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Ground zero tolerance

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In what is arguably its most important piece of programming this year, the Architecture Foundation last month took on the significance of mosques in the ‘contemporary western city’

Over two days, eight speakers dipped their toes in the water of this complex subject, one that quickly escapes the traditional confines of architectural discourse. A lecture kicked it off, with a symposium the next day.

Headlining the Faith in the City lecture was Michel Abboud of Soma Architects, with the experienced seat of Ziauddin Sardar in the chair. Abboud is the architect behind the $120m so-called ‘mosque on Ground Zero’, Sardar has written extensively on identity and the future of Islam.

One religious building, one national controversy

Abboud was still reeling from months of media brouhaha that had engulfed his project, besieging him and his developer, Sharif El-Gamal, in a controversy that divided the nation. Barack Obama supported the project, fighting in favour of religion’s right to practise. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg reminded citizens that ‘government should never – never – be in the business of telling people how or where they should pray’.

Not everyone agreed, believing to build an Islamic institution so close to the site of mass murder by Islamic extremists would be imprudent, or as Sally Regenhard, whose 28-year-old >> son died on 9/11, quoted in the New York Times, put it: ‘sacrilege on sacred ground’.

To other commentators, the siting of the building of the Islamic centre is a conscious and aggressive land grab by Islamists who threaten the nation, rather than (as the group behind the mosque have argued), the actions of a moderate group of Muslims. Right-wing commentator Pamela Geller, noted darkly on her Atlas Shrugged blog that the building’s facade appears to show ‘tumbling’ Stars of David – an observation not lost on Zionists and conspiracy theorists alike.

Accusations and counter-accusations flew. Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn invoked Pope John-Paul II’s intervention to close a convent in Auschwitz, claiming the circumstances were analogous. The wife of the mosque’s Imam-to-be told ABC’s This Week news programme she’d received death threats. All was not pretty.

The designs

Against this background, it was a coup for the Architecture Foundation that the first place Michel Abboud gave a detailed project run-through was at their event, at East London’s Rich Mix.

Abboud had a cocky, relaxed presence; dressed in a black suit and an unbuttoned black shirt that showed the occasional flash of gold chain, he started his lecture with some myth-busting. ‘This is not a mosque’. Or at least, not just a mosque: it’s a 15-storey Islamic cultural centre, providing the type of municipal areas – crêches, basketball courts, swimming pools – that the American state doesn’t normally lay on. A similar setup, if you like, as the YMCA or Jewish cultural centres around Manhattan that serve the same purpose. Oh, and there are some prayer spaces; the mosque bit.

It’s not on Ground Zero, either. It’s two-and-a-half blocks away, with no direct sightline to the site. That said, it was close enough – in a macabre reminder of the grim facts of 9/11 – for one of the hijacked plane’s landing gear to hit the roof of the building that previously occupied the plot.

What he showed was a 15-storey insertion to a city block whose one open facade is a crystalline skin doubled up as a structure. Conspicuous minarets and the ‘stereotypical elements of the mosque’ were out and the religious functions limited to the bottom two floors. In the Q&A session, someone queried this arrangement, but Abboud countered that the practicalities of 1,500 people’s egress five times a day meant that taking them all up several storeys was a nonstarter. Sadar asked whether Abboud thought it would have garnered the same level of opposition had it looked ‘like a Pizza Hut’. Yes he said, though interestingly, much of the opprobrium tailed off after images were released in early October: ‘People fear most what they don’t know’.

‘Why fall into the apologetic trap by not calling it a mosque?’, one audience member asked. ‘In a post 9/11 discourse,’ Abboud said ‘I don’t think it’s a failure to change name from Islamic Cultural Centre to Park 51’. He came across as well-meaning and expedient, but uncomfortable with the supernatural religious stuff. Someone from the Rich Mix wondered how much the building’s ‘very beautiful aesthetic’ would allow for ‘robust cultural exchange’.

The symposium

The discussion was diffuse and wide-ranging. Foreign Architects of Switzerland gave an engaging presentation of its post-minaret-ban ideas competition for an Islamic centre in Zurich. Ali Mangera, founder of Mangera Yvars Architects, gave an account of the media storm that whipped up when his practice’s proposal for a ‘mega-mosque’ was leaked; a reminder that the USA does not have a monopoly on Islam-related furores. One architect remarked to me that one of the reasons British architects are becoming more interested in mosque design is because it’s one of the few uninvestigated building types growing in the UK.

Sardar closed the symposium, acknowledging that, frustratingly, the day’s debate hadn’t really engaged with the wider, ongoing discussion around secularism and religion’s relationship with the state. These are crucial issues which are rarely tackled outside academic journals – and it’s the lack of consensus or clarity around these, that means, I would argue, that the debate becomes so heated so quickly.

In the rush to celebrate our shared humanity and avoid conflict, a common stance is to downplay the strongly-held beliefs of one group – in the context of religion, to pretend that they’re not really that religious. Often this comes from discomfit with the fact that elements of religious groups within a society cannot fail to come into conflict with the state. French political theorist Cécile Laborde argues that many Western societies have an implicit status-quo bias, and are not historically neutral to all religions. This happened in England with Irish-Catholic immigrants in the 19th century and is happening now with home-grown Muslim extremists.

This line of argument isn’t recoursing to a confrontational clash-of-civilisations-type discourse of the type Samuel Huntington espouses. Rather, it’s pointing to a basic political problem; one that needs to be acknowledged and discussed, with the aim to find the best way of ensuring a peaceful, mutually beneficial solution. Britain is a reasonably good place to discuss this – its multicultural approach is simultaneously preferable, but frustratingly unstated and undiscussed in comparison with France’s hard-line, but simple approach of secularism and laïcité. ■

A publication that documents Faith in the City events will be out in February 2011

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