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Designs for NYC's Park51 Islamic center show a literally enlightened building
Architects working in places such as Lebanon -- and the Persian Gulf states and China -- face the usual challenges of creating buildings in an aesthetically anarchic age. The tension between the international gestures of modernity and the emotionally satisfying details of local style must be acknowledged, accommodated or denied. Steer too close to modern sensibility and you risk lapsing into a desiccated, global version of minimalism or the corporate glass box. Steer too close to the traditional and you cease to be an architect and become, instead, an orchestrator of Disneyesque fantasies of exotica.
But it is particularly difficult working in areas of the world where there is strong pressure to assert a new regional identity, neither slavishly in thrall to international styles nor complacently deferential to local ones. SOMA is clearly adept at confronting this particular challenge, and that skill is apparent in the Park51 design, which elegantly confuses categories in a way that is both a cliche of contemporary design and an encouraging sign of progressive thinking. The building announces its purpose and respects its occupants, while confidently asserting its presence in the urban fabric of New York, where ironic games with ornament and substance, skin and skeleton, reference and abstraction are both fashionable and obligatory.
Even if eliding those categories is nothing new, given how fraught this project has become, how high the stakes are, one shouldn't sneer at an architecture that confidently reasserts the old power of abstraction and modernity. The act of taking a traditional pattern and abstracting new possibilities from it is essentially analogous to the act of taking a traditional religion and abstracting more humane ideas from its literal texts.
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People who are inclined to think the worst of Park51 may give this design a sinister reading, finding ominous meaning in a surface that is open in some places and less so in others. The symbolism of placing the worship space underground may be contested from both sides, and given the horrendous venom directed at the project, security instantly becomes a paramount issue. The architect is still grappling with that problem.
But if judged without reference to the rumors and speculation that have hounded the organizers of the community center, the building's basic design suggests a sensibility unwilling to be trapped in old and dogmatic distinctions.
The thrill of so much contemporary architecture has to do with how the drama of a building reinforces one's sense of the best in humanity. A dramatic cantilever, a shape that seems impossible to make from steel or stone, the purity of perfect straight lines and impossibly flat planes, or latticework that holds up an entire high-rise -- these spectacles move us because they remind us of the incredible technological and creative power of man. They are built versions of the sublime.
This power can be used for good or ill, a fact painfully reinforced by the history of the past century. Today it can be found in the astonishing and terrifying high-rise in Beijing that houses the state-run broadcaster CCTV (a form that also uses a structural exoskeleton). And it can be found in any number of new museums and cultural centers throughout the Western world. But it still gives us a visceral thrill, like the trumpets and timpani in a symphony by Beethoven, because it reminds us of some of the greatest chapters of our species, when humanism was regnant. Or at least regnant among cultural elites.
The designs for Park51 are part of a sophisticated, international language of the global cool, technologically savvy, alert to history, but floating free across national and historical boundaries. One couldn't ask for a more assertive statement of where the organizers of Park51 say they want to take Islam.