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Architectural Mecca
11/30/04 at 10:32:40
Architectural Mecca
Building design flavored by Islam
Most U.S. cities have buildings with echoes of Islamic design
- Jonathan Curiel, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2004

In 1961, a year before designing the World Trade Center towers, American architect Minoru Yamasaki completed a much smaller project that would influence the look of his new creation in New York City.

The project was 6,000 miles away, in a country Yamasaki would visit many times over the next decade, Saudi Arabia. It's clear from the layout of the World Trade Center that Yamasaki incorporated aspects of Islamic design into the towers.

This pattern was most visible at the base of the buildings, which were ringed by pointed arches resembling those found in mosques and on Muslim prayer rugs. The plaza fronting the towers paid homage to Mecca, Islam's holiest place, by replicating that city's courtyard layout, according to architect Laurie Kerr, who has studied Yamasaki's work.

Yamasaki himself described the trade center plaza, which featured a circular fountain and places to sit, as a mecca -- "an oasis, a paved garden where people can spend a few moments to relieve the tensions and monotonies of the usual working day."

For 29 years -- from the time the first World Trade Center tower was completed in 1972 to Sept. 11, 2001, when two hijacked planes leveled the buildings -- there was little general awareness that New York's tallest and most visible towers reflected Yamasaki's interest in Islamic architecture.

No plaque pointed out this connection. No literature extolled it. Yamasaki himself didn't publicize it, even though he dropped plenty of hints in his 1979 autobiography, "A Life in Architecture," in which he expressed his admiration for Islamic arches and included photos of all his important projects -- photos that reveal a pattern of Islamic-inspired design.

"The idea of a pointed, ribbed arch was beautifully replicated in the World Trade Center," says Nezar AlSayyad, a UC Berkeley architecture professor who worked with Yamasaki for two years on another project. "It's ironic it was used in the World Trade Center, which is then understood by the hijackers as a symbol of Western capitalism."

Although the trade center was perhaps the most prominent example of Islamic-influenced architecture in the United States, there are other notable examples in every major American city.

In San Francisco, the Alcazar Theatre is an almost gaudy monument to Muslim architecture. In Berkeley, the Berkeley City Club Hotel designed by Julia Morgan has an obvious Moorish influence. And scholars say San Rafael's Marin County Civic Center -- with its blue, mosque-like dome and towering antenna, which resembles an ancient minaret -- reflects Persian and Islamic sensibilities.

Frank Lloyd Wright, America's most noteworthy architect, designed the civic center in the late 1950s after going to Baghdad for a project commissioned by Iraq's ruler, King Faisal II.

Wright, who also visited Iran, had a lifelong interest in Islamic architecture and a deep admiration for Persian aesthetics. He made no secret of this, but 40 years after his death, this side of Wright has been almost lost in the United States' collective memory of him.

In fact, the history of Islamic-influenced architecture in the United States hasn't been given its due for many years. It dates back at least to the late 19th century -- longer if Moorish architecture (a blend of Islamic and Spanish) is considered.

Moorish buildings have existed in the United States since before the 18th century, primarily in the Southwest, where former Spanish citizens brought with them an architectural sense influenced by years of Muslim rule in Spain.

Southwestern buildings were often made out of adobe, a sun-dried brick that takes its name from the Arabic word for brick, al-toba.

"American architecture that's been influenced by Islamic architecture goes back much before the World Trade Center," says Mina Marefat, an architecture scholar at the Library of Congress who directs the institution's Islamic Cities Project and who has taught at MIT, Johns Hopkins and Wesleyan University.

"It goes back to the time when you had authentic adobe architecture in New Mexico, Texas and California. That architecture comes directly from the Moorish-Spanish Muslims in Spain. The indigenous housing (in the Southwest) was almost identical to the indigenous housing of the Middle East and the Islamic world."

Islamic architecture is, of course, rooted in Islamic traditions, but the term itself refers to a style of building and design that, as used in the West, has no religious significance.

Yamasaki, Wright and other architects were simply carrying out a long tradition of cross-cultural give-and-take, in which architects look to established traditions in other countries for inspiration.

Architects in the Muslim world do it, too, as illustrated in the oldest surviving example of Islamic architecture -- the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Built in 692, the building took its cues from Byzantine architecture (hence its wall mosaics and hexagonal shape), but it also established a new visual identity for Muslims with its emphasis on floral geometric patterns, Koranic inscriptions and absence of any human likeness.

Although floral designs were used by Greeks and Romans long before the advent of Islam, Muslims took the art form to a new level, just as they reinvented Byzantine arches and domes to produce their own style of architecture.

Pointed arches became one of the trademarks of Muslim architecture and design, as symbolized by the mihrab, the mosque prayer niche that faces Mecca.

Pointed arches and elaborate domes can be seen in major Muslim buildings around the world, including the Taj Mahal in Agra, India; the Sultan Ahmet mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque) in Istanbul, Turkey; and the turquoise arabesques of the celebrated Shah Mosque in Esfahan, Iran.

Islamic architecture has influenced European culture even more than it has American culture, as is evident in Venice on Italy's Adriatic coast.

In her book, "Venice & the East," scholar Deborah Howard, a professor of architectural history at the University of Cambridge, points out that Venetian builders in the 12th through 15th centuries borrowed heavily from Muslim architecture.

Arch styles, heightened domes, relief works on walls, even staircase patterns were taken directly from the Muslim world, which had a flourishing commercial relationship with Venice.

Today, major buildings in Venice, including the Palazzo Ducale, or Doges' Palace, built in the 1460s, testify to this influence.

More modern examples can be seen in the works of Antonio Gaudi, the great Spanish architect who studied Islamic art and architecture and even incorporated its themes into Spanish church buildings, such as the school he built for a convent in Ejica, Spain.

In the United States, some adaptations of Islamic architecture have bordered on the fantastical or the absurd. In 1917, when San Francisco architect T. Patterson Ross designed a Shriners' Temple at 650 Geary St. (it's now the Alcazar Theatre), he included traditional Islamic sayings on outside walls along with one in Arabic that reportedly read, "Great is Allah, and Great is Ross the Architect!"

In the mid-1920s, developer Glen Curtiss bought land north of Miami and built an entire city of Moorish buildings. Under Curtiss' plan, nearly every building in Opa-locka, Fla., had a dome and minaret. It became known as "the Baghdad of the South" and "the Baghdad of Florida."

Opa-locka still exists. It boasts of having the largest collection of Moorish architecture in the Western Hemisphere. Twenty of its buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Curtiss was inspired by his lifelong love of the book of Arab tales, "A Thousand and One Nights" (a book Wright also loved in childhood), as well as the popular 1924 silent film, "The Thief of Baghdad," which featured exotic film sets and starred Douglas Fairbanks as the robber who sneaks into the palace of a caliph and falls for a princess. Streets in Opa-locka include Ali Baba Avenue and Sharazad Boulevard.

The 1920s saw a wave of Islamic-influenced architecture in the United States. Although some of these buildings were outrageous, there were also serious attempts to copy and understand Islamic art and architecture.

In 1925, Princeton philosophy Professor Arthur Upham Pope, who would later write "Persian Architecture," came back from Iran and held a Philadelphia exhibit that featured re-creations of Muslim architecture, Marefat says.

Marefat says Pope's embrace of Persian and Islamic themes inspired interest by a who's who of wealthy Americans, including banker Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller and Doris Duke, who recreated a 17th century Esfahan palace in Honolulu in 1936. Today, it houses the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

The 1950s and early '60s saw another wave of Islamic-inspired architecture in the United States, thanks to such figures as Wright, Yamasaki and Edward Durrell Stone who -- in the post-World War II United States -- not only looked to the East but traveled there for work.

In 1953, Stone went to India, where, inspired by the Taj Mahal, he designed the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. When Stone returned to the United States, he infused all his buildings with aspects of Mughal and Muslim architecture, Kerr says, citing New York's 2 Columbus Circle, which features a series of curved arches, and Washington's Kennedy Center, whose colonnades are odes to Islamic architecture, she says.

Yamasaki also went to New Delhi, where he designed a U.S. pavilion for the world's agricultural fair in 1959. (Starting in 1953, the State Department encouraged American architects doing U.S.-sponsored work overseas to "give serious study" to the host country's culture and architecture, a fact Kerr found in researching Yamasaki's and Stone's work.)

Featured in his book "A Life in Architecture," Yamasaki's pavilion emphasized a series of shimmering mosque-like domes that were raised above its walkways.

His subsequent work in Saudi Arabia, where his projects included the 1961 airport terminal in Dhahran and the 1982 Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency Headquarters in Riyadh, solidified his love of Muslim architecture.

The Saudi government liked Yamasaki's interpretations of Muslim arches so much, AlSayyad says, that it called them Yamasaki arches and copied them in other Saudi projects, such as the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran. The government also featured Yamasaki's Dhahran terminal on a Saudi bank note.

It's in the context of all these projects that Yamasaki's World Trade Center fits in. The New York project wasn't an aberration but part of a 20- year pattern in which Yamasaki worked to integrate architecture from lands where Islam was prominent.

After Sept. 11, a smattering of experts, including Kerr, pointed out the links between the World Trade Center and Muslim architecture, but Yamasaki's architecture firm, Minoru Yamasaki Associates, has been reluctant to discuss the connections and did not return calls for this story. (Yamasaki died in 1986.)

Kerr and other experts say that, in a post-Sept. 11 environment where the word "Islam" has been closely associated with terrorism, some architects are reluctant to admit that their buildings have been influenced by Islamic architecture.

Vic Roberts, the publisher of blank personal journals whose covers feature stunning examples of Islamic architecture, faced reservations when he discussed the project with bookstores and book reps in the United States.

The series, "Islamic Tileworks," shows patterns of architecture from buildings in Esfahan, Casablanca, Samarkand and other famous Islamic cities. Since January, many thousands have been sold to people taken by their beautiful geometric forms.

"A lot of people in America wanted me to change the name of it," says Roberts, whose company, Hartley & Marks Publishers, is based in Vancouver, B.C. "But I think that people have to recognize that Islamic architecture has a beautiful history.

"In publishing it, we want people to reflect on their simple stereotypes. People see the beauty, then read the story (of that architecture) on the inside back cover. These books are about beauty, and they're about history."

The history of Islamic architecture will always be intertwined with the United States, Europe and other continents, says Nasser Rabbat, Aga Khan professor of Islamic architecture at MIT. Even during the Crusades, he says, Europeans who went to the Holy Land were changed by what they saw in Egypt, Syria and other countries.

Gothic architecture may even stem from Crusaders who returned from the Middle East and applied the mathematical and architectural knowledge they learned there. It works in reverse, too, with architects in Islamic countries inspired by what they see or read about in non-Muslim countries.

"Cultures have constantly mixed and seen one another, either in war or peace," Rabbat says. "It used to be that people thought of the world in terms of purely, independently developed cultures each having its own language, whether it's culinary, visual, literary, architectural.

"But there are those of us who subscribe to the multicultural method, where we no longer believe in the notion of a purity and insularity of a cultural development. ... The influence is continuous, mutual and never ceases. "

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