Essays

Does Park51 Architecturally “Sanitize” Islam?

A renderings of the interior of the proposed Park51 Community Center, as prepared by SOMA Architects. (image via blog.park51.org)
An architectural rendering of Park51's facade (via muslimmedia.com)

When the topic turns to Park51, the “Ground Zero Mosque”/Islamic community center that’s been so omnipresent in the news lately, aesthetics may be the last thing that comes to mind. The building has become an icon for its political significance rather than its great accomplishments or offenses of architecture. Park51’s mere presence in words, the theoretical existence of such a building, has become enough to set off media firestorms of “too soon” criticism before anyone even had a look at the architectural renderings.

Yet aesthetics are actually at the heart of the Park51 issue. Renderings show a building vaguely post-modern in style, a façade dissolved by networks of webbed supports that are part SANAA, part Zaha Hadid, and part Bird’s Nest. Decentralized and breaking from the grid, Park51 makes for an eye-catching yet generic display that’s not so much a total innovation as a reinforcement of a certain mannerist, high postmodern mode. Look at me! the building says, I am dynamic and new!

For some commentators, Park51’s generic quality is exactly what’s wrong with it, and not just for the reason that it makes for bland design. Aisha Ghani writes that the building’s faux-contemporary varnish actually serves to downplay the fact that it remains a vehicle of Muslim religion, “sanitizing” Islam. She makes the argument for architecture-as-Trojan-horse: Park51 marches into Manhattan under the guise of a new hotel or a hip condo and starts spreading its architectural-ideological tendrils. We’re just fooled by the glossy exterior.

The Hagia Sophia (from Awesomeplanet.org)

Naming Park51 a “mosque,” a move that the media has been quick to make, brings immediately to mind certain visual and aesthetic requirements of a mosque. What signifies a mosque to untrained Western eyes? Minarets, say. Domes. Sprawling complexes in West Asia. These are essentializing stereotypes of architecture, akin to claiming that a Catholic church couldn’t possibly be contained in a storefront, nor a new-age evangelist in a Wal-Mart. Why Park51 seems to be “hiding” its mosque-ness from us, as per the argument, is because we have a strict cliché of what a mosque must look like, and we are unable to read those signifiers in Park51’s design.

So much for visual literacy. The designers of Park51 note that the design of the façade stems from traditional Islamic forms that have been abstracted, keeping pace in an artistic system in which figurative representation is the opposite of the norm. It’s also important to note that no one’s really sure what the current status of the building is: multiple renderings are floating around the internet, and with the publicity storm, it’s still unclear whether the structure will be built.

The Palatine Chapel at Aachen (via Medievalwall.com)

Of course, Park51 is not a mosque on the level of, say, the Hagia Sophia, which you may not know was initially a Greek Orthodox church. It is a community center that also hosts prayer spaces. But this argument raises an interesting discussion of the embedding of ideology within architecture. These critics bring up the “disguising” of Islamic ideology within a building as if it’s something new or shocking. The truth is that ideology is present within any piece of architecture. Charlemagne appropriated the vocabulary of classical architecture for Aachen to “disguise” his own new empire in the majesty of the Romans’s. The White House’s neoclassical architectural mode “disguises” itself within the aesthetics of the Greek and Roman governmental systems that provided the basis for our own politics, a (relatively) new power establishing itself visually. Take even New York City’s Freedom Towers: though generally agreeable, the monolithic, monumental towers stand for a specific ideology of comeback and reconstruction after 9/11.

It might be offensive to some that Park51 is so close to Ground Zero, as opposed to a gentleman’s club or an off-track betting parlor; that’s a matter of personal opinion. But to take offense at the fact that it appropriates today’s mainstream architectural language is to take offense at architecture and art itself. Appropriation is the way things work!

Park51 might look more like a condo than a mosque, but… 1. It’s not a mosque, and 2. We don’t live in the 16th century. Religious buildings today take on manifold forms; Islamic structures are no different. When Ghani writes, “As a Muslim, I take no pleasure in stating that I see no part of myself in what the Park51 initiative has become.” Decrying the specific architecture of Park51 seems to deny the possibilities that religions are also pluralistic. Aisha seems to miss the point, concluding the article with, “I cannot, in good conscience, accept or reproduce this caricature as Truth.” Architecture as caricature, now that’s funny.

The White House (via Esquire.com)
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