Beyond Buildings


Park51 Mosque: Ground Zero for a New Architecture?

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Will it be a good building? That is what I want to know about the religious and cultural center currently being planned a few blocks away from Ground Zero. There is not much to go on for what is now known, after its address, as Park51, especially as the developers claim not yet to have hired an architect. However, there are three renderings that have, for the last few days, been making the rounds in the media. They are credited to SOMA Architects, a firm headed by Michel Abboud, a Lebanese native who graduated from Columbia University in 2003 and who has gained most notice until now for an elegant, rough-hewn restaurant in the Nolita neighborhood of New York, Tartinery. From what those renderings show, I would say—maybe.

Images:  SOMA Architects


The façade appears to consist of a white-painted brise-soleil which has a pattern that is a deformation and elaboration of the classic Arabic lattice screen, with its six-pointed star motif. The computer seems to have been at work here, creating an undulation in the pattern, as well as progressively fattening some of the members, apparently in response to a stress diagram: over a ground-floor opening that most clearly articulates the star, material masses up to compensate for this void.

Interior I


We get two images of the inside, both of a top-level public space with an escalator in the middle (the prayer hall, which will not be a sanctified mosque, will be in the basement). There the lattice work appears to continue onto the ceiling and floor. There is no indication of material or use, in keeping with the developer’s rather vague statements about wanting to have a space for all people of all faiths. As a result, the intricacies of the structure appear to frame a rather generic space that could be an office lobby, or a mall court.

Interior II

What bothers me about these hints of design is that the building appears to be defined in abstraction and slotted into its relatively narrow street. There is no connection to the surrounding façades. Perhaps the design of Park51 wants to address the taller skyscrapers with their gridded façades that loom everywhere around. If that is the case, however, there appears to be a rather unfortunate echo of the World Trade Center’s own vaguely Islam-izing façade treatment. 

Despite these reservations, the renderings give me the hope that the designers, whether in the end it will be SOMA or another firm, will make something on this site that will integrate Islamic traditions with the reality of both building construction and the context of Lower Manhattan. For years the Aga Khan Foundation has been trying to promote such a cross-breeding of tradition and contemporary reality. It would be a strong vindication of its approach if this project, which has become such a flashpoint for a discussion (if you can call it that) about the relation between Islamic culture and Western modernity, would be a proof that it is possible to reinterpret motifs, strategies and types for modern programs, structures, and context. 

What is most unfortunate, however, is that none of this matters in the outcry over the planned center: It could be the most beautiful building in the world or, what is more to the point, the most banal, bland, and invisible structure, and still the rabble rousers would claim that its mere presence offends them. The fact that the architects and developers have had the courage to be up front and clear about the center’s cultural character, and have made a promising beginning at it, gives me hope that at least a diverse architecture is possible in a diverse country.



Comments (2 Total)

  • Posted by: bguyer | Time: 9:10 PM Saturday, October 16, 2010

    this was a great article. it's difficult to comment on something if you don't understand the subject matter.

    Report this as offensive

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:09 PM Tuesday, October 05, 2010

    the subject matter of this column is not worth commenting on.....

    Report this as offensive

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.