I originally wrote this interview for ILLUME magazine here. Below is the full and un-edited version of my interview with Maryam.
Maryam Eskandari, an architect at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and MIT, currently has a traveling exhibit on American Mosques. Her exhibit, Sacred Space: (Re) Constructing the Place of Gender in the Space of Religion is touring the nation. ILLUME recently conducted an exclusive interview with Maryam to get her views on the design of American Mosques and why she believes Art and Architecture are important fields for the Muslim American Community to be involved with.
How did you become interested in Architecture and why is it important to you personally?
Maryam: I was introduced to architecture through my paternal grandfather. Each summer I would spend time with him in Iran, and got acquainted with the world of construction and architecture. I loved spending time on the construction site watching him actually build something that he had designed. However, I didn’t quite understand what all the thought processes that went into the design. One summer though, I sat down with him so he could teach me how to draw in perspective. He started off with a few lessons of drawing the living room, gradually we moved towards outdoors and by the end of the summer, when he was renovating his house, he had be designing and help him redo the interior. That summer I was 15 years old. That was when I knew I wanted to be an architect.
However, I didn’t realize how important architecture and the role of architects are until a decade later when I was practicing professionally. I started to realize that we respond to the cultural demands and the needs of today’s society. We create new spaces, yet we have to be so educated in order to be able to create those new spaces. But what do we educate ourselves in? One project after another, I often find myself in many roles, the educator, the mediator, the historian, the psychologist and then the architect. As architect we listen to the needs and demands of our clients, we have to be able to absorb them and then imagine there words and needs into a physical space. In the words of Le Corbusier “I felt quite strongly that the singular and noble task of the architect is to open the soul to poetic realms, by using materials, integrity so as to make them useful”. We start to create a new language through that space, and often times we start illustrating those spaces and through refinement and execution of design, we actually start to create a new culture. However, in my case, understanding the religion of Islam, I decided to bring in the theological aspect as well, and start to revaluate the notion of religion that is ingrained in our American culture and make sure that there is analogous with the needs and demands of the future generation. I personally believe that its architecture that leaves an everlasting impression on this earth.
You recently did a study on American Mosque architecture. In your professional opinion as an Architect, what do you see are the 3 major problems with mosques in America and do you have any suggestions on how to improve them architecturally?
Maryam: Well, currently we know that there are number of issues that reside with the whole American Mosque architecture. The first one is that, through the whole “Islamaphobia” thrive that is being ignited here in the US, everyone has become so anti-mosque. So the first problem is to resolve the issue of the mosque architecture. We need to ask ourselves, what are we investing in? Is it just the mosque as a building, the community or the next generation? If it is just the mosque, then we have to reflect back and remind ourselves that the Prophet Mohammad once said that the whole world is a mosque, hence meaning that we should take care of the earth, be responsible towards it, practice sustainability, and secondly that we are able to pray anywhere as long as we are facing towards Mecca. So I am still trying to understand what is our obsession with domes and minarets, when the even the Prophets first mosque didn’t have a dome or minaret and was made out of rammed earth. Clearly later it was added all the other elements, but why? We should start creating mosques and Islamic centers that are architecturally responsible and meeting the demands and the needs of the American community. We should invest the money in creating a space that is sustainable, using local materials, creating a place that reaches out to the whole community – perhaps there are gardens that help feed the needy families. Or a soup kitchen that reaches out to the less fortunate. We should invest in pushing the boundaries and using our advance technological abilities to create a place that gives back to the earth. I remember last year at a conference when presenting, someone asked me; in Islam is it best to practice modesty, why isn’t it practiced in the architecture then? It got me thinking, they are absolutely right. A mosque needs to simple, yet beautiful. Simplicity is beautiful And as architects we know that it is easy to have an eclectic design solution just to meet the needs, but simplicity comes with discipline and refinement, it is not easy, it is what all architects strive for, and it is something that we work towards mastering. Hence, the legendary architect Louis Kahn talked about this in his “sense and simplicity” exhibit: Design is not making beauty; beauty emerges from selection, affinities, integration, and love. So let’s start disciplining ourselves to some of these elements when it comes to building and designing our community mosques.
The other thing that we should start investing is creating flexible spaces that can be converted into multi-faceted “programmatically” functions as well as creating an equal space for the women who pray. Currently as we watch the interfaith dialogues happening, the Muslim communities needs to be able to create a space so that the next generation would be able to invite their friends of various faiths to come and have a place for dialogue. We have to start creating a pluralistic architecture and enriching that in our future generations. On the interfaith notion, well currently we see that there is a protest between the genders. Women are now demanding to have adequate space in the mosque, where they are on the same main prayers space as the men. We should start rethinking of creating spaces other than balconies, basements or separate rooms. We have to remind ourselves, that it is the women of the Muslim community who are raising the next generation. They need to have access to the Muslim community, mosque, and the imam and be involved in the Islamic education if the Muslim community plans on enriching and have future generations of Muslim.
Please tell us a little about the Agha Khan award you received and why do you think it is important for Muslims in America to be involved in the arts in general and architecture in specific.
Maryam: Established in 1979 through an endowment from His Highness the Aga Khan, The Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture is dedicated to the study of Islamic architecture, urbanism, environmental and landscape design, and conservation. It prepares students for careers in research, design, and teaching and aims to enhance the understanding of Islamic architecture and urbanism in light of contemporary issues and to increase the visibility of Islamic cultural heritage in the modern world.
It is crucial for Muslims to get involved in the arts and architecture, because it is a medium that is common for all culture. Art has no political side, it isn’t determined by ethnicity, art itself is a religion on its own. And is common language that can be reached out to various people, and groups. Architecture is a type of art and just like art it is constantly changing with time. Architecture has the ability to be a symbol or an identity of our time. Just like art that is an expression, it is bounded by rules and theory that is modified and expressed to resonate in the landscape and accommodate the present and the future generation. Art becomes architecture, when a space is created in a void. Hence, in the current traveling exhibit, I took the art of photography, and laid it out through the space that was created. We took the notion of the Ka’aba, a place where the expression of equality is highlighted—deconstructed and shifted it off to create an exterior and interior space.
This generation of Muslims is at the fore front of the arts, however, we need to educate ourselves more in the humanities and understand the historical aspects of why and how certain influences happened. We need to be able to understand the notion of purity and the spirituality of the religion and start implementing them into our architecture. There is something so pure and holy with the notion of light and shadow, and often times in the Quran there are references to it, such as surah Noor, however, I believe as architects, we should be able to design is such a way that the building not only resonates in the landscape, but rather heightens our senses in order to allow and feel nature, and experience a Zen moment. Often times through the creation of THAT particular space is where we feel the connection with the Divine, where the architecture creates a space that is so sublime that we lose ourselves to the spirit.
Any final comments?
Maryam: The great Sufi Poet Hafiz, has a few verses which I try to live by. They embody the notion that architecture and art can bring people of different faiths into one space and can help to start a dialogue of pluralism and tolerance. He writes:
“I am in love with every church
And mosque and temple
And any kind of shrine
Because I know it is there
That people say the different names
Of the One Divine.” – 14th century Sufi Poet Hafiz Shirazi