Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Edirne Old Mosque

This is one of the earliest Ottoman mosques in Turkey (completed in 1414 under Mehmet I). It is located east of the square, On Talatpasa Street just past the still functioning Bedesten Bazaar. It’s interesting because Edirne is on the European side, but was conquered before Constantinople, which fell in 1453.

The construction of the Old Mosque of Edirne began in 1402 by order of Emir Suleyman and was completed under the rule of his brother Mehmed I in 1414. The inscriptive plaque above its western portal gives the name of the architect, Haji Alaeddin of Konya and the builder, Omer bin Ibrahim. Built as a Friday Mosque in the market neighborhood of Edirne, the mosque took on its current name following the completion of the new Üç Serefeli Mosque in 1447. The Old Mosque was restored by Mahmud I in 1753 following damage by earthquake and by fire a few years earlier. More recently, the mosque was restored between 1924 and 1934 and in 1965 after the 1953 earthquake.

The mosque is composed of a square prayer hall, 49.5 meters per side, preceded by a five bay portico to the north. The prayer hall is divided into nine equal bays -three rows of three- by the four large piers at the center that support heavy pointed arches carrying the nine domes. The center bay of the northernmost row serves as the court of entry behind the main entrance and is crowned with a lantern above the oculus of its dome. Domes along the longitudinal axis are raised on octagonal drums; the transition to dome, achieved with simple pendentives on the six other domes. The central bay of portico, similarly, is highlighted with a dome and raised cornice among the cross-vaulted side bays. A marble door frame, bearing the inscriptive plaque of the 1753 restoration, occupies the central arch. The row of faucets covered with canopy outside the portico are a contemporary addition.

The interior of the mosque is adorned with painted decoration and large works of calligraphy dating from the second half of the 19th century. The stone mihrab and mimber remain despite damage by fire. The mihrab is unique with its small muqarnas niche placed inside the primary niche. Calligraphic decoration is also employed on the northern façade flanking the marble frame of the muqarnas portal. The fall of terrain west is compensated with a cascade of steps leading up to the western portal, known as the Kuyumcular Kapisi or the Jewelers’ Portal, ornamented with red and white voussoirs on its double arch. The mosque originally had a single minaret rising from the northeast corner of the prayer hall with steps beginning inside the eastern portal. A taller minaret was added outside the northwest corner by Murad II. The construction of the building is cut stone with the exception of the porch, added in brick and stone at a later time.

Jumma Masjid , Ahmedabad

Year of construction: 1430-1440 AD.
Established by: Sultan Mehmood Beghara

Located in Mizapur on the Northern side of the Ahmedabad city, Rani Rupmati mosque is one the ancient mosques of the city. It was built by Sultan Mehmood Beghara. Named after Rani Rupmati, the wife of Sultan, the mosque was constructed during 1430-1440 AD.

This mosque is a shining example of an architecture that is a combination of both Hindu and Muslim Styles. Some of the features that best describe the Rani Roopmati mosque of Ahmedabad, Gujarat are impressive domes, carved galleries and tall minarets. The mosque consists of three domes that are duly supported by pillars. The dome that lies in the central position illuminates the mosque with natural light.

The structural design of the Rani Rupmati mosque of Ahmedabad represents a blend of Hindu and Muslim architecture and this is what makes it stand out above all others. Due to the natural calamity that affected the Ahmedabad city in the year 1818, the mosque lost one of its minarets. The ceiling of the dome is beautified with the Hindu style patterns. The prayer hall of the mosque is of great aesthetic value, consisting of exquisite carvings.

Assyafaah Mosque, Singapore

Designed by Tan Kok Hiang and Forum Architects, this building provides a boldly modern face to Islam by creatively re-interpreting the traditional form of the arabesque – a universally recognizable symbol of Islamic Art and Architecture. Contemporary materials such as fair-faced concrete and aluminum (for the intricate arabesque screens) are used to dramatic effect.

The domeless four-story mosque stands in a neighborhood of highrise residential buildings on the north side of the island. Tropical climatic conditions were not the architects’ only concern when they started designing the mosque for the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS).

Project Details

* Project name: Assyafaah Mosque
* Client: Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura
* Calligrapher: Yahiya, Xian China
* Principal designer/s: Tan Kok Hiang
* Contractor/s: Evan Lim Construction Pte. Ltd.


Different cultural ,and back ground of people living in Sharjah city over the years has impacted the urban planning and architecture of the city. This is also reflected in the mosque architecture of Sharjah externally and internally .

The interiors of the mosques reflect huge diversity of application of Islamic patterns used in mosques of various cultural back ground across the Islamic world .

These aspect were discussed in details during the lecture and few recommendations were made for designers to take in their consideration such as :
- Traditional concepts in terms of architecture and interiors need to be revisited and explored interiors from the past developed for future implementation .
- Use of modern concepts and technology in terms of materials ,such as sliding domes , folding umbrellas, and sustainability .

Dr.Abdul samad Alkhalidi
Coordinator of Interior architecture programme

Monday, December 19, 2011

Early Buildings From Mecca and Medina to Omayyad Spain and the Syrian Desert Palaces 640 - 740

The Califs of Medina 640-690

The two large pilgrimage complexes in Medina and Mecca go back to the lifetime of the prophet. They started from humble palm huts where he taught and gave his sermons and have grown into vast structures which artistically own their final form to the Ottomans and the 80 years since 1922.

Medina, Saudi Arabia
al-Masjid al-Nabawi. The Prophet's Mosque and Tomb
622 to the 20th cent
Architect Dar El Handasah

The Mosque of the Prophet was built in 622 by the Muslim community after they reached the city of Yathrib, which would later be called al-Madina al-Muanwara. The mosque was situated next to the Prophet's house, and it consisted of a square enclosure of thirty by thirty-five meters, built with palm trunks and mud walls.

After the death of the Prophet, the mosque was enlarged to twice its size. In 707, by Umayyad Caliph al-Walid (705-715). Mamluk Sultans built the dome over the Prohets house and tomb and built and rebuilt the four minarets. The Ottomans (1517-1917) added and reconstucted the mosque until in the 20th cent the entire complex was remodeled and enlarged. - The mosque enclosure is one hundred times bigger than the first mosque built by the Prophet and can accommodate more than half a million worshippers.

Mecca, Saudi Arabia
al-Masjid al-Haram Great Mosque of al-Haram
1564, 1571-2, modern expansion in 1955

View of the mosque from the east after the first Saudi extension, showing the minarets with two balconies and the four monumental gates.


Yemen is a unique case architecturally. The local vernacular is so strong that the construction of their mosques - among the earliest in Islam - is firstly and lastly influenced by local colors. There is some Omayyad influence in the layout of the Great Mosque, but even the mosques built during the Ottoman reign have a specific Yemen signature.
Sana'a, Yemen

The City

Sana'a is an architectural museum in its own right. Recently restored, its 13th-18th century buildings are unique.

All photos and text from Archnet.org

Sana'a, Yemen
Great Mosque - Jami al-Kabir

According to early sources, Prophet Muhammad commanded the construction of this mosque, including its location and dimensions, sometime around 630. While the validity of this claim lacks evidence and certainty, the mosque remains one of the first architectural projects in Islam. Sometime between 705 and 715, the Umayyid Caliph al-Walid I, rebuilt a new and larger mosque at the site.
Isma`ili Queen Arwa ibn Ahmad (12th cent) initiated an upgrade and restoration of the mosque. Towards this end she rebuilt its eastern wing complete with a new beautifully sculpted ceiling.

Interior with pre-Islamic columns

Coffered wooden ceiling (12th cent)

The following descriptions of later mosques in Sana’a are out of historical order to keep the few pictures of Sana’a together.

Sana'a, Yemen
Imam Salah al-Din Mosque
1390, minaret 16th cent

The Mosque of Imam Salah al-Din is the tomb of Imam Salah al-Din Muhammad. It dates to 1390. The mosque is well-known for its minaret. Constructed in the late 16th century by Ottoman governor Sinan

Sana'a, Yemen
Al-Bakiriyya Mosque

Images and text from Archnet.org

The Mosque of al-Bakiriyya dates to 1597 during the first Ottoman occupation in Yemen. It was built by the governor of Sana'a, Hasan Pasha, as a tribute to one of his friends who is buried next to the mosque. Nearby, off of the public square in front of the citadel gate, Hasan Pasha also commissioned the Baths of al-Bakiriyya. This hammam served as the waqf to provide the income to support the mosque. With its grand size and detailed carved ornamentation, al-Bakiriyya is a spectacular example of classical Ottoman architecture

Ornamented weight tower in the foreground with minaret behind to the right

Floor Plan showing the penditives

Omayyad Syria and Spain 661-750

Overlooking Yemen's Great Mosque, Islamic art-history considers the Dome of the Rock and the Omayyad Mosque of Damascus as the beginning of Islamic Architecture. In a formal sense this is true. The marriage between Byzantine architecture and Islamic needs and tastes took place in Syria and Palestine – and the craftsmen were from Constantinople and Armenia.

A most interisting subject - beyond this investigation - is the refertilization of late Byzantine art by Islamic concepts. For several centuries Islamic forms and designs resurfaced in Christian sacred architecture: the Iconoclast Period in Byzantine art, Norman architecture in Sicily and Apulia, down to the early Gothic cathedrals in Spain and France - not to mention Emperor Frederick II and St. Fancis. - Some Islamic scholars (Idries Shah) maintain that the Gothic masons' lodges were made up of Islamic Sufis from Italy, Spain and Southern France.

The Dome of the Rock, Masjid Qubbat As-Sakhrah
687 – 691

The Dome was built between 687 and 691 by the 9th Caliph, Abd al-Malik, making it the oldest extant Islamic building. It is in the shape of a Byzantine martyrium, a structure intended for the housing and veneration of saintly relics and is an excellent example of middle Byzantine art. During the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520 -1566) the exterior of the Dome of the Rock was covered with Iznik tiles. The work took seven years.
The rock in the center of the dome is the spot from which, according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad ascended for a night-long journey to Heaven in AD 621, accompanied by the archangel Gabriel. It has other connotations to Christians and Jews.
In 1955-1964 an extensive program of renovation was begun by the government of Jordan, with funds supplied by the Arab governments and Turkey. The work included replacement of large numbers of the Iznik tiles. In 1960, as part of this restoration, the dome was covered with a durable aluminium and bronze alloy made in Italy.

Damascus, Syria
The Great Omayyad Mosque

During Roman times the site was a temple of Jupiter which was in the Byzantine era converted into a Christian church dedicated to John the Baptist. The Muslim conquest of Damascus in 636 did not affect the church, as the site was shared by Muslim and Christian worshippers. The Umayyad caliph Al-Walid I purchased the site and demolished the church. He built the present mosque between 706 and 715 with the help of 200 skilled Byzantine workers: including the mosaics in the overlong (136 x 37 m) prayer hall. Most of this interior decoration was lost in a great fire in 1893. The mosaics on the outside are of recent date.
The building is a simple solution of the Islamic need for a space in which all could face Mecca and see the quibbla. It has been copied in a number of places (e.g. the Great Mosque of Diyarbakir, Turkey). Another early scheme to achieve the same goal is the Mesquita in Cordoba, Spain.


Floor plan from Archnet.org

Cordoba, Andalusia
The Great Mosque of Cordoba 785-987

The construction of the Mesquita (originally the Aljama Mosque) took over two centuries, starting in 784 A.D. under the supervision of the first Emir Abd ar-Rahman I, who built it as an adjunct to his palace - and named it in honor of his wife - on the site of the Visigothic cathedral of St. Vincent. The mosque underwent numerous subsequent changes: Abd ar-Rahman III built a new minaret, while Al-Hakem II, in 961, enlarged the plan of the building and enriched the mihrab. The last changes were carried out by Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Amir in 987.

In 1236 Cordoba was captured by King Ferdinand III of Castile. The Mesquita was reconsecrated as a Christian church. Alfonso X oversaw the construction of the Villaviciosa Chapel and the Royal Chapel within the structure of the mosque. The most significant alteration was the construction of a Renaissance cathedral in the middle of the structure by Charles V (1530s). Still this reversion to a Christian church (officially the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin) may have helped to preserve the Mesquita.

The Mesquita is one of the most beautiful sacred spaces in the world, and Charles V's insertion of an entire cathedral only underscores the peace and quiet of the Islamic architecture.

Cordoba, Spain
Medina Azahara (Medinat al-Zahara)

The ruins of al-Zahara near Cordoba were discovered in 1911. Only about 10 percent has been excavated and restored. The city flourished for approximately 80 years. Built by Abd ar-Rahman III the Caliph of Csrdoba starting between 936 and 940. The largest known city built from scratch in Western Europe. Madinat al-Zahra was destroyed in 1010 during the civil war that led to the dissolution of the Caliphate of Cordoba. Abd al-Rahman III moved his entire court to Medina Azahara in 947-48. - Popular legend holds that the Caliph named al-Zahra, or Azahara, after his favorite wife (the Spaniards say concubine).

Omayyad Desert Palaces 7th-8th cent

A special case of Omayyad architecture are the desert palaces of the 7th and 8th century in Syria and Jordan - another stepchild of Islamic architecture – because so little has survived. However, the few surviving examples, mostly in hard-to-access parts of the Syrian desert, are glorious documents of an entirely unexspected joi de vivre of the Omayad Califs - considering the ascetic mind set of early Islam.
I have included a coarse map from Alfred Renz's book and tried to actually place and illustrate as many of them as I could find.

Qasr-ibn Warda, Syria
6th cent

Photo by Forro Tibor from Panoramio.

Qasr ibn Wardan is a mid 6th century castle complex located in the Syrian desert. The complex - a palace, a church, and barracks - was erected by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I as part of a defense line (together with Rasafa and Halabiyya) against the Persians. Its unique style, "imported" directly from Constantinople and not found anywhere else in present day Syria, was probably chosen to impress local Beduin tribes.
Qasr al-Amra, Jordan

Charming, well-preserved small "red castle" built for Omayyad Caliph al-Walid Architecturally the large throne room resembles a 3-nave Byzantine church. Attached are warm- and hot-steam baths. extensive murals - in poor shape - depict Persian Shah Khosrau, the remperor of Byzantium, and other famous rulers of the world (Persian influences?), the colors of the murals remind of those preserved from Dura-Europos (Museum Damascus). The surprise in the nudity-hostile Islamic-Arabic world, are the bathing and pleasure scenes in lovely garden murals: The pleasures of Paradise on this Earth!

Qasr al-Hallabat and Sarakh Baths, Jordan
Omayyad Palace

Originally a Roman fortress constructed under Emperor Caracalla to protect its inhabitants from Bedouin tribes, this site dates to the second and 3rd century AD. It was one fort of many on the Roman highway, Via Nova Traiana, a route that connected Damascus to Aqaba by way of Petra and Amman. In 709 the Umayyad caliph Hisham ordered the Roman structures to be demolished in order to redevelop this military site and its neighboring territory to become one of the grandest of all Umayyad desert complexes.

 Approximately 1400 meters east of the palace stand the remains of the mosque at Qusayr al-Hallabat constructed of layered limestone.
The bath located approximately two kilometers east of the main site is known as Hammam as-Sarakh and consists of a rectangular audience hall, and a bath. It is reminiscent of Qsar 'Amra in plan. From Archnet.org.

Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi

Ruined pleasure castle of Caliph Hisham. The archeological finds including a reconstructed entry gate are in the National Museum of Damascus.

Photo saleem55, Panoramio

Qasr al Hayr ash Sharqi

Impressive ruins of a pleasure castle of Calif Hisham
Photo saleem55, Panoramio

Qasr al-Mshatta, Jordan

As one of the largest and most impressive of the Umayyad palaces, the unfinished, tawny-toned limestone and brick complex at Qasr al-Mshatta includes an entrance hall, a mosque, an audience hall, and residential quarters. Commissioned by Umayyad caliph al-Walid II. Construction concluded in 744 when he was assassinated. "Winter Camp" is a large square "castrum" of 144x144 m wall length.

The most beautiful feature of Mshatta, however, remains in the rich and intricately carved features on its southern exterior, a significant section of which was given to Kaiser Wilhelm as a gift from the Ottoman sultan 'Abd al-Hamid just before World War I . These reconstructed ornamental sculptures from the gates are the piece-de-resistance of the Islamic Museum in Berlin:

The Concept Of Decoration in Islamic architecture

Decoration is a major unifying factor in Islamic architecture and design. For 13 centuries, writes Dalu Jones in a very interesting and informative essay entitled "Surface, Pattern and Light" (in Architecture of the Islamic World, edited by George Michell), decoration has linked buildings and objects from all over the Islamic world -- from Spain to China to Indonesia. Notes Jones, "Islamic art is an art not so much of form as of decorative themes that occur both in architecture and in the applied arts, independently of material, scale and technique. There is never one type of decoration for one type of building or object; on the contrary, there are decorative principles that are pan-Islamic and applicable to all types of buildings and objects at all times (whence comes the intimate relationship in Islam between all the applied arts and architecture). Islamic art must therefore be considered in its entirety because each building and each object embodies to some extent identical principles. Though objects and art differ in quality of execution and style, the same ideas, forms and designs constantly recur." Because little furniture is traditionally used for daily life in Islam, decoration contributes to the creation of a sense of continuous space that is a hallmark of Islamic architecture. Writes Jones, "The layers of surface decoration are increased and the complexity of visual effects enriched by the use of carpets and cushions, which often reflect the same decorative schemes as those found on walls and ceilings. Floors and ceilings contribute to the fluidity of space by the nature of their decoration, since they are often patterned in the same manner as the walls; sometimes, in the case of floors, the decoration actually reproduces carpets. The tomb of I'timad ad-Dawla in Agra, for example, has an inlaid marble floor that exactly reproduces the designs of Mughal carpets."

Jones notes that to the West, Islamic design may seem restricted to two dimensions but that the very character of Islamic design implies three-dimensional possibilities. For example, the interlacing designs, often accompanied by variations in color and texture, create the illusion of different planes. Through the use of reflecting and shining materials and glazes, the repetition of designs, the contrasting of textures and the manipulation of planes, Islamic decoration becomes complex, sumptuous a nd intricate. It is an art of repose, Jones adds, where tensions are resolved. Jones states that, regardless of form, material or scale, this concept of art rests on a basic foundation of calligraphy, geometry and, in architecture, the repetition and multiplication of elements based on the arch. "Allied and parallel to these are floral and figural motifs," Jones writes. "Water and light are also of paramount importance to Islamic architectural decoration as they generate additional layers of patterns and -- just as happens with surface decoration -- they transform space. "Space is defined by surface and since surface is articulated by decoration, there is an intimate connection in Islamic architecture between space and decoration. It is the variety and richness of the decoration, with its endless permutations, that characterizes the buildings rather than their structural elements, which are often disguised. Many devices typical of Islamic architectural decoration -- for example, muqarnas [a honeycomb decoration that can reflect and refract light]-- are explained by a desire to dissolve the barriers between those elements of the buildings that are structural (load-bearing) and those that are ornamental (non-load-bearing)."

Jones points to the Taj Mahal as an example of how the feeling of continuous space is created in Islamic architecture through the multiplication of given patterns and architectural elements. Arches and squinches of different types and scale are employed for both structural and decorative purposes.
"Dominated by the main dome," Jones writes, "each facade of the building has two tiers of three arched niches hollowed out of the principal mass. The portals in the center of each side are but a magnification of these niches. They are in their turn each filled by miniatures of themselves, the muqarnas. The smaller-domed pavilions on the upper part of the building rest on open arches that echo the blind arches of the platforms on which the whole building rests. Each element of the decoration therefore reproduces a structural element....

"Another example of the conceptual basis of much Islamic decoration is given by the floor decoration of the Taj Mahal which, with its rippled effect, suggests that the tomb is set in a tank of water. The decoration... does not imitate the water... in precise details, but it conveys the idea of water... (I)t creates a situation, a 'landscape of the mind,' a subtler environment than any aturalistic rendering."

Elements of Decoration
This section summarizes Jones' list of the elements that make up Islamic decoration,
    Because of its role in recording the word of God, calligraphy is considered one of the most important of the Islamic arts. Nearly all Islamic buildings have some type of surface inscription in the stone, stucco, marble, mosaic and/or painting. The inscription might be a verse from the Qur'an, lines of poetry, or names and dates.
    Like other Islamic decoration, calligraphy is closely linked to geometry. The proportions of the letters are all governed by mathematics. Inscriptions are most often used as a frame along and around main elements of a building like portals and cornices.
    An inscription also might be contained in a single panel. Sometimes single words such as Allah or Mohammed are repeated and arranged into patterns over the entire surface of the walls. Calligraphic texts might appear in pierced cartouches, providing a pattern for light filtering through windows.

    Geometry :
    Islamic artists developed geometric patterns to a degree of complexity and sophistication previously unknown. These patterns exemplify the Islamic interest in repetition, symmetry and continuous generation of pattern. "The superb assurance of the Islamic designers is demonstrated by their masterful integration of geometry with such optical ef fects as the balancing of positive and negative areas, interlacing with fluid overlapping and underpassing strapwork, and a skillful use of color and tone values.
    "...More than any other type of design (geometric patterns) permitted an interrelationship between the parts and the whole of a building complex, the exterior and the interior spaces and their furnishings."
    Floral patterns :
    Islamic artists reproduced nature with a great deal of accuracy. Flowers and trees might be used as the motifs for the decoration of textiles, objects and buildings. In the Mughal architectural decoration of India, artists were inspired by European botanical drawings, as well as by Persian traditional flora. Their designs might be applied to monochrome panels of white marble, with rows of flowering plants exquisitely carved in low relief, alternating with delicately tinted polychrome inlays of precious and hard stones, Jones notes.
    The arabesque (geometricized vegetal ornament) is "characterized by a continuous stem which splits regularly, producing a series of counterpoised, leafy, secondary stems which can in turn split again or return to be reintegrated into the main stem," writes Jones. "This limitless, rhythmical alternation of movement, conveyed by the reciprocal repetition of curved lines, produces a design that is balanced and free from tension. In the arabesque, perhaps more than in any other design associated with Islam, it is clear how the line defines space, and how sophisticated three-dimensional effects are achieved by differences in width, color and texture...."
    "The underlying geometric grids governing arabesque designs are based on the same mathematical principles that determine wholly geometric patterns...."
    Figures and animals :
    Because the creation of living things that move -- that is, humans and animals -- is considered to be in the realm of God, Islam discourages artists from producing such figures through art. Nevertheless, a certain amount of figural art can be found in the Islamic world, although it is mainly confined to the decoration of objects and secular buildings and to miniature paintings. Figural sculpture is quite rare in Islam.

    For many Muslims (and non-Muslims), light is the symbol of divine unity. In Islamic architecture, light functions decoratively by modifying other elements or by originating patterns. With the proper light, pierced facades can look like lacy, disembodied screens, Jones notes. Light can add a dynamic quality to architecture, extending patterns, forms and designs into the dimensions of time. And the combination of light and shade creates strong contrasts of planes and gives texture to sculpted stone, as well as stocked or brick surfaces.

    Water :
    In hot Islamic climates, the water from courtyard pools and fountains cools as it decorates. Water can not only reflect architecture and multiply the decorative themes, it can also serve as a means of emphasizing the visual axes. Like the images they mirror, Jones writes, pools of water are immutable, yet constantly changing; fluid and dynamic, yet static.

Islamic decoration and the West
To the untrained Western eye, Islamic decoration often appears stultifying or excessive in its richness. One exception to this school of thought was the 19th-century British scholar and architect Owen Jones. In The Grammar of Ornament (as quoted in "Surface, Pattern and Light"), he writes that the first principle of architecture is to decorate construction and never to construct decoration. Ornamentation that is constructed falsely, he adds, can never achieve beauty or harmony. In regards to Islamic decoration he writes,
"(W)e never find a useless or superfluous ornament; every ornament arises quietly and naturally from the surface decorated."
Source: http://www.islamicart.com

An approach to Islamic architecture

Architecture, in my personal view, is the solemn identity of peoples and civilizations. Architecture is unique structures that become landmarks in an environment -- landmarks that exemplify the identity, the shape and the tone of a society, landmarks that collectively represent the image a society has of itself.
I was, and still am, fascinated by the incredible design, engineering and language of Islamic architecture and arts. As I look at this Web Page about Islamic architecture, I kept asking myself what makes architecture Islamic?:
  • Is it architecture that is made for and by Muslims to serve Islam as a religion? If so, is it only architecture that serves a religious function -- the mosque, the Madrasah (school), the palace?
  • Is it all the architectural work in Muslim world?
  • If this should be so, what does Islamic mean in the phrase 'Islamic architecture'?
  • If the word Islamic is not an adjective defining a religious belief or quality, should it be used as a word defining a special kind of architecture, that architecture of a civilization that reflects, or is determined by, the special qualities inherent in Islam as a cultural phenomenon?
  • And what qualities would there be that make architecture uniquely and distinctively Islamic?
If Islamic architecture exists, then I must explain and define the qualities and features that set architecture in the Islamic world apart from other architecture.
The most striking feature of all Islamic architecture is the focus on interior space as opposed to the outside or facade. The most typical expression of this focus on inner space is in the Muslim house. Rectangular dwelling units typically are organized around an inner courtyard. The facade of this house offers high windowless walls interrupted only by a single low door.
Often these courtyard houses are clustered together into a walled complex to serve the needs of extended families. Entrance to the complex is through a single door that leads to a passageway from which the individual dwellings can be reached. It has been said that the traditional courtyard house is never a completed project. As family size increases, more rooms are built on the lot's unused land. Once the land around the courtyard has been covered, expansion takes place in a vertical direction.
"The traditional need to entertain male guests, while at the same time bar them access to the females of the household, has given rise to additional complexities of design particular to Islamic domestic architecture, which therefore must accommodate a double circulation system. The men's reception (or guest) room tends to be located adjacent to, or directly accessible from, the entrance lobby of the house so that visitors do not meet or converse with the female household or violate the harem. The simplest form of separation of male and female areas is found in the tent of the nomad, where there is no permanent structural division. A screen or cloth is hung across the center of the tent and along one half of the front when unrelated male visitors are present.
The men's guest room is a symbol of the economic status of the household and is furnished with the precious possessions of the family; therefore it is generally the most decorated room of the house."
Proverbially, the Arab house is never complete; as each extended family grows, so does the house, thereby reflecting the history, accumulated growth and family structure of a number of generations. The assertive nature of the individual Islamic dwelling can be clearly seen in the construction of modern houses. Many of the courtyard houses that give the Islamic city its unmistakable appearance still exist. Often, however, they are being replaced today by structures influenced by the styles of Western architecture.
Yet the traditional courtyard house is an advanced structure. The open-air interior courtyard performs an important function as a modifier of climate in hot, arid areas. The courtyard allows for outdoor activities with protection from wind and sun. The courtyard also serves as an air-well into which the cool, night air can sink. And the plain, thick-walled street facade of the house with few or no windows is designed to withstand severe elements like hot winds and sand. The roof usually is flat with high parapets. The most characteristic decorative feature of the courtyard house is the ornate roof line.
The architecture of the courtyard house has been called the architecture of the veil. Enveloped by a plain facade, the house's innermost sanctum -- the courtyard -- is kept secret. The introverted courtyard house expresses the need to exclude the outside environment while protecting that which is inside -- the family and the inner life.
Because of the lack of emphasis on external appearance in Islamic architecture, a structure -- a mosque, for example -- might be hidden from view by secondary, adjacent buildings. If the facade is visible, it is rare that the facade gives any indication of the structure's size, shape or function.
In "What Is Islamic Architecture," (from Architecture of the Islamic World,1978, Thames and Hudson)" Ernst J. Grube writes that the dominant form of true Islamic architecture is this hidden architecture. In other words, it is architecture that must be experienced by being entered and seen from within.
Closely related to the idea of 'hidden architecture', Grube notes, is the absence of specific architectural forms for specific functions. Most forms in Islamic architecture can be adapted to a variety of purposes. In addition, structures for a specific function might assume a variety of forms. Grube uses as an example the four- iwan structures popular in Central Asia and Iran. (iwans are arched openings or porches reached from a central courtyard.) The four-iwan design has been used for palaces, mosques, schools, caravanserai (waystations for travelers and their animals), and private homes.
Writes Grube, "Generally, Islamic architecture is given to hiding its principal features behind an unrevealing exterior; it is an architecture that does not change its forms easily, if at all, according to functional demands, but rather tends to adapt functions to preconceived forms which are basically the contained inner spaces."
Unlike traditional European structures, Grube notes, Islamic buildings rarely have displayed an inherent directional or axial quality. In fact, if the building does have an actual physical direction, this often differs from the functional direction. Grube cites as an example the Temple of Baal at Palmyra in Syria. The temple's cella or chambers have a colonnade on all sides and heavy architraves and tympana on the narrow ends. The entrance, however, is not located at one of the narrow ends but at the center of one of the longs sides. Thus, visitors find themselves confronted with a blank wall and must turn ninety degrees to reach one of the two altars. Built in the 4th century, this temple represents, according to Grube, a total contradiction of the logical sense of direction expressed in European architecture.
In addition, Grube continues, Islamic architecture typically does not strive for the same balance that European architecture does. Thus, it is easy to make additions to original plans for Islamic structures. For example, as families grow, it is simple to add new dwellings to the traditional courtyard-house complex. The complex can become an organic maze of structures accumulating around and totally engulfing the nucleus of the original design.
Enclosed space, defined by walls, arcades and vaults, is the most important element of Islamic architecture, writes Grube. With the exception of the dome and the entrance portal, decoration in Islamic architecture is reserved for the articulation and embellishment of the interior.
According to Grube, Islamic decoration does not emphasize the actual mechanics of a building, the balance and counter-balance of loads and stresses. Instead, Islamic decoration is a part of the Islamic architectural tradition that aims at a visual negation of the reality of weight and the necessity of support.
How is Islamic decoration used to project a feeling of weightlessness? "The various means by which the effect of eightlessness is created, the effect of unlimited space, of non-substantially of walls, pillars, and vaults are well known," Grube writes. "They range from the use of mosaic and painted decoration to tiles -- especially luster and painted polychrome -- and from molded and deeply cut stone or plaster to actual openwork and pierced walls, vaults and even supporting pillars. The multitude of decorative treatments of surfaces in Islamic architecture, the use of almost every conceivable technique and the development of a rich repertory of designs -- from geometric to abstract shapes to full-scale floral patterns, from minutely executed inscriptions in a full variety of calligraphic styles to the monumental single words that serve as both religious images and decoration -- is without parallel in the architecture of the non-Muslim world.
"Its effect is extraordinary and its function quite unmistakable. It goes hand in hand with the non-directional plan, the tendency to an infinite repetition of individual units (bays, arches, columns, passages, courtyards, doorways, cupolas) and the continuous merging of spaces without any specific direction or any specific center or focus. And if a definite spatial limit is reached, such as a terminal wall, the surface that should stop the progress of anyone moving through the building will be decorated with patterns that repeat themselves, leading on visually beyond the given limit of the wall, surface, vault or dome."
Grube adds that the epitome of this concept of architecture is reached in the Alhambra at Granada in Spain. One of the most famous examples of Islamic architecture, the Alhambra was built in the 14th century and served as the royal palace for the Caliph, Abd-el-Walid. The plan of the Alhambra basically includes two great inner courts set at right angles to each other. The courts of the Alhambra lead to halls, and the halls to apartments, each in turn giving way to smaller courts and baths, all richly dressed in geometric designs of stucco, ceramic and wood.
Grube notes that although the Alhambra is a royal palace, it was given no center or focus to emphasize power. "Instead," he writes, "it is a maze of rooms and courtyards, of passages and corridors, of water basins and canals that link the open and covered spaces, of fountains and of decorations that are undoubtedly among the most extraordinarily complex and technically accomplished in all Islamic architectural design. Looking up into the suspended muqarnas canopy that forms the great dome of the Hall of the Two Sisters, we are truly aware of being in the presence of an architecture that is distinctly and unmistakably different from any other ever created by man. Its spirit is clearly readable'... It is that of a metaphysical concept of the world, rooted in the religion that created it -- Islam.

A Final Note
It is absolutely impossible to offer in this brief Web presentation anything approaching a complete interpretation of the characteristics and features I have tried to identify as being essential to Islamic arts and architecture. For this project, I collected, wrote, revised, and edited information from a variety of different sources available in the libraries at The Ohio State University, as well as at some bookstores. This is ongoing research that can NOT be achieved by a single scholar. It is very hard to satisfactorily explain the phenomena of Islamic arts and , in particular, architecture -- to correlate their physical forms in various parts of the Muslim world with the 'spirit' of Islam as it prevailed in any given region and period. But such an interpretation must be attempted if I ever want to go beyond the mere cataloguing and describing of the surviving monuments, objects, and calligraphy which form the basis of this presentation.

Bernard Rudofsky: unknowing arbiter of sustainability and informality

Bernard Rudofsky’s 1964 MoMA exhibition Architecture Without Architects differentiated itself as an intellectual counterpart to the unquestioned authority of the architect as the only valid form-giver. The show and its accompanying publication provided images of a rich history of building cultures across the world that operated entirely outside of the professional design practice. It gave credence to the notion that owner-built communities were a perfectly valid form of architectural and social development, an important underlying assumption in the support of informal settlements. But Rudofsky’s exhibition not only provided impetus for the architectural legitimacy of vernacular, owner-built structures; it also provided insight into longstanding methods of passive cooling and heating techniques in various parts of the world, insight that may well have likely informed the forthcoming eco-design movement.

For the purposes of assembling a dual history of informal housing and sustainability, Rudofsky’s exhibit provides an invaluable departure point for both topics. An ardent travel and an outspoken critic of modernist dogma, Rudofsky sought with his MoMA exhibition to step outside of the dogmatic architectural history of “a full-dress pageant of ‘formal’ architecture, as arbitrary a way of introducing the art of building as, say dating the birth of music with the advent of the symphony orchestra.”[1] This was an attempt at realigning the history of the field with its truer origins, and with this came the harsh truth that architects had little to do with the beginnings of architecture.

Included in this catalogue of vernacular and anonymous architecture is “the architecture of nomads, portable houses, houses on wheels, sled-houses, houseboats, and tents.”[2] Dense settlements from various parts of the world are displayed without judgment of their informal nature, but rather with honest admiration of their innovation and contribution to so-called “pedigreed architecture.” Densely clustered houses are shown unapologetically; aerial photographs of these settlements are no longer viewed as disorderly and haphazard assemblies, but rather as variations on a unified theme of design. The combined effect of houses in Zanzibar is explained as having an “almost pointillistic pattern,” while a settlement in Marrakesh is regulated by a “relaxed geometric” organization.[3] Rudofsky assigns the terminology of formally trained designers to structures that were constructed without them, at once undermining the authority of the architect and restoring the dignity of informal housing.

'marrakesh (morocco) is the archetype of an islamic town with its quadrangular houses organized around interior courts. there are no traffic arteries to speak of; the cool narrow alleys of broken course often lead to dead ends.'

Rudofsky’s exhibition also imparts the growing sensibility of vernacular design, a concept that would increasingly align itself with environmentalism over the following decades. The photographs display various construction materials and methods throughout the world, from wood and masonry to woven straw and stereotomy. Each is explained within the context of its particular usefulness and practicality, as “’primitive solutions [that] anticipate our cumbersome technology.”[4] For instance, in the Chinese loess belt, villages are comprised of assembled pit homes, each of which was easily carved from the soft silt of the landscape. Various building components offer practical means of thermal regulation against harsh temperatures. Images of large, sailing windscoops atop dense houses in Pakistan, which Rudofsky terms the “air-conditioners of Hyderabad Sind,” channel cool breezes down into the dwellings.[5]While his exhibition may not have intended to expose these sustainable systems to a budding batch of young architects, it certainly did so, and the concepts shown here would soon become integral to the emerging environmentalist movement within architecture.

'the air-conditioners of hyderabad sind'

Responses to the exhibition were varied across the field of architecture. As Felicity Scott recounts, whenArchitecture without Architects first opened on November 11, 1964, the reactions by critics were pronounced and polarized: “the exhibition was both hailed as a timely and insightful critique of the state of modern architecture and rejected as an exasperating and unwarranted attack on an already troubled discipline.”[6] It was no secret that Rudofsky despised the dogmatic functionalism and aesthetic rigidity of modernism that had recently dominated Western architecture, and the popular exhibition was certainly providing exposure and appreciation of designs that existed outside of this rigidity. As the show continued to travel around the world for eleven years, the response of the mainstream architectural press was decidedly defensive: “dismissing the show as antimodern or nostalgic, and as having little bearing on the practicalities of contemporary urban development.”[7] Rather than conforming to the narrative of modernism, Rudofsky sought to uncover the true precedents for the modernist aesthetic, revealing the source of such “refined” forms to be considerably “primative”: the informal and environmentally-sensitive constructions of the common owner-builder.[1] Bernard Rudofsky, Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture(University of New Mexico Press, 1964).


[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Felicity D. Scott. “An Eye for Modern Architecture” in Architektur Zentrum Wien, ed., Lessons from Bernard Rudofsky: Life as a Voyage (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2007), 172.

[7] Ibid., 179.