Completed in 1991 by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the Islamic Cultural Center of New York helped usher in a new era of contemporary mosque design. But follow the backlash by politicians surrounding the proposed Cordoba House in lower Manhattan—dubbed the Ground Zero mosque in the wake of 9/11—and you might conclude that the creation of Islamic centers in the U.S. had been permanently stalled by political posturing. You would, however, be wrong.
In a survey published last year, researcher Ihsan Bagby, an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky, found more than 2,100 total mosques in the U.S., a 74 percent increase over the last 12 years. While some of these were established in existing buildings, about 30 percent of them were designed as purpose-built mosques.
Christopher B. McCoy, AIA, of McCoy Architects in Lexington, Ky., has completed four mosques in the U.S. since 1998, with three more currently in design or under construction. McCoy believes the uptick in mosque architecture is the result of a maturing Islamic-American culture. “Muslims moved to the United States en masse 40 years ago, and architecturally, the first mosques were in adapted or rented structures,” McCoy says. “What you are seeing now are groups who have grown out of those first homes as well as a new generation of American-born Muslims desiring their own purpose-built space.”
McCoy is quick to note that his projects are Islamic Centers that include the mosque as a part of a complex, such as the Islamic Center of Elizabethtown, Ky., completed in 2008, a two-story, 13,810-square-foot structure built with a steel frame and concrete brick veneer, and housing multiple functions. The distinction is an important one. The mosque, derived from the Arabic masjid, is the place of worship. But since the earliest mosques, the building has also been seen as the center of Islamic life, both sacred and secular. A mosque complex frequently includes ancillary buildings or rooms for scholarship, social functions, and even commerce. “The Islamic Center is more of a hub of cultural and community events containing other elements such as multipurpose rooms and halls, meetings rooms, offices, and gymnasiums,” McCoy says.
The mosque itself houses a prayer space oriented towards the Qibla, the direction that faces Mecca. There is a place to remove shoes and to wash in advance of entering the prayer space, and there is separation of men and women congregants. While the mosque typology has readily legible architectural similarities—the dome and the minaret among them—there are no rules within the religion regarding form. “There is no prescription for a mosque in the holy text in the Quran,” says Akel Ismail Kahera, associate professor of architecture and community development at the Prairie View A&M University School of Architecture in Texas. Kahera has written a book on the design of mosques and is one of the few professors in the country to include the mosque typology in his studio curriculum. “It just says that those places should be respected and that the public should have unfettered access.”
Historically, the mosque aesthetic has varied dramatically from region to region. The Muslim world extends from Spain and Africa to Asia, resulting in seven distinct regional styles—from open courtyard plans in Spain and North Africa to the pyramidal roof construction of Southeast Asia and the massive central domes of Turkey.
Today, architects are being asked to reference and refine regional mosque architecture with a contemporary audience in mind. The Mosque of Algiers, in Algeria, now under construction, will become one of the largest Islamic centers in the world when it is completed around 2017. Designed by Frankfurt-based KSP Jürgen Engel Architekten and commissioned by the Algerian government, the structure will include a prayer hall, courtyard, cultural center, imam school, forecourt, and minaret, and it will have capacity for up to 120,000 visitors. The minaret will rise 869 feet into the sky, making it the tallest building on the African continent. “It’s a major project for the Algerian government and it’s supposed to be a landmark for the region’s independence and cultural esteem,” says Harald Strupp, project manager of the prayer hall and the courtyard. Located near the Bay of Algiers and adjacent to a major highway, the complex will read from the road and the sea and serve as the center of a new urban development.
The Mosque of Algiers will be KSP Jürgen Engel Architekten’s first mosque; Strupp says the sheer size of it has been the biggest challenge. “The prayer hall alone will hold 35,000,” he says.
Within the mosque, the architects employ minimal ornamentation and indirect natural light to help carve out a spatial experience. The exterior will be clad in natural stone and structured by folds, friezes, and decorative entrance portals as well as calligraphy—a classic design element in mosque architecture.
The architects rooted the aesthetic in the North African regional tradition, which was influenced by the great mosque of Cordoba, Spain, begun in 784. “The typical feature in the layout are columns and a succession of naves,” Strupp says. “The space is structured by these naves, and arches and pillars dominate the whole space unlike the Turkish mosque, which is one room with the dome as the major feature.”
KSP picked up on the traditional form of the column and updated it with a floral leitmotif. These columns are more than decorative, serving as a load-bearing element and containing surface acoustics, ventilation, and drainage. The minaret, historically used for the Islamic call to prayer, has been reinterpreted as a place of public gathering. Built with glass, the slim, tall tower has surprising proportions requiring special engineering for the earthquake-prone area; once completed, it will offer panoramic views of the city. The minaret will house the Museum of Algerian History, and its uppermost floors will be reserved for research areas for scholars.
In countries with a large Muslim diaspora, such as the U.S. and the U.K., congregations are often composed of parishioners from diverse ethnic backgrounds united by their religion. Here, you see Islamic architectural traditions melding with local vernacular. Shahed Saleem is founder and director of London’s Makespace Architects, a firm that has designed several mosques with one project currently under construction. In his book The British Mosque: a Social and Architectural History, to be published later this year by English Heritage, Saleem writes of how the mosque in Britain has evolved over a 120-year history to create what he calls the Brit-Mosque.
“The British mosque is a teasingly unrestricted archetype: onion-domes and minarets are cultural, not religious,” Saleem writes. “A mosque has an exceptionally simple programme. … This means that every formal and architectural representation of the mosque we see beyond this is a cultural accretion accumulated across time and culture.”
For the design of a new mosque in Bethnal Green, in the east end of London, Makespace Architects used the angular geometry of an awkward urban site near a railyard to their benefit. The result is an angular structure that reinterprets the classic Islamic onion dome as a triangular and glazed form. The minaret becomes a series of stacked cubes.
This contemporary evolution of the mosque form is also seen in a spate of recent design competitions for urban projects, including the winning design by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) for a mosque complex in the center of Tirana, Albania. Rendered as a massive, perforated structure, it will include an Islamic Center and a Museum of Religious Harmony and is meant to serve the Muslim community while also serving as a symbol for religious tolerance in a city with both Orthodox Christian and Catholic communities. The design reads more as urban starchitecture—BIG, in fact, beat out other starchitects such as Zaha Hadid, FAIA—than a religious compound.
It is perhaps the architectural statement that newly proposed mosques make that causes communities to bristle. Many of the projects in Europe and the U.S., such as the one in lower Manhattan, represent existing congregations looking to expand into new space. The Muslim community was already there, but it is in the commissioning of a purpose-built mosque that the trouble starts. “Mosques are perhaps the most contested building type in the city, provoking debate—sometimes fierce—on issues of identity, social change, race, politics, style, and taste,” Saleem says of design in England.
McCoy believes, even with the charged political climate, that it is an exciting time for the architectural commission of mosques. “The religion is a way of life but not an architectural style itself,” McCoy says. “Domes and minarets are beautiful architectural symbols, but not Islamic by themselves. Similar to the way Shakers used their faith to guide the manner in which they built, Muslims can expose the inner beauty of a local vernacular in a uniquely Islamic way.”