Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sacred Space for Muslim Americans

Front Cover of New York's Elan magazine

Mosques have been a reason for intense debates both within the Muslim community and outside of it. Maryam Eskandari, an architect at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and MIT, currently has a traveling exhibit on American Mosques. She brings a new angle to the debate discussing the role of architecture as an identity issue. Her exhibit, Sacred Space: (Re)Constructing the Place of Gender in the Space of Religion is touring the nation. We sat down with the architect and artist for an interview.

How did you choose this topic for your exhibit?

This “mosque” project actually started 5 years ago when I was working on another project in Seattle Washington. It was during the holy month of Ramadan. I got an opportunity to engage with the Muslims in Seattle, in which they commissioned my firm to design their mosque. During the design process, we constantly were confronted with, allocating an accurate space for the performance of prayers. It is amazing to see how emotional people get when the issue of space is discussed. What was fascinating to see is how this particular community was able to come together during their mosque project. From my first mosque, it led me to numerous projects for the various Muslim communities throughout the States. However, one project was confronted with a huge obstacle. While we were designing, and going through case studies of various mosques in the states, we started to realize that as Muslims, we do not necessarily have an identity, an American Muslim identity, when it comes to mosques, while other countries---particularly in the Middle East do. So the questioning of identity and gender kept coming up in the design projects. That was when finally last summer; the Aga Khan Program in Islamic Architecture funded my research to visit 32 American Mosques that reside in a highly dense Muslim population across the US. However, while engaged in the project, it lead to over 100 mosques and it still continues. We were able to capture the history, space, and architecture of each mosque, along with the stories that either the community would share with us, or our own adventures that we had.

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