UNDERSTANDING THE PHILOSOPHY OF ISLAMIC ARCHITECTURE

This write-up intends to make people of the region aware of the beauty and the richness of their culture, when it comes to architecture and the living environment. Unfortunately few people only are aware of the richness of the past and this text only intends to attract attention and trigger the interest for further reading and discovery of this vast domain, hoping that the reader will look at buildings in another manner.

 This write-up intends to make people of the region aware of the beauty and the richness of their culture, when it comes to architecture and the living environment. Unfortunately few people only are aware of the richness of the past and this text only intends to attract attention and trigger the interest for further reading and discovery of this vast domain, hoping that the reader will look at buildings in another manner.

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The terminology of Islamic Architecture is often used in this part of the world. There is no such thing as Islamic or Christian Architecture. The architecture used by Muslims has a social meaning and it is therefore used as Islamic architecture, meaning the architecture used by the Muslims. There are some fundamental principles, which are very often misunderstood or not perceived. The Islamic architecture took over fourteen centuries to develop and we should not allow this wealth to vanish under the excuse of modernity. Islamic Architecture is a way of life, not forms or shapes and colours.

 

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In broad terms, the Middle East lives as a community, much more than the West where individualism is heavily promoted. Philosophically, the desire of the community, its identity and its status is what is important, not what the individual wants. There is the first fundament, seldom acknowledged, which is a very fine and invisible line which acts as barrier between the public and the private life. These two lives are completely separate and never gets mixed. The overall architecture is not about affirmation, but perception. From this invisible line all elements are carved in. A balcony is cut in the volume towards the inside; whilst in the West it protrudes. However, if it needs to be protruding it is done in another material, often in wood. These balconies are called mousharabyehs, coming from the origin of “not” and “drinking”, as the partitions placed during Ramadan, in front of the fountains.

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The Middle-Eastern architecture is about the non-built, emptying from the overall volume, rather than the built.

There are generally two types of building only, those used as public buildings, such as the mosque, the Hammam, the Palace, the souq, or the Madressahs. Their language is totally different from the private residences. They all have a façade, used as an advertisement, or a décor, raised in front of the building, standing tall to indicate the use of the space to come. These walls are not treated as volumes, but are very ornate, however only on their visible part. Islamic architecture seldom uses axis and symmetry and does not allow the grasp of the entirety. This is based on the principle that only God can see the global picture. We see only part of it. Comparing a motive from the West and from the East, one sees that the West celebrates a square for example for itself, whilst the same square is only part of a global picture in the Islamic Architecture.

 

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There are elements in the public architecture, such as the skirting or the plinth, which are designed higher than the human scale, to demonstrate that in the house of God, or in the palace, the human being is smaller than the skirting. Doors are much higher than normal. This aims at showing the supremacy of the system, of the community, rather than the individual. The same was also used in the Roman or Greek temples, or more recently in the fascist architecture of Hitler or Mussolini, where the system had to be shown as being solid and much more important than the individual.

The decoration in public buildings is also extremely interesting. In the 16th Century, a king of Persia wanted to have a large mirror in his palace in Isfahan. The mirror arrived safely but broke at arrival. The king was upset and ordered a new mirror, His architect recommended to use the pieces of the mirror in minuscule pieces and create an artwork. The person in charge of ceramics also found the idea interesting and never threw any pieces away anymore. The result is a mind-blowing richness of forms and shapes, which came as a result of an economical point of view, not an aesthetical. The Islamic art is full of this richness but not much has been written about these.

Having touched upon some obvious elements let us look at the most important aspect of Islamic architecture. As mentioned before this type of architecture relates to community. Any building is part of a town-planning exercise. Nothing is complete. Private residences always leave some room for future extensions, and public buildings are also set in a larger landscaped area to allow future expansions. Buildings and their environment are working as a network, streets and external spaces exist only as part of the social organization.

Let us look at the residential or private part of the architecture. The main façade opening towards the outside is almost plain with an entrance, carved in the thickness of the wall.

It was traditionally part of an octagon. Islamic builders were always remarkable mathematicians and experts in geometry. They realized that and octagon can only reveal three of its eight sides, no matter from which angle it is perceived. So they cut the octagon diagonally and showed 5 sides. This carved-in entrance is the collision of two volumes. To pass from one volume to another via a diagonal, these architects have developed a language known as Mouqarnass. The entrance is constituted by the recess, where two pedestals are located on each side of the door. This would allow the visitors to sit whilst waiting for the door to be opened or where people would place food for the beggars. The door is constituted by two panels, left and right, which each has its own knob with two different sounds. One is made for the female, the other for the male. Whilst waiting, the visitor can admire the intricacies of the Mouqarnass.

The house is divided into three parts, the public part, where usually male visitors would go. This place represents the social status of the landlord. The second part is the private areas, located around an indoor courtyard, with a basin, even very tiny surrounded by flowers and vegetation. Light and shadow are part of the designer’s palette. Windows will have coloured glass on their sides or on their top, to prevent mosquitoes to enter the house. Ceilings are usually quite high, and there are carpets laying around, being the furniture of the house.

The third part, which is extremely important and hardly taken into account these days, is the staff area. Located near the entrance, it is the link between the private and the public areas, not just physically, but also relationally. Servants which spend their lives with the same family, know the in an outs of the place and often serve as mediators between the family members. The master of the house for example cannot talk about the relations with women to his son, but the male servant can, and is usually quite close to all the family.

This three-side relation creates the organic disposition in the house. Whilst the servant quarters comes and goes discreetly, the inner family goes discreetly, and the public part is very visible. The relation between the spaces is also managed in terms of ceiling heights. Echo, amplification or subtlety is created by a wise change of heights and widths of the inner spaces of the house.

Relations in Islamic architecture are very sensual, and what is not explicit is by far more important than what is obvious.

There is a lot to say about this philosophy of life and its translation into volumes and forms. Everybody can contribute to make this richer, but it is important to remember that we shape our future based on the values from the past and in the manner we preserve them. Technology can make improvements, social behaviours can change, but the essence does not change. This is the legacy we leave for the generations to come. In Oman, centuries ago, the Portuguese were building forts to control the movement of vessels carrying slaves. Their architecture, is unfortunately inspiring many buildings in Oman, with coronations, as defensive architecture element, which bear no relation to the local friendly character of the people.

If only we could ensure that the extremely rich local culture is used as a pedestal for the designs and not copying elements or designs from external influence, when we have so much to get inspired from within our own culture.

Creating an environment in which we live and which corresponds to our traditions, would make the future generations respect what their ancestors have left them.

Saleh Miri

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