You are on page 1of 8

Amir Pasic: Islamic Architecture - Past and Present

ISLAMIC ARCHITECTURE: PAST AND PRESENT


Objective of this text is to put more light to the contemporary situation as well as the attempt
to bridge the gap between past and present in theory and practice of urban and architectural
development.
The manifestations of Islamic architecture are not based on explicit formal prescriptions and
have varied considerably from period to period and from region to region, which has given rise
to the provocative thesis that there is no such thing as "Islamic Architecture". Yet from an early
point in history (about the 9th/10th century AD onwards) there is a specific Islamic quality
which becomes apparent in every appropriation and adaptation of pre-existing architectural
and artistic heritage.
The respective regional styles of Islamic architecture are not necessarily linked by formal
resemblances, but they show inner affinities which are clearly based on related customs,
patterns of use and corresponding structuring principles.
This "common denominator" draws on various sources: there are, for instance, socio-economic
factors, certain climatic conditions, and vernacular building techniques shared by many regions
of the Islamic world.
The strength of Islamic architecture has arisen not only from the inherent cultural values of the
societies that generated it, but also from the fact that Islam has adapted itself in interacting
with other cultures as it has spread.
But above all, there is on unmistakably Islamic character that can only be attributed to a
prevailing spiritual identity, as materialized through a consistent daily practice and the
corresponding built environment.
Similarly to other ancient traditions, Islam has developed and maintained a set of ritualized
patterns of human behavior which embraced all aspects of daily life, on the individual as well as
the collective level, permeating man's activities with constant references to an acknowledged
religious truth.
In the traditional Islamic context, the divine order was a commonly accepted reality and
accordingly, the given system of daily rituals was capable of infusing meaning and consistency
to every single human activity. As vernacular architecture is a relatively direct spatial
crystallization of man's thinking and behavior, the built form could hardly remain unaffected by
this cultural coherency. The real source of the inner unity of Islamic architecture, therefore, has
to be sought in the realm of such pre-formal archetypes and not in ephemeral stylistic features.

Amir Pasic: Islamic Architecture - Past and Present

What strikes most Western observers is the fact that the basic factors and patterns of Islamic
life should have been subject to relatively little change throughout the various historical
periods.
Despite the development of a sophisticated civilization during the first two centuries, Islam as a
religious and social order has always maintained a certain archaic simplicity. Its way of life
remained faithful to the original modes of human behavior defined by the first nucleus of the
Muslim community in Medina.
As a result, divergent historic perspectives emerged in East and West: one could say that the
evolution of Islamic culture proceeded along circular or spiral patterns, maintaining a
permanent relation to its spiritual centre of gravity. In contrast, European civilization after the
"Renaissance" (and especially since the 19th century) adopted a linear path of development,
determined by the underlying utopia of man-made progress towards "the best of all possible
worlds".
Both perspectives obviously implied different basic assumptions, and thus they elicited
contradictory philosophies of life as well as different modes of architectural expression. While it
is impossible to weigh the achievements of a secular and rather single minded technological
progress against the benefits of a spiritually determined, more comprehensive (and arguably
more realistic) tradition, it should be emphasized that both attitudes build on their own set of
criteria, and that confusing the respective parameters will not result in adequate approaches,
let alone judgments.
Given the special nature of Islamic art and architecture, its essential qualities seem inaccessible
to certain modes of interpretation used by conventional Western art history, which, being
geared to other types of artistic expression, are often obsessed with analyzing external stylistic
development. Such an approach is bound to reiterate the ideological prejudices of positivism,
which has informed many aspects of Western science over the past 300-400 years but has little
or no affinity with the essential shaping forces of traditional art and architecture.
Understanding these forces requires a different approach, based on the identification and
interpretation of cultural archetypes, their meaning and their formal variations through time
and space.
Acknowledging that the traditional formal structures of Islam - be it in the arts, in architecture
or in urban texture - represent significant crystallizations of non-material contents is the basis
for the morphological analysis of the historic built environment.
Yet the some approach also proves useful when it comes to analyzing the contemporary
problems resulting from the pre-industrial Islamic city being confronted with modern Western
concepts of life. Indeed, it would be wrong to reduce this conflict to the aesthetic or functional
dimensions of town planning, for the introduction of new architectural models into a different
cultural context has a far-reaching impact. It cannot be limited to isolated "formal" or

Amir Pasic: Islamic Architecture - Past and Present

"technical" problems, but has to address aspects of local customs, human behavior and, above
all, the meaning of architectural forms as perceived by their users.
The cloned Western type of development has produced the well known architectural disruption
in the physical environment of many Islamic cities. Historic cities are not to be considered as a
museum type heritage, but as a formidable cultural resource capable of regeneration and
renewal.
This text is aiming to the explain the (potential) continuity, both by analyzing and interpreting
basic urban and architectural patterns and by exemplifying how some of them can be adopted
or re-interpreted in a contemporary context. With today's rapidly shrinking geographical
barriers, the survival of the Islamic architectural heritage has become a universal concern which
can and should be shared by Westerners.
If there is such a thing as cultural solidarity and acknowledgement of timeless values, the
relative distance of a foreign eye, combined with the necessary empathy for the subject, may
be of help in unraveling complex problems which tend to appear even more confusing to those
directly involved in the matter. An external observer certainly runs the risk of oversimplification, yet given the present impact of an aggressive type of modernization, he has the
advantage of having already experienced the results of a process which is now finding its way
into the Islamic world.
Faiths are central to people's personal and social lives and behavior. Architecture constitutes
only a part of their role in the cultural sphere. It is necessary to look further into the matter in
order to understand the phenomenon of what is called 'Islamic architecture'.
Traditionally, the architecture developed within the context of the Muslim faith is effective as
an important aspect of culture, defining and determining how people live and relate to each
other and to their urban environment. The impassable, almost exclusive, privacy of the home
and its strictly controlled access and visibility from the public realm of the town is perhaps a
basic issue that defines all urban architecture.
Furthermore, while certain common measures are required to provide comfortable and
habitable spaces for the climatic conditions that prevail in almost all Arabic Muslim
communities, we must not forget that only 15% of Muslims are Arabs and live in hot, arid
climates. Therefore it would be wrong to claim the validity of a universal Islamic architecture, or
to base this claim exclusively on Arab architecture.
At the level of artistry, engineering and sophistication, the development of architecture in
Islamic cultures through history has been comparable with the best of accomplishments
elsewhere in the world. The most revered Renaissance architecture of the West finds its
counterpart in the Islamic world.

Amir Pasic: Islamic Architecture - Past and Present

The strength of Islamic architecture has arisen not only from the inherent cultural values of the
societies that generated it, but also from the fact that Islam has adapted itself in interacting
with other cultures as it has spread. Noteworthy examples of such interaction are the interface
between the Ottomans and the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire and the indigenous local
cultures of today's Middle East with what preceded them. These exchanges have been in the
total realm of cultural transformation that did not exclude architectural expressions. In the
contemporary world of Islam, the same interaction is even more strongly obvious.
Islamic world and modernity
Modernity as a way of life, and Modernism as an architectural revolution have affected lives
and cultural expressions worldwide, and cultures under Islam have naturally not been
indifferent to these changes. Modernist architecture demanded simple, functional, industrially
producible, sub lime and honest expressions in built form.
With the pervasive use of reinforced concrete, which became abundant and inexpensively
available, whole townscapes changed all over the world. In countries where building activity
was regulated, this did not necessarily disfigure the environment with buildings devoid of any
architectural value or significance.
Even though it is unfair to blame Modernism for the worldwide spread of uniform, tedious and
uninteresting buildings and urban environments built mainly for profit, Modernism has been se
en by many to promulgate a set of values and premises that fails to respect cultural identity,
historical continuity and climatic relevance.
The reaction against Modernism has taken many forms. Postmodernism was short-lived. Unlike
Modernism, which expressed itself in many fields, including painting, sculpture, music, dance
and industry, Postmodernism emerged within architecture and spread to other fields rather
thinly, most notably literature, which it enhanced to a high degree. The Postmodern movement
was endlessly preoccupied with superficial reflection of meaning, historical references and
personal expression.
Alternatively, the 'architecture of freedom' became a widespread denial of any form of control.
It was a denial of political and planning control over building practices by people who took the
initiative to solve their own housing problems. Modern architecture's failure to deal with
demand found its catchphrase 'Freedom to build'.
The most serious of the reactions against Modernism, is 'vernacularism'. Of the many aspects
that have placed vernacularism critically at the centre of architectural theory, the most
important are research into vernacular architecture and the revitalization of traditional building
practices.

Amir Pasic: Islamic Architecture - Past and Present

Needs to preserve history of place


Fast-growing cities have exerted enormous pressure on the historical fabric of their old towns
by adopting cheap and inferior construction techniques with little concern for urban planning
and development. Subsequently, new, fleeting and underprivileged groups have moved to
these areas. Traditionally, such populations have had a lesser sense of a 'history of place' in
urban areas and fewer economic means to cope with the deterioration of the historical
heritage.
At the same time, many international agencies whose mandate has been to conserve the
historical heritage have been primarily preoccupied with monuments; they did not pay
particular attention to the urban fabric of old towns until as late as the 1970s. In many cities,
historical housing exists alongside monuments, forming a rich and varied urban fabric, but one
that is fragile. Revitalization requires not only architectural restoration but also social and
economic infrastructure to ensure the survival and vitality Housing has always been a central
concern in architecture, and there has been a vast and increasing demand for new housing.
Public architecture, especially of the mosque, should be viewed at many complex levels, and
the different approaches that reflect the spirit of Islam and its temporal and geographic
plurality need to be identified. There are many solutions and architectural expressions,
including those that continue vernacular traditions, those that express popular tastes, those
that offer classical reinterpretations and those that represent modern creativity.
A commitment to ensuring the continuing relevance of building traditions has not been limited
to revitalizing historical buildings and urban fabric. Encouragement of vernacular building types
and technologies that have been developed and transferred from one generation to the next
also secures the continuity of building traditions.
Structural conflicts between traditional Islamic concepts and modern Western planning
methods
Islam is more than an abstract ethical system, as it involves an entire social order and has
developed pragmatic rules of conduct which permeate all aspects of daily life.
It may be exaggerated to speak of uniform Muslim living patterns, but it is also clear that
without concordant (or at least compatible) social practices, Islam is bereft of its cultural
shaping forces.
Western science, technology and political systems with their values are divorced from deeper
existential realities and therefore unable to provide meaningful directions for human conduct,
let alone the spiritual dimension which a civilization needs in order to project cultural identity
and to sustain sensible modes of human interaction.

Amir Pasic: Islamic Architecture - Past and Present

No real dialogue between the two world views can be established unless this change of
paradigms, with all its implications, is clarified and evaluated in the light of overriding cultural
objectives.
Modern movements brought a set of differences in the field of: Development, Economy,
Community Structures and Institutions, Planning, Circulation, Urban Form, Architectural form
and Aesthetics. We will discuss a few of them.
Different concepts of urban form
The two most reliable indicators of good urban form are the degree of integration of individual
architectural components and, corollary to that, the successful interaction between buildings
and open spaces within the overall built environment.
Many of its urban design schemes resemble mere blow-ups of abstract master plan diagrams,
and therefore transmit the corresponding limitations to the built environment, producing
seemingly functional but mostly lifeless shadow-schemes of urban form.
Perhaps the most emblematic expression of this impoverishment can be seen in Le Corbusier's
concept of the "Radiant City".
Functionalism became a springboard for speculative development trends, which were not in
the least concerned with social and environmental qualities.
The urban form of most traditional Muslim cities follows rules which are diametrically opposed
to those of the "Radiant City". Due to the interdependence between actors, activities and space
definition, every place in the Muslim world has its specific significance within the semiotic
system of the town.
Different concepts of architectural form
The Modern Movement tended to design buildings in a vacuum and to produce isolated blocks
floating in an abstract urban space emptied of all its essential qualities. Individual buildings do
not contribute to a meaningful definition of public open space, as related to corresponding
community activities.
Traditional Muslim architecture used to work on different premises altogether: buildings were
not conceived as detached "objects" but as living architectural shells, shaped according to the
internal needs of distinct social micro-units and responding to the enclosed activities.
To experience a building, one has to enter and to apprehend it from within, which corresponds
to the Islamic concept of sacred privacy and relative autonomy of each social unit. Being
enveloped by omnipresent architectural enclosures, one always feels being at the centre,
wherever one may stand. Buildings exude a definite sense of place and identity, and provide
the users with a feeling of security, peace and equilibrium.

Amir Pasic: Islamic Architecture - Past and Present

Conventional modern building technologies almost invariably fail to provide the type of built
environment which could match the sophisticated visual reference system of traditional Muslim
architecture.
Their shortcomings become apparent once new buildings are inserted into the historic
structures of Muslim cities. Since the design criteria, starting with access, street orientation,
contextual factors, etc., are fundamentally different, the replacement of traditional courtyard
houses with modern blocks inevitably leads to disruption and the progressive destruction of the
traditional urban fabric.
Apart from the typological incompatibilities, modern Western architecture also shows a lack of
consideration for local building technologies, due to its bias towards heavy industrial means of
environmental control.
In order to sustain and take advantage of the traditional know-how new models of built form
and of direct interaction with the traditional modes of building need to be established.
Different concepts of aesthetics
Accepting the traditional notion that beauty should be "the reflection of truth", one will find
that different ideals of beauty correspond to different concepts of truth. In Modern-Movement
architecture, truth is mainly sought with regard to material factors, and therefore the goal is to
display the construction system, to express the dynamic of structural forces and to expose
building materials in a straightforward way.
The intimate connection between Islamic architecture and fine arts was supported by the fact
that the main means of artistic expression, i.e. calligraphy, geometric patterns and the
arabesque, were surface-related and therefore suitable to fully merge with the planes of floors,
walls or ceilings which were to carry their message.
During the last century, there have been many attempts to combine modern Western building
structures with Islamic ornamental features. All attempts to capture or resuscitate the spirit of
Islamic art and architecture therefore need to consider their complete philosophical and
environmental implications, rather than dealing with certain isolated stylistic aspects.
Towards reconciling tradition and modernity
We believe that the young generation of Muslim intellectuals and decision-makers will be
discerning and critical enough with respect to the crucial issues of cultural transformation and
evolution. Western tools and methods through a selective process of adaptation and gradual
integration should be followed, guided by a strong awareness of existing local values and by an
informed evaluation of the successes and failures of modern development trends. History is
repeating itself: the Islamic world had achieved ten centuries ago a valuable synthesis in the
contacts of different cultures.

Amir Pasic: Islamic Architecture - Past and Present

The future shape of cities and individual buildings in the Islamic world will tell to what extent
such a synthesis is feasible and whether the impact of omnipresent modernization trends still
allows for local identities to be maintained, strengthened and developed.
Museum of Islamic Art in Doha a possible approach to design in the Islamic context
Architect I. M. Pei explained his approach to design of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha
(2009) as a creative reinterpretation of one famous Islamic architectural achievement: Ibn
Tulun Mosque in Cairo. "I began to understand why I felt that Cordoba was not truly
representative of the essence I was seeking. It is too lush and colorful. If one could find the
heart of Islamic architecture, might it not lie in the desert, severe and simple in its design,
where sunlight brings forms to life? I was finally coming closer to the truth, and I believe I found
what I was looking for in the mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun in Cairo (876-879). The small
ablutions fountain surrounded by double arcades on three sides, a slightly later addition to the
architecture, is an almost Cubist expression of geometric progression from the octagon to the
square and the square to the circle.
It is no accident that Le Corbusier learned much from the architecture of the Mediterranean
and the architecture of Islam. This severe architecture comes to life in the sun, with its shadows
and shades of color. I had at last found what I came to consider to be the very essence of
Islamic architecture in the middle of the mosque of Ibn Tulun." The relationship between the
final form of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha and the high domed ablution fountain (sabil)
erected in the central courtyard of the Ibn Tulun Mosque in the thirteenth century is clear, even
if the scale of the Pei building is much larger. I. M. PEl
The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha contrasts with the use of decorative patterns and forms
employed by Pei inside the building. Aside from the rather elaborate metal entrance canopy,
the building is essentially planar. Pei exploited the remarkable variety of shapes and light that
can be derived from an assemblage of triangles. On the basis of a simple geometric form, he
created a spatial complexity, tunnels and a central atrium, that announces a modernity that has
gone beyond Modernism. "I remained faithful to the inspiration I had found in the mosque of
Ibn Tulun, derived from its austerity and simplicity," he says. "It was this essence that I
attempted to bring forth in the desert sun of Doha. It is the light of the desert that transforms
the architecture into a play of light and shadow. My design has only one major window - it is
forty-five-meters high and faces the Arabian Gulf. One must admit that I have allowed myself
another subjective decision, which was based on my feeling that Islamic architecture often
comes to life in an explosion of decorative elements, such as in the courtyard of the Umayyad
Mosque in Damascus, or the interior of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (687 -691), for
example.
Generating new architectural languages should have key characteristics which may be
summarized as creative synthesis an ingenious translation of form and techniques based on
ingenious prototypes, use of appropriate contemporary technology and local materials,
environmental awareness, and an effortless combination of system and functions.
8