Mosque makeover

Times Staff Writer

Perhaps the most direct way to describe the new Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, among the largest mosques built in this country since the 2001 terrorist attacks, is to call it conservative twice over. Designed for a site in the Roxbury neighborhood by Boston firm Steffian Bradley and Saudi Arabian architect Sami Angawi, it is full of references to centuries-old Islamic landmarks, including a row of peaked arches at street level and a 140-foot-tall minaret. In classic New England style, it’s also wrapped entirely in red brick.

In its combination of pride and caution, the 60,000-square-foot building -- delayed by controversy and a pair of lawsuits, and finally set for completion early next year -- has a good deal to say about the uneasy relationship between Islam and the West and the future of mosque architecture in the U.S.

As Muslims put down deeper roots in this country and Europe, they are increasingly moving out of the storefront mosques and converted community rooms they took over a generation ago and building new complexes that rival Christian mega-churches in size and ambition. Opposition to new mosques has been particularly sharp in Britain, Germany and other nations where Muslim communities are both larger and less well integrated into the wider culture than in this country.

But getting one approved and built in the U.S. has become nearly as complicated, despite a history of religious tolerance here that has given churches, mosques and synagogues wide legal latitude. It requires forging alliances with local politicians and producing a design capable of satisfying a diverse, multiethnic group of worshipers, with Middle Eastern, African American and South Asian Muslims often praying under the same roof.

Most new mosques in the West are designed in a broadly inoffensive Pan-Islamic style. It draws from a short menu of required items: ceremonial entry portal, minaret and domed prayer hall featuring traditional versions of the mihrab, a niche pointing the way to Mecca, and minbar, a stepped pulpit.


Since funding for many new mosques comes from Saudi Arabia, their architecture is based to a growing degree on Islamic architecture in that country, the birthplace of the faith. (That is also the biggest source of the controversy surrounding their construction, since Saudi leaders have been accused of using mosques to advance a fundamentalist form of Islam, known as Wahabbism, that many here see as stridently anti-Western.) As a result, the diverse regional variation that once marked the building type -- with mud-brick mosques in Mali looking nothing like grand designs in Istanbul or filigreed ones in India -- has faded.


The Modern is history

Indeed, the brief period in the second half of the 20th century when mosque design was enriched by Modernist architecture and Western influence now seems like the distant past. Few remember that Louis Kahn and Paolo Portoghesi designed remarkable mosques. Highly inventive architects such as Zlatko Ugljen, whose 1980 White Mosque in Bosnia-Herzegovina has more in common with Frank Gehry’s work than with Middle Eastern precedents, have remained peripheral figures.

When mosque architects in the West move away from reassuring traditionalism these days, they risk becoming scapegoats for the inevitable ire such buildings raise. Consider the case of 40-year-old London architect Ali Mangera. Mangera, a Muslim born in South Africa, worked briefly for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago before taking a job in the London office of Zaha Hadid, the celebrated Iraqi-born architect.

In 2001, Mangera left Hadid’s practice to start a firm with Ada Yvars Bravo, a Catalan architect. In short order the pair landed what appeared to be the commission of a lifetime: a new mosque and Islamic cultural center in east London, just a few hundred yards from the main grounds for London’s 2012 Summer Olympics. It would be the largest mosque in Europe and the biggest religious building in Britain, with a budget of at least $200 million. With a capacity of 70,000 for special events, it would hold just 10,000 fewer people than the planned Olympic Stadium nearby.

From the beginning, the marriage between architect and client was an odd one. The driving force behind the mosque is Tablighi Jamaat, a media-shy group that promotes an ascetic, deeply conservative version of Islam. Mangera, like his former boss Hadid, is fluent in the latest digital-design techniques and sees architecture primarily as a vehicle for innovation.

As he began work on the design, Mangera studied a number of contemporary Western mosques and was dismayed by what he called their “cartoon look.” He complained to a reporter that British Muslims tend to “build mosques with fake domes and plastic minarets to look like the mosques back home.” In a recent e-mail he elaborated: “The tradition of mosque building is not a static art but one which is evolutionary and responsive to changing needs.”

He makes a persuasive point. Of all the world’s major religions, Islam is the least constrained by architectural or liturgical requirements. The word “mosque,” in the literal sense, means simply a place of prostrations. Because Muslims pray five times each day, they often must do so outside a mosque proper. That means that any room can serve as a mosque, at least for the duration of a prayer. (Even a line in the sand or a prayer rug on an office floor can suffice, as long as it faces Mecca.) It also means that Islam doesn’t have a legacy of fixed, sacred space the way Christianity and Judaism do.

Thanks to Islam’s strong aversion to figurative ornament, Muslim architects developed a rich abstract design language over the centuries. Islam’s main universal architectural symbol, the Ka’ba in Mecca, is a powerfully spare, windowless cube draped in black fabric.

With that history in mind, Mangera set out to produce a design that would remind Muslims that the golden age of mosque architecture, from roughly the 9th through 13th centuries, was also a period of intellectual ferment and great pride in Islamic discovery in the arts and sciences.

His goal was to recapture the ambitious spirit that shaped those landmark mosques rather than merely re-creating their architectural forms.

And he had quite a canvas to work with: Though the site of the London mosque once held a sulfuric acid plant, its proximity to the Olympic site made it a prominent piece of real estate. The mosque has the potential to serve as a Muslim hub during the Olympics -- and to gain worldwide exposure as a TV backdrop to the Games.

Mangera produced a fluid, abstract design, with a latticed roof replacing the traditional dome and encircling a spacious central courtyard. Wind turbines stood in for minarets. As seen from above, the mosque was designed to resemble a quotation from the Koran spelled out in Arabic calligraphy.

The design first showed up in the press early last year, less than a year after four British-born Muslim suicide bombers attacked the London subway in July 2005, killing 52 people. Predictably enough, it was swept up in the post-bombing controversy about the role of Muslims in British society.

Though some in the press were kind to Mangera -- the Guardian’s architecture critic, Jonathan Glancey, praised the design as “a 21st century London Alhambra” -- the architect and his ambitious proposal came in for regular attacks.

“I feel I’m being accused of designing a bomb factory,” Mangera lamented at the time.


Architects ‘sacked’

It seems likely that the innovative nature of Mangera’s design startled Tablighi Jamaat leaders. At the very least, he made a convenient victim when controversy flared up. This spring, they decided to give up on Mangera’s design. (“Architects Sacked Over Designs for Huge Mosque,” a headline in the Evening Standard blared.) They handed the job to Allies and Morrison, a well-established London firm that recently refurbished Royal Albert Hall and is active in the Olympic planning effort.

Bob Allies, a partner in the firm, said in an interview that he had enlisted a young Muslim female architect in the office, Hina Farooqi, to help oversee the project.

“She is keen to think inventively about the issue of how women are treated and use the space,” he said. He added that the firm was pursuing a design that “might still seem radical” compared with most new Western mosques and that he didn’t see any reason it couldn’t be completed before the start of the 2012 Olympics.

Still, the congregation seems to have learned quickly from the controversy, at least in terms of public relations. The scale of the project has been substantially scaled down: According to Allies, the mosque will hold just 3,000 for weekly sessions, with a maximum of 10,000 worshipers -- instead of the original figures of 40,000 and 70,000.

One of the mosque’s trustees, Abdul Sattar Shahid, explained the decision to bring in Allies and Morrison by praising the firm’s “wonderful background of delivering practical yet inspiring buildings.” Emphasis on practical.


Boston reactions

Back in Boston, the Roxbury mosque prompted similar controversy. Columnists and bloggers made much of the fact that the Islamic Society of Boston had accepted $1 million in funding from the Islamic Development Bank, controlled by the governments of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Libya, among others.

A Boston man, James C. Policastro, sued to block the mosque in 2004, claiming that the Boston Redevelopment Agency, which sold the Roxbury property to the ISB, had given it a sweetheart deal. The ISB fired back with a suit of its own, charging the Boston Herald and a pro-Israel group called the David Project, among others, with defamation for accusing it of links to radical Islam.

As donations slowed, so did work on the mosque. ISB leaders reduced the scope of the project, putting off a planned school at the site and trimming the construction budget from $24 million to roughly $15 million.

Eventually, though, a kind of detente was reached. Policastro’s suit was dismissed, and the ISB dropped its legal claims after liberal Jews and Christians in Boston stepped in to help mediate. Construction resumed, and last June the ISB held a topping-off ceremony to mark the completion of the minaret. It attracted an estimated 2,500 people and became a highly emotional, even cathartic event, with mosque leaders crying openly and their supporters chanting celebratory slogans.

Later that month, the ISB organized what it called an Intercommunity Solidarity Day on the mosque grounds. At least 250 people gathered to hear prayers in Arabic, Hebrew and English. Two men who started a website called presented the congregation with a $2,000 donation they’d raised online.

Once regular Friday services begin at the mosque early next year, worshipers will enter from busy Malcolm X Boulevard, named for America’s most famous Muslim leader, through a so-called Gate of Peace. They will move into a lobby and turn to the left into a light-filled prayer hall oriented to face Mecca. Men will pray on the ground floor, and women in a separate, somewhat less grand mezzanine space above.

By the standards of contemporary architectural fashion, the Roxbury mosque is retrograde -- mere pastiche. Unlike Mangera’s design, it seems reluctant to stir up the issue of what role progress and innovation -- as opposed simply to faith -- should play in contemporary Islam. It shies away from important questions some progressive U.S. Muslims are asking about the role of women in their congregations.

As an example of architectural diplomacy, though, it has emerged as a surprising, multilayered success story.