The future of Islamic architecture


Certain architectural features have become fixed and eternal. In this modern world, they help us find our architectural roots and remain true to our identity.

Almost every architectural structure addresses, in a direct sense, cultural identity and philosophy within a physical context.

If we want to understand, appreciate, and evaluate the architectural quality of a building, we need to develop a sense of dimension, topography, climate, material, structure, and proportion, and of the surrounding physical environment — both natural and human-made. This sense goes far beyond the building's ability to serve utilitarian needs.

The Islamic world — and the Middle East in particular — is undergoing a transformation today unprecedented in its history, writes architect Garry Martin in the essay "Building in the Middle East Today — in Search of a Direction." Oil wealth, along with social and political change, have threatened Islamic culture and traditions. This identity crisis is readily apparent in architectural design.

A desire for rapid development, Martin notes, brought to the Middle East the massive importation of Western technology, planning, design and constructional expertise. Many of the new buildings in the Middle East, continues Martin, are direct imitations of Western models that were designed for another culture — and they are creating an alien environment in Islamic communities.

Many Muslim planners and architects are reacting to this invasion of Western culture by reasserting their Islamic heritage. This leads to the questions of just what constitutes Islamic architecture!!! Central to this definition, Martin explains, is the Islamic concept of Unity. Writes Martin:

"The concept of Unity in multiplicity is the determining factor in integrating Islamic societies. Historically the revelation of Islam as expressed by the prophet Mohammed and the Holy Koran brought together the most diverse cultures and peoples from Spain across to India and beyond. The architecture of the Islamic world throughout history adapted and responded to different cultures and existing traditions of buildings without weakening the spiritual essence which was its source of inspiration. Urban centers in Islamic cities evolved over long periods of time with generations of craftsmen whose sensitivity and experience added variety and a diversity of styles to the environment. The traditional Islamic city reflected a unity which related the architecture of the mosque, the madrassa , the souq, palace and the home as a sequence of spaces… The identity of the city lay in the relationship of its elements. These relationships were generated by the harmonizing of the community with the forces acting on it, that enabled the interaction of cultures, building methods and methods to evolve an Islamic identity in the same way a language maintains its own identity even when it absorbs outside words."

Islamic architecture was in harmony with the people, their environment and their Creator, Martin adds. Yet no strict rules were applied to govern Islamic architecture. The great mosques of Cordoba, Edirne and Shah Jahan each used local geometry, local materials, local building methods to express in their own ways the order, harmony and unity of Islamic architecture. When the major monuments of Islamic architecture are examined, Martin writes, they reveal complex geometrical relationships, a studied hierarchy of form and ornament, and great depths of symbolic meaning.

But in the 20th century, the Islamic concepts of unity, harmony and continuity often are forgotten in the rush for industrial development. Martin lists three directions contemporary Islamic architecture has taken.

  1. One approach is to completely ignore the past and produce Western-oriented architecture that ignores the Islamic spirit and undermines traditional culture.
  2. The opposite approach involves a retreat, at least superficially, to the Islamic architectural past. This can result in hybrid buildings where traditional facades of arches and domes are grafted onto modern high-rises.
  3. A third approach, Martin notes, is to understand the essence of Islamic architecture and to allow modern building technology to be a tool in the expression of this essence. Writes Martin, "Architects working today can take advantage of opportunities that new materials and mass production techniques offer. They have an opportunity to explore and transform the possibilities of the machine age for the enrichment of architecture in the same way that craftsmen explored the nature of geometrical and arabesque patterns…"

The forms that would evolve from this approach, adds Martin, would have a regional identity, a stylistic evolution and a relevance to the eternal principles of Islam.

In the Islamic and Arabic world, we find great architects such as: Hassan Fat'hyis arguing for the nobility and wisdom of vernacular architecture in the face of imported models that are alien to Islamic society. Moreover, there is Rifat Chadirjiwhose entire life has been dedicated to the search for a suitable contemporary architectural expression that is inspired by the authentic heritage of his region. These, and many more such as: Basil Al-Bayyati, and Abdel Wahed El Wakilare the gladiators in the arena of competing concepts of architecture in the Muslim world. They have contributed significantly to the evolving patterns of the built environment, to the intellectual debate prevailing in the Muslim world, and to the architectural profession's image of its role as articulator and promulgator of societal values.


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