Architecture, in my personal view, is the solemn identity of peoples and civilizations. Architecture is unique structures that become landmarks in an environment -- landmarks that exemplify the identity, the shape and the tone of a society, landmarks that collectively represent the image a society has of itself.
I was, and still am, fascinated by the incredible design, engineering and language of Islamic architecture and arts. As I look at this Web Page about Islamic architecture, I kept asking myself what makes architecture Islamic?:
Is it architecture that is made for and by Muslims to serve Islam as a religion? If so, is it only architecture that serves a religious function -- the mosque, the Madrasah (school), the palace?
Is it all the architectural work in Muslim world?
If this should be so, what does Islamic mean in the phrase 'Islamic architecture'?
If the word Islamic is not an adjective defining a religious belief or quality, should it be used as a word defining a special kind of architecture, that architecture of a civilization that reflects, or is determined by, the special qualities inherent in Islam as a cultural phenomenon?
And what qualities would there be that make architecture uniquely and distinctively Islamic?
If Islamic architecture exists, then I must explain and define the qualities and features that set architecture in the Islamic world apart from other architecture.
The most striking feature of all Islamic architecture is the focus on interior space as opposed to the outside or facade. The most typical expression of this focus on inner space is in the Muslim house. Rectangular dwelling units typically are organized around an inner courtyard. The facade of this house offers high windowless walls interrupted only by a single low door.
Often these courtyard houses are clustered together into a walled complex to serve the needs of extended families. Entrance to the complex is through a single door that leads to a passageway from which the individual dwellings can be reached. It has been said that the traditional courtyard house is never a completed project. As family size increases, more rooms are built on the lot's unused land. Once the land around the courtyard has been covered, expansion takes place in a vertical direction.
"The traditional need to entertain male guests, while at the same time bar them access to the females of the household, has given rise to additional complexities of design particular to Islamic domestic architecture, which therefore must accommodate a double circulation system. The men's reception (or guest) room tends to be located adjacent to, or directly accessible from, the entrance lobby of the house so that visitors do not meet or converse with the female household or violate the harem. The simplest form of separation of male and female areas is found in the tent of the nomad, where there is no permanent structural division. A screen or cloth is hung across the center of the tent and along one half of the front when unrelated male visitors are present.
The men's guest room is a symbol of the economic status of the household and is furnished with the precious possessions of the family; therefore it is generally the most decorated room of the house."
Proverbially, the Arab house is never complete; as each extended family grows, so does the house, thereby reflecting the history, accumulated growth and family structure of a number of generations. The assertive nature of the individual Islamic dwelling can be clearly seen in the construction of modern houses. Many of the courtyard houses that give the Islamic city its unmistakable appearance still exist. Often, however, they are being replaced today by structures influenced by the styles of Western architecture.
Yet the traditional courtyard house is an advanced structure. The open-air interior courtyard performs an important function as a modifier of climate in hot, arid areas. The courtyard allows for outdoor activities with protection from wind and sun. The courtyard also serves as an air-well into which the cool, night air can sink. And the plain, thick-walled street facade of the house with few or no windows is designed to withstand severe elements like hot winds and sand. The roof usually is flat with high parapets. The most characteristic decorative feature of the courtyard house is the ornate roof line.
The architecture of the courtyard house has been called the architecture of the veil. Enveloped by a plain facade, the house's innermost sanctum -- the courtyard -- is kept secret. The introverted courtyard house expresses the need to exclude the outside environment while protecting that which is inside -- the family and the inner life.
Because of the lack of emphasis on external appearance in Islamic architecture, a structure -- a mosque, for example -- might be hidden from view by secondary, adjacent buildings. If the facade is visible, it is rare that the facade gives any indication of the structure's size, shape or function.
In "What Is Islamic Architecture," (from Architecture of the Islamic World,1978, Thames and Hudson)" Ernst J. Grube writes that the dominant form of true Islamic architecture is this hidden architecture. In other words, it is architecture that must be experienced by being entered and seen from within.
Closely related to the idea of 'hidden architecture', Grube notes, is the absence of specific architectural forms for specific functions. Most forms in Islamic architecture can be adapted to a variety of purposes. In addition, structures for a specific function might assume a variety of forms. Grube uses as an example the four- iwan structures popular in Central Asia and Iran. (iwans are arched openings or porches reached from a central courtyard.) The four-iwan design has been used for palaces, mosques, schools, caravanserai (waystations for travelers and their animals), and private homes.
Writes Grube, "Generally, Islamic architecture is given to hiding its principal features behind an unrevealing exterior; it is an architecture that does not change its forms easily, if at all, according to functional demands, but rather tends to adapt functions to preconceived forms which are basically the contained inner spaces."
Unlike traditional European structures, Grube notes, Islamic buildings rarely have displayed an inherent directional or axial quality. In fact, if the building does have an actual physical direction, this often differs from the functional direction. Grube cites as an example the Temple of Baal at Palmyra in Syria. The temple's cella or chambers have a colonnade on all sides and heavy architraves and tympana on the narrow ends. The entrance, however, is not located at one of the narrow ends but at the center of one of the longs sides. Thus, visitors find themselves confronted with a blank wall and must turn ninety degrees to reach one of the two altars. Built in the 4th century, this temple represents, according to Grube, a total contradiction of the logical sense of direction expressed in European architecture.
In addition, Grube continues, Islamic architecture typically does not strive for the same balance that European architecture does. Thus, it is easy to make additions to original plans for Islamic structures. For example, as families grow, it is simple to add new dwellings to the traditional courtyard-house complex. The complex can become an organic maze of structures accumulating around and totally engulfing the nucleus of the original design.
Enclosed space, defined by walls, arcades and vaults, is the most important element of Islamic architecture, writes Grube. With the exception of the dome and the entrance portal, decoration in Islamic architecture is reserved for the articulation and embellishment of the interior.
According to Grube, Islamic decoration does not emphasize the actual mechanics of a building, the balance and counter-balance of loads and stresses. Instead, Islamic decoration is a part of the Islamic architectural tradition that aims at a visual negation of the reality of weight and the necessity of support.
How is Islamic decoration used to project a feeling of weightlessness? "The various means by which the effect of eightlessness is created, the effect of unlimited space, of non-substantially of walls, pillars, and vaults are well known," Grube writes. "They range from the use of mosaic and painted decoration to tiles -- especially luster and painted polychrome -- and from molded and deeply cut stone or plaster to actual openwork and pierced walls, vaults and even supporting pillars. The multitude of decorative treatments of surfaces in Islamic architecture, the use of almost every conceivable technique and the development of a rich repertory of designs -- from geometric to abstract shapes to full-scale floral patterns, from minutely executed inscriptions in a full variety of calligraphic styles to the monumental single words that serve as both religious images and decoration -- is without parallel in the architecture of the non-Muslim world.
"Its effect is extraordinary and its function quite unmistakable. It goes hand in hand with the non-directional plan, the tendency to an infinite repetition of individual units (bays, arches, columns, passages, courtyards, doorways, cupolas) and the continuous merging of spaces without any specific direction or any specific center or focus. And if a definite spatial limit is reached, such as a terminal wall, the surface that should stop the progress of anyone moving through the building will be decorated with patterns that repeat themselves, leading on visually beyond the given limit of the wall, surface, vault or dome."
Grube adds that the epitome of this concept of architecture is reached in the Alhambra at Granada in Spain. One of the most famous examples of Islamic architecture, the Alhambra was built in the 14th century and served as the royal palace for the Caliph, Abd-el-Walid. The plan of the Alhambra basically includes two great inner courts set at right angles to each other. The courts of the Alhambra lead to halls, and the halls to apartments, each in turn giving way to smaller courts and baths, all richly dressed in geometric designs of stucco, ceramic and wood.
Grube notes that although the Alhambra is a royal palace, it was given no center or focus to emphasize power. "Instead," he writes, "it is a maze of rooms and courtyards, of passages and corridors, of water basins and canals that link the open and covered spaces, of fountains and of decorations that are undoubtedly among the most extraordinarily complex and technically accomplished in all Islamic architectural design. Looking up into the suspended muqarnas canopy that forms the great dome of the Hall of the Two Sisters, we are truly aware of being in the presence of an architecture that is distinctly and unmistakably different from any other ever created by man. Its spirit is clearly readable'... It is that of a metaphysical concept of the world, rooted in the religion that created it -- Islam.
A Final Note
It is absolutely impossible to offer in this brief Web presentation anything approaching a complete interpretation of the characteristics and features I have tried to identify as being essential to Islamic arts and architecture. For this project, I collected, wrote, revised, and edited information from a variety of different sources available in the libraries at The Ohio State University, as well as at some bookstores. This is ongoing research that can NOT be achieved by a single scholar. It is very hard to satisfactorily explain the phenomena of Islamic arts and , in particular, architecture -- to correlate their physical forms in various parts of the Muslim world with the 'spirit' of Islam as it prevailed in any given region and period. But such an interpretation must be attempted if I ever want to go beyond the mere cataloguing and describing of the surviving monuments, objects, and calligraphy which form the basis of this presentation.
The Concept of Decoration in Islamic architecture
Decoration is a major unifying factor in Islamic architecture and design. For 13 centuries, writes Dalu Jones in a very interesting and informative essay entitled "Surface, Pattern and Light" (in Architecture of the Islamic World, edited by George Michell), decoration has linked buildings and objects from all over the Islamic world -- from Spain to China to Indonesia. Notes Jones, "Islamic art is an art not so much of form as of decorative themes that occur both in architecture and in the applied arts, independently of material, scale and technique. There is never one type of decoration for one type of building or object; on the contrary, there are decorative principles that are pan-Islamic and applicable to all types of buildings and objects at all times (whence comes the intimate relationship in Islam between all the applied arts and architecture). Islamic art must therefore be considered in its entirety because each building and each object embodies to some extent identical principles. Though objects and art differ in quality of execution and style, the same ideas, forms and designs constantly recur." Because little furniture is traditionally used for daily life in Islam, decoration contributes to the creation of a sense of continuous space that is a hallmark of Islamic architecture. Writes Jones, "The layers of surface decoration are increased and the complexity of visual effects enriched by the use of carpets and cushions, which often reflect the same decorative schemes as those found on walls and ceilings. Floors and ceilings contribute to the fluidity of space by the nature of their decoration, since they are often patterned in the same manner as the walls; sometimes, in the case of floors, the decoration actually reproduces carpets. The tomb of I'timad ad-Dawla in Agra, for example, has an inlaid marble floor that exactly reproduces the designs of Mughal carpets."
Jones notes that to the West, Islamic design may seem restricted to two dimensions but that the very character of Islamic design implies three-dimensional possibilities. For example, the interlacing designs, often accompanied by variations in color and texture, create the illusion of different planes. Through the use of reflecting and shining materials and glazes, the repetition of designs, the contrasting of textures and the manipulation of planes, Islamic decoration becomes complex, sumptuous a nd intricate. It is an art of repose, Jones adds, where tensions are resolved. Jones states that, regardless of form, material or scale, this concept of art rests on a basic foundation of calligraphy, geometry and, in architecture, the repetition and multiplication of elements based on the arch. "Allied and parallel to these are floral and figural motifs," Jones writes. "Water and light are also of paramount importance to Islamic architectural decoration as they generate additional layers of patterns and -- just as happens with surface decoration -- they transform space. "Space is defined by surface and since surface is articulated by decoration, there is an intimate connection in Islamic architecture between space and decoration. It is the variety and richness of the decoration, with its endless permutations, that characterizes the buildings rather than their structural elements, which are often disguised. Many devices typical of Islamic architectural decoration -- for example, muqarnas [a honeycomb decoration that can reflect and refract light]-- are explained by a desire to dissolve the barriers between those elements of the buildings that are structural (load-bearing) and those that are ornamental (non-load-bearing)."
Jones points to the Taj Mahal as an example of how the feeling of continuous space is created in Islamic architecture through the multiplication of given patterns and architectural elements. Arches and squinches of different types and scale are employed for both structural and decorative purposes.
"Dominated by the main dome," Jones writes, "each facade of the building has two tiers of three arched niches hollowed out of the principal mass. The portals in the center of each side are but a magnification of these niches. They are in their turn each filled by miniatures of themselves, the muqarnas. The smaller-domed pavilions on the upper part of the building rest on open arches that echo the blind arches of the platforms on which the whole building rests. Each element of the decoration therefore reproduces a structural element....
"Another example of the conceptual basis of much Islamic decoration is given by the floor decoration of the Taj Mahal which, with its rippled effect, suggests that the tomb is set in a tank of water. The decoration... does not imitate the water... in precise details, but it conveys the idea of water... (I)t creates a situation, a 'landscape of the mind,' a subtler environment than any aturalistic rendering."
Elements of Decoration
This section summarizes Jones' list of the elements that make up Islamic decoration,
Because of its role in recording the word of God, calligraphy is considered one of the most important of the Islamic arts. Nearly all Islamic buildings have some type of surface inscription in the stone, stucco, marble, mosaic and/or painting. The inscription might be a verse from the Qur'an, lines of poetry, or names and dates.
Like other Islamic decoration, calligraphy is closely linked to geometry. The proportions of the letters are all governed by mathematics. Inscriptions are most often used as a frame along and around main elements of a building like portals and cornices.
An inscription also might be contained in a single panel. Sometimes single words such as Allah or Mohammed are repeated and arranged into patterns over the entire surface of the walls. Calligraphic texts might appear in pierced cartouches, providing a pattern for light filtering through windows.
Islamic artists developed geometric patterns to a degree of complexity and sophistication previously unknown. These patterns exemplify the Islamic interest in repetition, symmetry and continuous generation of pattern. "The superb assurance of the Islamic designers is demonstrated by their masterful integration of geometry with such optical ef fects as the balancing of positive and negative areas, interlacing with fluid overlapping and underpassing strapwork, and a skillful use of color and tone values.
"...More than any other type of design (geometric patterns) permitted an interrelationship between the parts and the whole of a building complex, the exterior and the interior spaces and their furnishings."
Floral patterns :
Islamic artists reproduced nature with a great deal of accuracy. Flowers and trees might be used as the motifs for the decoration of textiles, objects and buildings. In the Mughal architectural decoration of India, artists were inspired by European botanical drawings, as well as by Persian traditional flora. Their designs might be applied to monochrome panels of white marble, with rows of flowering plants exquisitely carved in low relief, alternating with delicately tinted polychrome inlays of precious and hard stones, Jones notes.
The arabesque (geometricized vegetal ornament) is "characterized by a continuous stem which splits regularly, producing a series of counterpoised, leafy, secondary stems which can in turn split again or return to be reintegrated into the main stem," writes Jones. "This limitless, rhythmical alternation of movement, conveyed by the reciprocal repetition of curved lines, produces a design that is balanced and free from tension. In the arabesque, perhaps more than in any other design associated with Islam, it is clear how the line defines space, and how sophisticated three-dimensional effects are achieved by differences in width, color and texture...."
"The underlying geometric grids governing arabesque designs are based on the same mathematical principles that determine wholly geometric patterns...."
Figures and animals :
Because the creation of living things that move -- that is, humans and animals -- is considered to be in the realm of God, Islam discourages artists from producing such figures through art. Nevertheless, a certain amount of figural art can be found in the Islamic world, although it is mainly confined to the decoration of objects and secular buildings and to miniature paintings. Figural sculpture is quite rare in Islam.
For many Muslims (and non-Muslims), light is the symbol of divine unity. In Islamic architecture, light functions decoratively by modifying other elements or by originating patterns. With the proper light, pierced facades can look like lacy, disembodied screens, Jones notes. Light can add a dynamic quality to architecture, extending patterns, forms and designs into the dimensions of time. And the combination of light and shade creates strong contrasts of planes and gives texture to sculpted stone, as well as stocked or brick surfaces.
In hot Islamic climates, the water from courtyard pools and fountains cools as it decorates. Water can not only reflect architecture and multiply the decorative themes, it can also serve as a means of emphasizing the visual axes. Like the images they mirror, Jones writes, pools of water are immutable, yet constantly changing; fluid and dynamic, yet static.
Islamic decoration and the West
To the untrained Western eye, Islamic decoration often appears stultifying or excessive in its richness. One exception to this school of thought was the 19th-century British scholar and architect Owen Jones. In The Grammar of Ornament (as quoted in "Surface, Pattern and Light"), he writes that the first principle of architecture is to decorate construction and never to construct decoration. Ornamentation that is constructed falsely, he adds, can never achieve beauty or harmony. In regards to Islamic decoration he writes,
"(W)e never find a useless or superfluous ornament; every ornament arises quietly and naturally from the surface decorated."
The expression of power and Islamic architecture
The expression of power is an inherent part of architecture, writes Oleg Grabar in "Palaces, Citadels and Fortifications" (Architecture of the Islamic World, edited by George Michell). Notes Grabar, "Whatever its social or personal function, there hardly exists a major monument of Islamic architecture that does not reflect power in some fashion. Even the gilt domes of Shi'i sanctuaries in Iran and Iraq are symbols both of holy places and of their wealthy royal patrons. Ostentation is rarely absent from architecture and ostentation is almost always an expression of power."
According to Grabar, Islamic 'power architecture' begins primarily with military and defensive architecture, continues with certain kinds of urban developments and official palaces, and ends with the more elusive category of symbolic expressions of power.
Grabar notes that when the frontiers of the Muslim world become stabilized around the middle of the 8th century, a more or less formalized system of defense became necessary. This defensive architecture included tower-like buildings of packed earth, walled cities with mighty gates, moats and citadels.
The walls and towers were massive structures constructed of materials characteristic of their geographical locations -- for example, stone in Syria and unbaked brick in eastern Iran.
Because gates often were dated, Grabar notes, they can serve as a gauge of the most common construction techniques and available materials at any given time, and they are among the best examples for the development of vaults. "For instance," Grabar writes, "in 11th- century Cairo or 14th-century Granada the gates were built with an unusual number of different techniques of vaulting. Squinches coexist with pendentives, barrel vaults with cross vaults, simple semicircular arches with pointed or horseshoe arches....It is possible that certain innovations in Islamic vaulting techniques, especially the elaboration of squinches and cross vaults, were the direct result of the importance of military architecture, for which strength and the prevention of fires, so common in wooden roofs and ceilings, were major objectives."
A fortified defensive unit, traditionally located in an urban center and occupied by a king or feudal lord, a citadel became the typical landmark of most Near Eastern cities. Among the most spectacular and best preserved, Grabar notes, is the one in Syria's Aleppo which can be reached only by a bridge over a moat. "Inside," Grabar writes, "ornate, formal audience halls adjoin mosques, baths, living quarters, even a religious sanctuary dedicated to Abraham, cisterns, granaries, and prisons. There is something very haphazard about the internal arrangements of Aleppo's citadel, possibly because of the rugged requirements of the terrain, but also because there was no set plan for citadels, nothing comparable to the formal order of Roman camps for instance, and Aleppo's citadel grew according to the whims of individual local rulers."
Islamic culture has always been primarily urban, notes Grabar, and early Islamic cities can be interpreted as expressions of power. Grabar cites as an example the founding of Baghdad in 759. "Astronomers presided over the tracing of this round city, roughly a miles in diameter," he writes. "A mighty wall with four axial gates, bearing the names of the provinces or cities towards which they led, enclosed an outer ring of living and commercial quarters, and, in the center, a mosque and the imperial palace. The latter was provided with two superimposed domes, the symbolic centers of the city and of the universe. The uppermost dome was green, topped with the statue of a rider, and it was echoed by four gilt domes, one over each gate. Nothing survives of this Baghdad and it did not last very long in its ideal state. Contemporary or nearly contemporary literary sources, however, are sufficiently precise to allow a reasonable reconstruction of a city whose geometric perfection, rationally conceived order, and even its name -- the City of Peace -- served as a physical demonstration of the new empire's power and universal claims."
The official palaces of the great age of Islamic civilization, Grabar writes, are poorly preserved and are known mostly through literary sources like the Thousand and One Nights. These palaces seem to have been, Grabar continues, sprawling conglomerates of many separate units, ranging from very functional and specific elements, such as baths and dwellings, to formal audience halls (cruciform in Samarra, basilical in Spain), gardens, and vast areas with no concretely identifiable purpose.
"The implication in almost all of these palaces," Grabar states, "is that their recognition as monuments of official power lay less in their individual architectural characteristics than in their general presence as walled enclosures, separating the world of power from the world of the common man."
According to Grabar, matters changed after the Mongol conquest. New and wealthy dynasties, a restructuring of the politically and economically important provinces, influences from Mongolia and China, and a conscious awareness of a traditional Islamic past revived an imperial desire for cities symbolizing and expressing power. Grabar cites as an example of this tradition the Isfahan of Shah Abbas where the commercial center, royal mosque, personal sanctuary and palace entrance met around a huge open space used for ceremonies, games, parades, executions and common urban activities.
Another example, Lewcock notes, is Fatehpur Sikri in India which was created in the early 17th century by the Mughal king Akbar. "Its triumphal arch, its sanctuaries, houses, offices, and especially its private and public audience halls," Grabar writes, "all served to make the power of the emperor permanently visible. Akbar's vision of the world is summed up in its extraordinary audience hall, which has in the middle a platform supported by a single column and connected with the four corners of the room."
One of the last and most modern of the palace complexes is the Topkapi in Istanbul which was still in use at the end of the 19th century. Grabar writes of Topkapi: "Surrounded by high walls, entered through one major formal gate, and impressively located on a hill over the Bosphorus, it consists of a large number of pavilions, formal as well as private dwellings, reception halls, treasuries, and practical establishments such as kitchens. It was built over the centuries, without formal compositional order but according to a subtler order of ceremonial and practical use. Almost every one of the palace's parts must be considered as a separate monument and some, for example, the Revan or Baghdad kiosks, are exquisite works of art. The quality and excitement of the Topkapi, just as in earlier palaces, can only be appreciated from within, from living there and participating in palace activities, not from its forceful impact on the surrounding world, like Versailles or the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg."
Architecture also can express power symbolically. Two examples of symbolic authority, notes Grabar, are religious buildings and mausoleums. For example, Grabar writes, the magnificent 12th-century minaret in Afghanistan or the 13th-century Qutb Minar were not so much places for the call to prayer but stunning proclamations of the power of the Faith. And, continues Grabar, the complex of the Court of Lions in Spain's Alhambra, as well as the Puerto del Vino outside the main palace complex, can be seen in part as symbols of the Muslim victory over Christians in 1369. "Human vanities and ambitions," Grabar states, "often prevailed over the strictures of the Faith."
Similarly, Grabar continues, the enormous monuments like the 14th-century mausoleum in Soltaniyeh and the 17th-century Taj Mahal were not so much private memorials as they were conspicuous displays of personal or dynastic wealth and glory.
A number of architectural constructs, Grabar notes, go beyond the expression of power to offer personal expression. For example, the Umayyad palaces of Syria, Jordan and Palestine, offer a wealth of decoration. Walls are covered with mosaics, stucco or stone ornament whose representational themes primarily illustrate the private worlds of the Arabian occupants.
The originality of Islamic architecture of power, Grabar concludes, is not so much in its forms as in the breadth of its uses. He states that the most consistent identification of a function of power lay in human uses and associations, in the ways in which official ceremonies and ordinary living determined the quality of the forms of power. "...Islamic architecture of power," Grabar writes, "appeared in a wide spectrum, ranging from the totally secret world of the prince to the public announcement of the rich city patrician. It demonstrated an extravagance both visible and invisible. The range of Islamic buildings from extremely private to totally public ones has been usually well preserved, and it lends itself to fundamental questions about the uses of architecture in pre-modern society."
The future of Islamic architecture
Certain architectural features have become fixed and eternal. In this modern world, they help us find our architectural roots and remain true to our identity.
Almost every architectural structure addresses, in a direct sense, cultural identity and philosophy within a physical context.
If we want to understand, appreciate, and evaluate the architectural quality of a building, we need to develop a sense of dimension, topography, climate, material, structure, and proportion, and of the surrounding physical environment -- both natural and human-made. This sense goes far beyond the building's ability to serve utilitarian needs.
The Islamic world -- and the Middle East in particular -- is undergoing a transformation today unprecedented in its history, writes architect Garry Martin in the essay "Building in the Middle East Today -- in Search of a Direction." Oil wealth, along with social and political change, have threatened Islamic culture and traditions. This identity crisis is readily apparent in architectural design.
A desire for rapid development, Martin notes, brought to the Middle East the massive importation of Western technology, planning, design and constructional expertise. Many of the new buildings in the Middle East, continues Martin, are direct imitations of Western models that were designed for another culture -- and they are creating an alien environment in Islamic communities.
Many Muslim planners and architects are reacting to this invasion of Western culture by reasserting their Islamic heritage. This leads to the questions of just what constitutes Islamic architecture!!! Central to this definition, Martin explains, is the Islamic concept of Unity. Writes Martin:
"The concept of Unity in multiplicity is the determining factor in integrating Islamic societies. Historically the revelation of Islam as expressed by the prophet Mohammed and the Holy Koran brought together the most diverse cultures and peoples from Spain across to India and beyond. The architecture of the Islamic world throughout history adapted and responded to different cultures and existing traditions of buildings without weakening the spiritual essence which was its source of inspiration. Urban centers in Islamic cities evolved over long periods of time with generations of craftsmen whose sensitivity and experience added variety and a diversity of styles to the environment. The traditional Islamic city reflected a unity which related the architecture of the mosque, the madrassa , the souq, palace and the home as a sequence of spaces... The identity of the city lay in the relationship of its elements. These relationships were generated by the harmonizing of the community with the forces acting on it, that enabled the interaction of cultures, building methods and methods to evolve an Islamic identity in the same way a language maintains its own identity even when it absorbs outside words."
Islamic architecture was in harmony with the people, their environment and their Creator, Martin adds. Yet no strict rules were applied to govern Islamic architecture. The great mosques of Cordoba, Edirne and Shah Jahan each used local geometry, local materials, local building methods to express in their own ways the order, harmony and unity of Islamic architecture. When the major monuments of Islamic architecture are examined, Martin writes, they reveal complex geometrical relationships, a studied hierarchy of form and ornament, and great depths of symbolic meaning.
But in the 20th century, the Islamic concepts of unity, harmony and continuity often are forgotten in the rush for industrial development. Martin lists three directions contemporary Islamic architecture has taken.
1. One approach is to completely ignore the past and produce Western-oriented architecture that ignores the Islamic spirit and undermines traditional culture.
2. The opposite approach involves a retreat, at least superficially, to the Islamic architectural past. This can result in hybrid buildings where traditional facades of arches and domes are grafted onto modern high-rises.
3. A third approach, Martin notes, is to understand the essence of Islamic architecture and to allow modern building technology to be a tool in the expression of this essence. Writes Martin, "Architects working today can take advantage of opportunities that new materials and mass production techniques offer. They have an opportunity to explore and transform the possibilities of the machine age for the enrichment of architecture in the same way that craftsmen explored the nature of geometrical and arabesque patterns..."
The forms that would evolve from this approach, adds Martin, would have a regional identity, a stylistic evolution and a relevance to the eternal principles of Islam.
In the Islamic and Arabic world, we find great architects such as: Hassan Fat'hy is arguing for the nobility and wisdom of vernacular architecture in the face of imported models that are alien to Islamic society. Moreover, there is Rifat Chadirji whose entire life has been dedicated to the search for a suitable contemporary architectural expression that is inspired by the authentic heritage of his region. These, and many more such as: Basil Al-Bayyati, and Abdel Wahed El Wakil are the gladiators in the arena of competing concepts of architecture in the Muslim world. They have contributed significantly to the evolving patterns of the built environment, to the intellectual debate prevailing in the Muslim world, and to the architectural profession's image of its role as articulator and promulgator of societal values.
The impact of Islamic arts on the West
The idea of a traditional Islamic art and architecture that began in 7th-century Syria and grew to encompass the art and architecture of lands from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans, write Blair and Bloom (1994), is a creation of late 19th- and 20th-century Western thought. According to Blair and Bloom, there is no evidence that early Muslim artists ever thought of their work as Islamic.
Nor can it be said that there is a dominant style or influence that defines Islamic art. The Moorish Alhambra and the Indian Taj Mahal show that Islamic art and architecture has definite regional variations. However, scholars have devoted much effort to the identification of unifying principles in Islamic art -- geometric design and the arabesque, for example.
It can be said, however, that the art and architecture of Islamic countries has long influenced the West. Blair and Bloom note that a painting such as The Reception of a Venetian Embassy in Damascus , attributed to the school of Bellini in the early 16th century, was undoubtedly the work of an artist familiar with the topography and monuments of Damascus. And the 17th-century Dutch painter Rembrandt owned a collection of several dozen Mughal and Deccani paintings which he copied.
The influential Viennese publication of Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach's general history of architecture in 1721 included Arab, Turkish and Persian architectural representations. The book lead to the design of several European structures in a quasi-Oriental manner. Write Bloom and Blair, "Although Fischer von Erlach's sources were such public monuments as mosques, the resulting designs were almost exclusively for such civil structures as kiosks, pavilions, palaces, and theaters, all pertaining to an architecture of leisure with which the Orient was invariably associated."
In 1750, Frederick, the Prince of Wales, commissioned the English architect William Chambers (1723-1796) to design an "Alhambra" for the gardens at Kew. The resulting design had little in common with the original Alhambra in Spain except for the paired slender columns used for support. Chambers followed this design with an octagonal pavilion in the form of a mosque. "It was based on a free improvisation on the domed Ottoman mosques flanked by minarets illustrated by Fischer von Erlach," write Blair and Bloom. "A pagoda completed the trio of exotic buildings... at Kew."
As European visitors to Turkey became familiar with the kiosks in public gardens where coffee and other beverages were served, the visitors brought home their interest in the structures. And the new kiosks built in Europe not only served their original function as garden pavilions but also developed into band-stands and news-stands.
British artists and architects also found inspiration in the monuments of Muslim India. One of the first British artists to visit Agra, William Hodges (1746-1797), drew and painted the beauties of the Taj Mahal. And English landscape painter Thomas Daniell (1749-1840) published Oriental Scenery in six folio-sized parts between 1795 and 1808. Blair and Bloom write that each part had 24 hand-colored aquatint plates that brought Indian scenes to a wide audience. The popularity of the prints led Daniell to publish a separate volume dedicated exclusively to the Taj Mahal. Daniell later was hired as a consultant to help design a British residence with such features as a bulbous dome with corner chatris and overhanging eaves, cusped arches and pinnacles.
The future George IV commissioned architect John Nash (1752-1835) to remodel an unfinished structure at the Royal Pavilion. With inspiration from Daniell's publications, Nash designed a pavilion with a large central ogival dome offset by four subsidiary domes. "The Oriental fantasy," write Blair and Bloom, "extended as far as the kitchens, where iron palm trees with copper fronds support the roof, but Nash used the latest technology, such as cast-iron ceiling frames and columns. In addition to giving the royal nod to the Oriental mode, the building set the style for glazed conservatories with bulbous domes."
Also drawing numerous visitors from Europe and America was the Alhambra. After visiting the site, British architect Owen Jones ( designed two palatial houses in Kensington Palace Gardens in the Moorish style. And in 1854, he created an Alhambra Court, following the Court of the Lions, for the reconstructed Crystal Palace in Sydenham.
Some of the earliest and finest examples of Orientalism in Western painting were produced by French artist Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) who had been to Morocco in 1832. Write Blair and Bloom, "(Delacroix's) opportunity to visit a harem, apparently the dream of almost every nineteenth-century man, resulted in a picture such as his Femmes d'Alger , painted two years later in 1834."
After touring Syria, Palestine and Europe, American landscape painter Fredric Church (1826-1900) did a series of Mediterranean compositions that included scenes from Jerusalem and Petra. Church also returned from his trip with an enthusiasm for Islamic architecture. And after 1870, he devoted most of his efforts to the design and construction of his estate at Greendale-on-Hudson, New York. The mansion was called Olana, from the Arabic word for "our place on high." Blair and Bloom write that the house combined Alhambra motifs, simplified Hindu detail and Persian tilework. Piazza columns and the stencils in the Court Hall also are based on Persian motifs.
A number of 19th-century international exhibitions further introduced the West to Islamic arts. The Great Exhibition of 1851 at London's Crystal Palace included Persian exhibits of carpets and carpet design that held influence over William Morris (1834-1896), the poet, designer and theorist of the Arts and Crafts movement. Morris did not imitate the Persian designs but found inspiration in their geometric patterns. Morris' own carpet designs -- with their rich colors, coherent patterns and planar surfaces -- show the impact Persian Vase carpets had on the English artist, write Blair and Bloom.
Discerning European collectors were drawn to ceramics from the Islamic world. British collectors amassed collections of Ottoman ceramics known as Damascus or Rhodian wares, as well as Persian luster tiles and vessels. And, according to Blair and Bloom, this interest led to a revival of luster techniques in Europe. The designs of ceramicist-artist William De Morgan (1839-1917), continue Blair and Bloom, exemplify the Islamic mood that began to appear in the 1880s, partly as an expression of the Near Eastern romanticism and partly because of the affinity of the arabesque with the sinuous forms favored by the Art Noveau movement.
According to Blair and Bloom, the French painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954) may be the greatest Western artist to integrate his own work with the influences of Islamic art. Matisse not only attended a number of exhibitions of Islamic art, but he also traveled to southern Spain, Morocco and Algeria. Blair and Bloom write that while Matisse's predecessors had added Oriental motifs to give their works an exotic flavor, Matisse actually incorporated the lessons he learned from viewing Islamic art into his paintings. In The Painter's Family , for example, Matisse's tripartite composition and the flattened perspective are devices common to Persian manuscript paintings, as are the figures that seem to float in space.
It should be noted that while the arts in 19th- and 20th-century European and American countries were feeling the influence of Islamic arts and architecture, the reverse was occurring as well. Islamic arts and architecture began to experience the influence of Western artistry -- and technology.