectural history. These design principles enable designers to develop a stylistic and conceptual continuity with the past, while allowing them to execute spatial transformations in response to the social, political, economic, and technological changes that take place over time. By designing mosques based on these principles, I hope to deconstruct the present Islamophobic mood in Western Europe and the United States, and shift focus from the biased and politicized representations of Islam in favor of the universal beauty of artifacts from Islamic aesthetic culture.

“O men! Behold, we have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all knowing, all aware.”
[QUR’AN (49:13)]

Inspired by this divine call for peaceful coexistence, the concept of the “Generic Mosque” is aimed at encouraging dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims by providing an interactive infrastructure to accommodate both secular and sacral programs within the same space. I believe that mosque design can contribute to synthesizing learning and interaction among different Islamic and non-Islamic societies. If this relationship is to become a mutual enrichment, mosque design can enable not only their spatial aggregation, but also open up an experimental field for artists and architects to negotiate the way Muslims understand and communicate their presence today.

When dealing with representations of Islam, it is first important to be aware of the tremendous variety of its interpretations, many of which are diametrically opposed to one another. For that reason, Islam cannot be understood as a monolithic structure. At a level of 1.2 billion people, Muslims represent 19-22% of the world population1. Islam is currently the second-largest religion in the world after Christianity. Growing at a faster rate than the total world population, Islam is expected to become the world’s largest religion by the year 2025. It is thus crucial to take into account the high diversity of Muslim communities around the world, as they originate from a wide spectrum of different geographical and cultural contexts. Thus, this is also in line with the wide variety of their religious and social practices.

This diversity is reflected in a similar variety of the formal and organizational structures of contemporary mosques. Due to differences in a community’s size, its cultural origin and ethnic homogeneity, its status in the dominant culture, financial recourses, functional necessities, and many other parameters, mosque Architecture lacks both formal and functional consistencies. This inconsistency represents a major challenge for architects and architectural historians who seek to re-examine the notion of the “mosque” as an overarching term. The History of Islamic Architecture teaches us that mosques have never been explicitly defined as a particular architectural form. Their formal variety around the world evokes the question of whether the notion of the mosque can be understood as a specific building type at all.

In regard to such questions of typology, Rafael Moneo argues that “the work of Architecture is irreducible to any classification”
2. Moneo’s concept of type implies a class of comparable objects with common characteristics.

3 However, the very idea of a type, as proposed by Moneo, has the concept of change
embedded in it.

4 Types are not just reproduced identically; they develop, combine, and transform, forming
new types and sub-types. They can be thought as “the frame within which change operates, a necessary term to the continuing dialectic required by History”.

5 I term this conceptual framework for the formal mutation of types Generative Design Principles. Understood as a series of foundational spatial guidelines that establish conceptual architectural grammar, they can be applied to different sites and different Islamic communities in order to create formal variation in design. The extraction of such principles can be carried out in a number of ways that do not necessarily have to originate in a formalist approach. Architectural historian Nader Ardalan, for instance, explored the question of mosque typology as a historical survey of common architectural features. By analyzing the visual language of mosques, he sought to establish a mosque typology by identifying what he calls “generic forms” through their relative occurrence over the last fourteen hundred years.

6. What his analysis renders visible is that the mihrab -a niche in the wall, which indicates the direction to Mecca -is the only reoccurring architectural element in all surveyed mosques. Thus for Ardalan, the mihrab stands for a generic form that Moneo would interpret as a type. According to my own definition, however, not the mihrab, but the notion of directionality would represent one of the generative design principles for mosques. Mihrab is thus understood as a physical byproduct of the concept of directionality. It is then just one of the many possibilities for the architectural formulation of directionality. Furthermore, as there is no universally accepted method for the determination of the prayer direction across Islamic societies, the term directionality also allows for many spatial interpretations

7. It can be understood as an architectural guideline that can be embodied through many different forms. As such, it
represents a conceptual framework that has the ability to generate a wide range of formal embodiments. In this context, transformation is anticipated as the inner quality of a spatial system to be tested over time. Another generative design principle is the principle of prayer enactment. According to hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammed), the entire world, except for spiritually impure places, can be understood as a mosque. This means that prayer can be performed anywhere, not only at home or in a dedicated space. For instance, if prayers are to be said in the desert, no architectural framework is needed and the ritual ablution can be performed by using sand instead of water. In this case, the mosque is defined by the worshippers’ spatial orientation to Mecca and their performance of the prayer ritual

8. The principle of prayer enactment, in addition to the principle of directionality, reveals yet another principle regarding the mosque size: that the minimal size of a mosque is defined by the volume of prayer. In other words, the mosque space is minimally characterized by the amount of space a person occupies when performing a prayer directed toward Mecca. Another example of an outdoor prayer during the Islamic parade in New York City supports this point. Anthropologist Susan Slyomovics analyzed the phenomenon of people praying on the street as a “specifically Muslim reutilization and makeover of the quintessential urban venue”

9. For the duration of the prayer, prayer enactment transforms the street into a mosque. The spatial juxtaposition of two directions, the one of the city grid and the other of the prayer, reveals the transformative nature of a mosque program.

10 However, this phenomenon is neither solely contemporary nor solely American. Since early Islamic times, the use of mosques was not limited to religious or representational functions. Mosques and mosque complexes also fulfilled various social purposes. They often doubled as hospitals, courtrooms, treasuries, council chambers, sanctuaries, soup kitchens, and even prisons11. Historical examples, but also the contemporary reuse of, for instance, major sports facilities to accommodate the Friday prayer or other larger religious gatherings, clarify yet another generative principle of mosques: their programmatical variability, meaning that the mosque can switch between religious and secular functions and vice versa.

While multifunctional uses of mosques are increasingly present today, mosques in Western Europe and in the United States not only serve as centers for Muslim communities’ religious activities, but they are also institutions that represent, communicate and maintain a particular cultural and ethnic identity. Subsequently, and depending on the community’s origin and its immigration pattern, tendencies to reaffirm or redefine cultural identity are dictated by the relationship between immigrants and the dominant culture. The perception which the majority of non-Muslims hold – that a mosque is a sacred space in which only Muslims are allowed to enter – goes against the very notion of a mosque as a space where prayer is performed, but also where other secular activities, such as reading, learning, lecturing, discussing, playing, and even sleeping, can take place. It is exactly this elasticity of spatial use that represents an important aspect of Islamic practice that can be communicated through mosque design.

My reinterpretation of historical elements of mosques focused on questioning how contemporary mosque design can be derived from conceptual, rather than a formal understanding, of mosque typology. The Generative Design Principles introduced in this article, that is, the principle of directionality, prayer enactment, volume of prayer, and the programmatical variability of mosques, seek to bridge the gap between culturally and historically specific forms and functions of mosques and the needs of contemporary Islamic societies living in America and in Europe. By pointing out the variable nature of the mosque, these conceptual spatial guidelines can be employed flexibly in different sites. Moreover, they can provide a methodology that responds to the challenge of negotiating religious functions with other secular, social and cultural practices with a design of new mosques that are inventive in appearance, yet remain faithful to liturgical necessities. Finally, Generative Design Principles enable a designer to re-symbolize the contemporary Muslim environment in many formal ways. However, the design’s success is contingent upon the actual making and using of such an approach, which can only take place if Muslims themselves recognize and accept the basic ideological elasticity of Islam that allows for its own change and progress.

1 The Muslim Council of Britain (El Consejo Musulmán de Gran Bretaña); CIA, en The Economist. 13 de
septiembre de 2003.
2 MONEO, Rafael José (1978). On Typology, en Oppositions nº 13 23
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Segons Moneo, “el tipus deixa de ser el “mecanisme rígid” que immobilitza l’arquitectura i esdevé el mitjà
necessari tant per negar el passat com per anticipar el futur”. Ibid., 27.
6 ARDALAN, Nader (1980). The Visual Language of Symbolic Form: A Preliminary Study of Mosque
Architecture, a Architecture as Symbol and Self-Identity, de KATZ, Jonathan G. Filadèlfia: Premi Aga Khan
d’Arquitectura, p.18-36.
7 Some Islamic communities determine the direction based on the “flat” map system, while others orient
themselves according to the shortest distance on the globe.
8 The notion of orientation is also elastic in this case. If the exact direction to Mecca is unknown, the
prayer can still be performed in any direction. It becomes more a matter of intention of a direction.
9 SLYOMOVICS, Susan (1996). The Muslim Worlds Day Parade and ‘Storefront’ Mosques of New York City,
en Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe, de METCALF, Barbara Daly. Berkeley, Los
Angeles, Londres: University of California Press, p.204.
10 Ibid., 205.
11 IRWIN, Robert (1997). Islamic Art in Context. Art, Architecture, and the Literary World. Nueva York: Harry
N. Abrams, p.58.

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