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Mosque makeover

Architects are caught in a widening divide between religious traditionalism and modern innovation. Add to that the political and community pressures.

December 29, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — Perhaps the most direct way to describe the new Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, among the largest mosques built in this country since the 2001 terrorist attacks, is to call it conservative twice over. Designed for a site in the Roxbury neighborhood by Boston firm Steffian Bradley and Saudi Arabian architect Sami Angawi, it is full of references to centuries-old Islamic landmarks, including a row of peaked arches at street level and a 140-foot-tall minaret. In classic New England style, it's also wrapped entirely in red brick.

In its combination of pride and caution, the 60,000-square-foot building -- delayed by controversy and a pair of lawsuits, and finally set for completion early next year -- has a good deal to say about the uneasy relationship between Islam and the West and the future of mosque architecture in the U.S.

As Muslims put down deeper roots in this country and Europe, they are increasingly moving out of the storefront mosques and converted community rooms they took over a generation ago and building new complexes that rival Christian mega-churches in size and ambition. Opposition to new mosques has been particularly sharp in Britain, Germany and other nations where Muslim communities are both larger and less well integrated into the wider culture than in this country.

But getting one approved and built in the U.S. has become nearly as complicated, despite a history of religious tolerance here that has given churches, mosques and synagogues wide legal latitude. It requires forging alliances with local politicians and producing a design capable of satisfying a diverse, multiethnic group of worshipers, with Middle Eastern, African American and South Asian Muslims often praying under the same roof.

Most new mosques in the West are designed in a broadly inoffensive Pan-Islamic style. It draws from a short menu of required items: ceremonial entry portal, minaret and domed prayer hall featuring traditional versions of the mihrab, a niche pointing the way to Mecca, and minbar, a stepped pulpit.

Since funding for many new mosques comes from Saudi Arabia, their architecture is based to a growing degree on Islamic architecture in that country, the birthplace of the faith. (That is also the biggest source of the controversy surrounding their construction, since Saudi leaders have been accused of using mosques to advance a fundamentalist form of Islam, known as Wahabbism, that many here see as stridently anti-Western.) As a result, the diverse regional variation that once marked the building type -- with mud-brick mosques in Mali looking nothing like grand designs in Istanbul or filigreed ones in India -- has faded.

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The Modern is history

Indeed, the brief period in the second half of the 20th century when mosque design was enriched by Modernist architecture and Western influence now seems like the distant past. Few remember that Louis Kahn and Paolo Portoghesi designed remarkable mosques. Highly inventive architects such as Zlatko Ugljen, whose 1980 White Mosque in Bosnia-Herzegovina has more in common with Frank Gehry's work than with Middle Eastern precedents, have remained peripheral figures.

When mosque architects in the West move away from reassuring traditionalism these days, they risk becoming scapegoats for the inevitable ire such buildings raise. Consider the case of 40-year-old London architect Ali Mangera. Mangera, a Muslim born in South Africa, worked briefly for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago before taking a job in the London office of Zaha Hadid, the celebrated Iraqi-born architect.

In 2001, Mangera left Hadid's practice to start a firm with Ada Yvars Bravo, a Catalan architect. In short order the pair landed what appeared to be the commission of a lifetime: a new mosque and Islamic cultural center in east London, just a few hundred yards from the main grounds for London's 2012 Summer Olympics. It would be the largest mosque in Europe and the biggest religious building in Britain, with a budget of at least $200 million. With a capacity of 70,000 for special events, it would hold just 10,000 fewer people than the planned Olympic Stadium nearby.

From the beginning, the marriage between architect and client was an odd one. The driving force behind the mosque is Tablighi Jamaat, a media-shy group that promotes an ascetic, deeply conservative version of Islam. Mangera, like his former boss Hadid, is fluent in the latest digital-design techniques and sees architecture primarily as a vehicle for innovation.

As he began work on the design, Mangera studied a number of contemporary Western mosques and was dismayed by what he called their "cartoon look." He complained to a reporter that British Muslims tend to "build mosques with fake domes and plastic minarets to look like the mosques back home." In a recent e-mail he elaborated: "The tradition of mosque building is not a static art but one which is evolutionary and responsive to changing needs."

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