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

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010; C01

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.

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.

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