Why a Mosque?

Volume 48, Issue 3 :: By Daniel Davis, AIA, LEED AP

Using the building type as a pedagogical design education tool.

E. Kelsy Wisniewski

Design for a mosque by E. Kelsy Wisniewski for a site in Montreal creates a glowing jewel box on the street.

The University of Hartford’s Master of Architecture program, accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) is required to demonstrate that each graduate possesses the knowledge and skills defined by the NAAB’s Student Performance Criteria. Two of these criteria are “History and Global Culture” and “Cultural Diversity and Social Equity,” in which students are expected to demonstrate an understanding of cultural norms and the diverse needs, values, behavioral norms, and social and spatial patterns of different cultures and individuals. For nearly a decade, one way we have addressed these criteria in our fall semester second-year graduate design studio is for students to research, program, and design an Islamic Community Center, which includes among other things, a mosque. This project provides a unique educational opportunity in many ways, requiring the students to understand and appreciate how architecture should reflect not only its place, program, client, budget, and time, and also the politically and emotionally sensitive issues it can evoke.

E. Kelsy Wisniewski

E. Kelsy Wisniewski’s design of the prayer hall encompasses a glass box within a surrounding decorative scrim.

Hartford’s student population is diverse, including native and international students of many faiths and cultures; typically there is only a small number of Muslim students. The majority of the students have little if any exposure to the Muslim faith and people, so there is a great deal of research to do on this six-week-long, challenging design project. In an effort to keep the project fresh, we have used different sites, which all encompass different issues. Sites have varied from New York City and the Park51 Islamic community center, to Hartford in the shadow of the state capitol, to Montreal, Quebec, in residential and downtown locations.

Kayla Verbitsky

Prayer hall in a mosque designed by Kayla Verbitsky is naturally illuminated through the cutout text of the Qur’an.

We kickoff the project by visiting a mosque at the Islamic Association of Greater Hartford in the nearby Connecticut town of Berlin for a tour of their recently built facility and the Friday afternoon prayer. For many students this is the first time that they have visited an Islamic center or mosque. One year a student initially refused to go inside, but eventually changed his mind and joined the other students. We are always greeted with a smile from Dr. Ali Antar, who is a terrific host and able to explain things about the facility and its function to the students with a friendly manner and a great sense of humor. We are eventually separated into two groups, male and female, remove our shoes, and are directed to our appropriate prayer spaces to observe the prayer ceremony, which is presented in a mix of English and Arabic. The students learn that Muslims do not worship a different God, that Allah is simply the Arabic word for God with an identical name in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; consequently Allah is the same God worshiped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The students also recognize that the Muslim prayer hall, even though it is deliberately quite bare and has different proportions, resembles the prayer spaces of other faiths. Their reaction to the visit is always that they feel welcomed and comfortable within the facility, and by the people they meet and speak with.

Kayla Verbitsky

Kayla Verbitsky’s mosque design for a site in Montreal is snuggly integrated with the site.

We then visit the Islamic Study Center at the Hartford Seminary, where we receive an informative presentation from Dr. Yahya Michot, professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations. Michot is an Islamic Scholar and a convert to Islam himself. He presents and discusses a great many mosque structures, from the ancient to the new, around the world. The students are always impressed by his knowledge, especially when he notes that he only presents mosque structures that he has visited. He’s clearly an expert on Islamic architecture, but more specifically on mosque architecture and design.

This past year we were blessed with the opportunity to include Dr. Tammy Gaber, MRAIC, assistant professor at the Laurentian University School of Architecture, of Sudbury, Ontario, an expert on gender issues in mosques, and she shared her paper with the class, “Beyond the Divide: Women’s Spaces in Canadian Mosques.” Gaber’s research raised many interesting issues with the students regarding how the genders are often treated differently in Islamic centers and mosque structures. Gaber also participated on the final design competition and design reviews.

Anthony Papa

Design for an Islamic Center of Greater Hartford, by Anthony Papa, uses a central minaret as a landmark.
The project won a 2014 Faith & Form/IFRAA Award for Student Work.

Prior to developing the project program of required spaces and their sizes, the students continue their preparation by researching and analyzing the following: Islamic and mosque architecture, elements, and decoration; other Islamic community center and mosque precedents; green and sustainable opportunities (the designs strive for LEED Silver certification); the historical/political/emotional context of the site; the location of other religious structures near the site; local planning and zoning requirements; views both to and from the site; adjacent street elevations; climatic influences; prevailing winds; sun/shade/shadow studies; site access by foot/car/truck; and local area public transportation both above and below grade. The students also build a physical scale model and a computer-generated digital model of the site and surrounding neighborhood.

Anthony Papa

Rendering of Anthony Papa’s Islamic Center of Greater Hartford demonstrates how the building rises to welcome visitors.

The project is assigned in early November, has a preliminary review in early December, and is due in mid-December. All students are required to exhibit their projects in the architecture gallery at the University of Hartford’s Harry Jack Gray Center for other architecture students and faculty to view. The students then present their projects to a diverse group of invited architecture and expert jurors. The day ends with the announcement of awards given to the three best projects—prizes generously sponsored by the Greater Hartford Islamic Coalition.

Over the years the projects have exhibited a great sense of cultural awareness and empathy, are varied in their design, but always sensitive to the discussion, controversy, issues, and phobias that come with this building type and this type of assignment. The students approach the project as a community center with a prayer hall or as an Islamic study center with a restaurant, and not solely as a mosque. Some open the prayer space to views by people visiting the facility or just passing by, in an attempt to remove the sense of secrecy and to demonstrate that Muslims worship very much like those of the other Abrahamic faiths. I find it interesting that it is typically impossible to identify a project designed by an Islamic student from one designed by a non-Muslim student.

After the reviews are complete, many of the jurors share their thoughts with the guests and students. To our surprise, we’ve learned that architecture can indeed successfully deal with politically and emotionally sensitive issues. We see firsthand how the effort to inform and educate the students in the early weeks of the project allows them to grow and mature as architectural designers, and to appreciate the power of architecture to address sensitive political and cultural issues. I am equally certain that, thanks to this project, our students grow in their understanding of diverse global, cultural, and social issues.