GSAPP Conversations - Episode 17

The following text is an edited transcription of GSAPP Conversations Episode #17, a podcast produced by Columbia GSAPP’s Office of Communications and Events in collaboration with ArchDaily.

Selva Gürdoğan, director of Columbia GSAPP’s Studio-X Istanbul speaks with Ziad Jamaleddine of L.E.FT Architects about the exhibition Praygrounds, which was on view at Studio-X Istanbul during March and April 2017. Ziad Jamaleddine co-founded L.E.FT with Makram El Kadi in New York in 2005, and they have designed residential and cultural projects in New York, Dubai, Turkey, and Beirut. The recently completed Amir Shakib Arslan mosque is located in the remote village of Moukhtara, Lebanon, and is the subject of the Praygrounds exhibition.

Speaking about his long-term research project on the history of mosque design, Ziad Jamaleddine says, “The Islamic City was a statement against the body of knowledge that we have inherited for more than 100 years now. … What was interesting about the map is that it continues to unravel and we continue to populate it with more and more information, while at the same time undoing this idea of homogeneity or unity in Islamic art and architecture.”

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L.E.FT Architects, Amir Shakib Arslan mosque, 2016. Photo by Iwan Baan.
An Exhaustive but Incomplete 1,400-year History

ZIAD JAMALEDDINE: Of course we are interested in building architecture, concrete spaces people can visit and that are part of the built environment. But we’re also interested in research because we need to understand the built environment to begin with – how it is formed and the way it actually sits at the intersection of many forces. Among them, the political and the cultural are of interest to us.

Both Makram [El Kadi] and I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon during years of conflict, still ongoing until today. We always perceived the environment through that political lens, which we try to articulate through our practice. So we’re very to have a practice and an academic platform which can serve that agenda.

SELVA GÜRDOĞAN: Could we talk a little bit about the Islamic City drawing?

JAMALEDDINE: The Islamic City drawing is part of an ongoing research which started back in 2011. There was this incident, let’s say, in Switzerland. Before the [Trump Administration’s proposed] Muslim ban, there was the minaret ban in Switzerland. Although Switzerland has only four minarets, they somehow decided that there should be no minarets anymore. So in that sense, the architectural object - a minaret in this case - not only represented the whole religious community in what’s supposed to be a diverse and open society, but was also perceived as a threat of some sort. It’s the interest that we have from the architectural/spatial into the political that instigated the research we’ve been pursuing since then.

The Islamic City map, of which we exhibited an early version at the 2016 Oslo Architecture Triennale, was expanded at Studio-X Istanbul. It’s objective is to demystify the idea of unity or homogeneity in the way Islamic art and architecture – and the Islamic world in general – has been perceived, has been formed through academic discourse. That field, as problematic as it is today, was really the outcome of orientalist travel in the 19th century, which actually paved the way for colonialism. And all of that came to fruit with a body of knowledge trying to define, frame, imagine what this society is about and what their cultural products are.

The Islamic City was a statement against the body of knowledge that we have inherited for more than 100 years now. And by trying to demonstrate the nonexistence of unity, we were trying to continuously build it through the map. In effect, the drawing is putting together more than 40 mosques from different places across different civilizations, and trying to weave them in one continuous map.

When you look at it, you quickly realize that there is no unity among those typologies. The further you look across the map, the more the typology proves itself to be hybrid, continuously mutating across civilizations, across cultural lines. It’s really hard to find the East and West. It’s hard to find what is Ottoman and what is Byzantine, and so on and so forth. So that was the objective of the map.

What the map also showed as we continued to build it for more than a year now, is that as we come closer to the modern period, we realize that the mosque – which used to be very much part of the everyday experience – is now becoming a more and more isolated object, purified in purpose and in form, only used for liturgical functions. Previous mosques were more multi-use and hybrid: they were social spaces, they were gathering spaces, there were commercial spaces attached.

For some reason, the modern mosque – perhaps because of modern zoning and segregation – has given us this object which became an easy vessel as a symbol of power or a symbol of the power of the patrons who built it. What was interesting about the map is that it continues to unravel and we continue to populate it with more and more information, while at the same time undoing this idea of homogeneity or unity in Islamic art and architecture.

GÜRDOĞAN: In our previous conversations, we talked about this idea of unity and that Islamic architecture is understood as a uniform thing, and something which probably also belongs to the past. Could you elaborate a little bit on this? Could there be Islamic architecture of the future, or does the way we phrased this sentence already disallow us to have any future imaginary?

JAMALEDDINE: I think we need to start constructing a future imaginary. But it’s very true the way you have just described it, is that when – at least in scholarly terms – we say “Islamic art and architecture”, we’re talking about art and architecture built in the Islamic world until the 18th or the 19th Century. So for some reason there is absence of modernity or a history of modernity in the Arab Islamic world.

And it becomes something of the past. For many it becomes an excuse to idealize the past. You can think of religious extremism perhaps, the way they think of the past as being one version or offering an authenticity that they’re looking for in terms of understanding Islam. But also in terms of architectural practices, where for instance you see that when modern states today build contemporary mosques, they also practice the same approach – which is looking for what was authentic in that culture.

You see for instance the Iranian state-sponsored mosque looking at the Safavid Mosque. You see the Turkish mosque today looking at the Ottoman as a model to imitate, to duplicate, and also to disseminate. So it’s also a way of exercising some kind of power over their zones of influence across the world. So the mosque again becomes an abstraction of an idea of what Islamic architecture is supposed to be, as opposed to what it has been in terms of living history continuously evolving.

When talking about the mosque of the future, there are two tasks at play. One is to undo what we have learned and deconstruct that body of knowledge and then to reconstruct a new one, and through that perhaps project into the future. The discipline is really very young in a way, and more research and more theorization and contextualization needs to be done in order to move forward more rigorously instead of just falling into the stylistic traps.

GÜRDOĞAN: I know you had a seminar here at GSAPP on the histories of Islamic architecture. Could you tell us a little bit also about that seminar.

JAMALEDDINE: That seminar is very much based on this installation we have done at Studio-X. So it looks first at the historiography of Islamic art and architecture, how it was formed. And we specifically look at those moments in time when the knowledge became more and more concrete through world exhibitions, through main publications, whereby the Islamic world has been consistently categorized, framed, organized, and geographically entrapped.

Suddenly, when you look at defining what Islamic architecture is, you start falling into all these fabricated frameworks. Is it civilizational? Do we look at every civilization separately? But then what happened to those mosques that start from one civilization and end in another? Or what happens when there are two civilizations or empires coexisting at the same time with different places? Do you look at geography, but then is it always that the mosque has to be geographically specific? There are also stylistic and cultural mutations that happen with traveling, and with people being in interaction with other cultures, et cetera.

The class tried to unroll one item at a time from those frameworks in order to specifically deconstruct what we have learned, which is really based on several scholars. The literature is coming from critical scholars on historiography of Islamic architecture – Nasser Rabbat at MIT, Gülru Necipoğlu at Harvard, and others.

We start with that kind of critical theory approach, reading Edward Said’s Orientalism just to set the ground and the proper lens to look at that body of knowledge produced on Islamic art and architecture. And then the second half of the semester we try do what everybody is hoping to do, which is to take case studies and to look at those mosques that we have been studying as being the representation of Islamic art and architecture, and to contextualize them geographically, socially, culturally - and to understand those buildings as being the product of their time, like any architectural product. If we look at any architecture typology, we always need to contextualize it and see it through that lens instead of trying to generalize and create theories across time.

The Modern Mosque

GÜRDOĞAN: In the Islamic City map, there was a particularly interesting mosque, the [Riyadh airport] terminal mosque. Would you talk a little bit about that, as well?

JAMALEDDINE: The map argues - especially when it comes to the modern period - that the smaller the mosque, the better. And there are several examples which maybe we can talk about in a minute, like Sherefudin Mosque and Grand National Assembly Mosque. But the King Khalid Mosque in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is interesting not because of its aesthetic agenda, necessarily. It’s a large mosque that is really integrated with the infrastructure of the metropolis – in this case it is literally on the airport runway, it’s part of the airport terminal and tried to latch onto this culture of movement and travel that was emerging in the mid-1980s. In that sense the mosque is now removed from the traditional way of understanding a community that it’s supposed to serve, which is the people living around the mosque, and we can understand that it’s actually supposed to serve a new kind of citizen, a traveling jet-setter in this case.

GÜRDOĞAN: And the issue of the smaller mosques?

JAMALEDDINE: The earlier mosques were large in scale, like Umayyad Mosque, or the Ottoman mosques are huge. So there are all different typologies in that sense, but the modern mosque – from about the 1970s, ‘80s and maybe late '60s – is interesting because the Arab world could perhaps be described as a much more progressive place in political terms than what we find today. There was a general progressive political agenda or ethos that the architects were also trying to subscribe to. And among those buildings are many that were able to experiment and develop new typologies.

Although the mosque became somewhat purified, with less functions attached to it than the previous generation, it was still small in the way it tried to integrate itself with the neighborhood. And for instance, Sherefudin Mosque is often compared to for instance [Le Corbusier’s] Ronchamp. And I think this becomes interesting when those “Islamic buildings” start to be in dialog with the modernism produced in the West.

Suddenly there is an equal ground over which those buildings could be discussed and theorized. In this case we’re talking about Eastern Europe versus Western Europe (because that mosque is in Bosnia) and there is already an engagement at this trans-national level, or international level when it comes to architectural experimentation. But when you look at the local scale, it’s really sensitively located in the backyard of the neighborhood it serves. And it challenges many preconceptions of what a mosque looks like, and it’s really accepted as being very much part of the city.

The other one that I think is perhaps a little bit more polemical and maybe more interesting to study is the Grand National Assembly Mosque in Ankara, Turkey, also built in the early '80s. What’s intriguing for me is that the architecture is very interesting and we can talk about it, but the fact that the architect tried to strike a balance between the unapologetically secular state of Turkey in the '80s and the religious identity that it had. Turkey is mostly Muslim in terms of religious sects, and the state is secular – so that building sits between these two conditions that I think we can say Turkey is still trying to find a better balance until today.

If you look at the architecture, you see the building is turning away from the assembly structure building, from the offices, and is embedded in the landscape – it has this low profile sitting in the landscape. There is also a rewriting of the visual language of the mosque, so there is no minaret. Because there, in the landscape, you can use a tree symbolizing the minaret that once marked the territory.

And specifically because it’s in Turkey, and the architect was very much aware of the sociocultural setting he was working in, he was able to challenge the gender segregation within the mosque. And I think these moves, as small as they are, become the future mosque that we really should be looking for.

A Small Mosque for the Future

GÜRDOĞAN: And in some ways you also have built a future mosque which was also part of the exhibition in Istanbul. Could you also tell us a little bit more about the mosque that L.E.FT Architects has just recently realized?

JAMALEDDINE: Yes, the Shakib Arslan Mosque. It’s located in the Shouf Mountains, which is in Lebanon. And in our mind, it was automatically categorized within the smaller scale of architecture that we have just been talking about. And it’s really a rural mosque, it’s not in an urban center. It has a small congregation, so it’s not massive in terms of capacity, either. It’s only 150 square meters, and we were also dealing with an existing 18th-century structure that was also part of the project.

But to step back for a minute, this move from research into practice becomes more interesting in terms of process because it’s the research that led into the mosque, which has led back into the map. So the mosque falls somewhere in the middle of the research I’ve been talking about. And we can say that the easy thing about this mosque is that it’s so small that it was really easy to resolve. It has very few liturgical properties, so by simply orienting the space with the carpet and the mihrab towards Mecca, the mosque could already be functioning.

So step one was almost done, which really opened the opportunity for us to expand on how that mosque could get influenced by, or could influence its context. Hence the idea of creating a civic plaza right outside of the mosque itself, which used to be a parking lot when we first inherited this whole situation. And in that case, it does relate contextually to the rural setting of Lebanon because many of those towns as you drive from Beirut up the mountain have those small modest squares with a simple fountain. We also revived an 18th-century fountain in our plaza, it has some shade, and it’s open to the mosque. The mosque is very transparent, and the inside and the outside blur together.

We also expanded that public space onto the roof of the mosque and encased it with a steel structure that also has other tectonic aspirations. But all together it became more of a resting spot or a gathering space for the village residents as well as for travelers - which is relevant because that road is frequented by travelers and tourists coming from Beirut up to the mountain.

So in that sense, the mosque became what was important for us: to make it very much a part of the fabric, whether it was the traveler or the village residents, in terms of use and appropriation. And we were able to convince our client that the mosque should be open for everybody all the time, and be open equally for both genders. So there were many small things that we were able to achieve - but it is a tiny mosque.