Architecture Review

Designs for NYC's Park51 Islamic center show a literally enlightened building

The controversy grows over a proposed mosque near Ground Zero as more politicians enter the fray.
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010

Early architectural renderings are a basic part of salesmanship. Before the money is raised, before the permits are in hand, before the land is owned or the site chosen, a rendering gives substance to the dream. In the case of the Park51 Community Center, the Islamic facility proposed for contested land in Lower Manhattan near the World Trade Center site, the organizers face a hurdle that may prove even more daunting than the usual details of money, property and zoning.

They face a groundswell of hostility whipped up during an election season that feeds on primitive emotions directed at a parody of a supposedly primitive religion. Even in the midst of great controversy, however, powerful drawings can forge consensus.

And so, in the middle of one of the most shameful chapters in the civic and intellectual life of America, Park51 released three drawings, which show a scrupulously contemporary building, conversant in the latest design trends, drenched with light and transparent to the world. The basic symbolism of the building is obvious: It is porous, open and bright, which is to say, it is literally an enlightened building. The space reserved for worship will be in the basement, but the design of the aboveground floors, which will accommodate a sports facility, swimming pool, culinary center, child care and other community functions, clearly indicates that Park51 has nothing to hide and nothing of which to be ashamed.

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The building's exterior, according to Michel Abboud, principal of SOMA Architects, is latticework, with star-shaped patterns that recall the delicate lattice screens on traditional Arabic, Islamic or mosque architecture, a collection of aesthetic traditions so old and so diverse that one hesitates to lump them together. The pattern is as basic to a wide range of styles associated with Islam as the vault or column are to the many styles associated with Christian architecture.

The shapes, created on a computer, could reference the miraculous confections in stone one finds in Mughal architecture. Or the two-dimensional patterning one finds in books derived from a tradition of Islam that favored abstraction over literal representation. But it also participates in a brilliant contemporary practice of repurposing traditional Arabic screen forms.

A similar pattern, for instance, distinguishes the roof of the giant dome that French architect Jean Nouvel has proposed for a new branch of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. Abboud acknowledges inspiration from another of Nouvel's buildings, the Institut du Monde Arabe, which fuses contemporary, Islamic and modernist elements into a design that enlivens a prime spot on the Seine in central Paris.

"If you look around, it is an easy reaction to designing a building with such a program, but it is also the right one," says Abboud, who has been wrestling for months with the basic problem of how to make the building fit into contemporary Manhattan and be "Islamic" at the same time.

Part of the solution is hidden in the screenlike skin of the building, which is also doing the main work of supporting the entire form.

"We wanted to take this to another level so it is not purely a decorative interface," says Abboud, who earned his master's in architecture from Columbia in 2003. "It is a free-standing structural exoskeleton that plays on notions of privacy and openness."

The skin of the building, which varies in density, responds to the program, or layout, of the interior. Where interior spaces are used for more public functions, it is more porous; where the use is more private, it becomes more dense.

Abboud, who is a French citizen with roots in Lebanon, runs a practice with offices in New York, Beirut and Mexico. SOMA has four projects in New York and more than a dozen around the world, including private homes, housing developments, retail outlets and restaurants. Abboud, who leads a busy practice, says he held off releasing images of the project as controversy raged over the so-called Ground Zero mosque because he didn't want his ideas caught up in the fray.

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