Updating the Mosque for the 21st Century

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Kate Brooks

The Sakirin Mosque, designed by Zaynep Fadillioglu

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Shaping the Skyline
But mosques, and their neighbors, aren't always so quiet. Particularly in Europe, mosques have become the architectural equivalent of the veil: visible signs of Islam's presence and thus sites for tension between Muslims and non-Muslim traditionalists. A recent report from the London-based Institute of Race Relations chronicles scores of campaigns against plans to build mosques across Europe. In 2007, a petition posted on British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's website calling for the government to scrap plans to build a mega-mosque on an 18-acre (7 ha) plot near the site of London's 2012 Olympics drew over 275,000 signatures. That same year, members of Italy's anti-immigrant Northern League party "blessed," as they called it, a site reserved for a mosque in Padua by parading on it with a pig, an animal deemed unclean by Muslims. A 2004 Dutch opinion poll found that mosques, which in the 1990s had been lauded as "enrichments to the urban landscape," were now derided as "unimaginative," "ugly" and "cheap imitations."

One aspect of mosque design provokes more anger than most: the minaret. Across Europe, minarets on city skylines have become a political issue. In the Netherlands, Filip Dewinter, a leader of the right-wing Vlaams Belang party, decried a new Rotterdam mosque because its minarets were higher than the lights of the city's soccer stadium. "These kinds of symbols have to stop," he told Radio Netherlands Worldwide. In 2007, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that minarets shouldn't be "ostentatiously higher than church steeples."

Debate is playing out within Western Muslim communities, too. "The immigrant Muslims often want [a minaret], because for them it symbolizes a mosque," says Omar Khalidi, an archivist at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But they cost a lot, and there are others who argue that [economically,] they're a luxury Muslims can't afford."

For Paul Böhm, a German architect behind a new mosque planned for Cologne, minarets are a crucial part of designing a proud and honest building. "We believe this building should show its intent, and the minarets can help it do that," he says. "The Muslims of Germany have, over the last 40 or 50 years, been hiding in basements and [abandoned] manufacturing areas to pray. [Many Germans] have never recognized that they are part of society. Giving them a building which brings them up to the same status [as other faith groups] can help us understand and accept them."

But some Cologne residents disagree. Members of the right-wing Pro Cologne group have protested the $20 million mosque, arguing that the two 166-ft. (51 m) minarets will spoil the skyline, now dominated by the city's famous Gothic cathedral. Construction is going ahead, and Böhm hopes his design will foster an openness that will one day silence the critics. His plan for the complex, due to be completed in 2010, calls for a piazza with a fountain and a cafe, designed to draw non-Muslims to the site. The local Muslim elders hope that, once there, visitors will browse in the library, check out the art gallery or spend in the shopping mall, which Böhm envisions as "a modern souk with the quality of the traditional souk." The mosque's prayer hall consists of shells of textured concrete connected by glass panels, to create "ideological and architectural transparency," says Böhm. Far from a nod to tradition, the minarets are a declaration that the building is "not a sports hall, a concert hall or a museum, but a mosque."

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