Former Associate Director of the American Institute of Architects Maryam Eskandari discussed the roles of gender, architectural functionality and modernity in a public lecture before an audience of about 25 on Wednesday night.
Eskandari, who is currently working on a post-professional degree in modern Islamic architecture in the West, said that her inspiration started with an interest in American mosques.
While American mosques seem to be at risk, following a trend in Europe to ban the minaret and the Ground Zero controversy, Eskandari noted that American mosques have been supported in the past by figures like Eisenhower and Rockefeller.
“Eisenhower stated that this mosque was part of a rich tradition,” Eskandari said. Years later, when funding fell short for a new mosque, “Rockefeller stepped in and paid $1 million for a minaret.”
From the first major American mosque, designed by Mario Rossi in 1949, to the high point of American mosques in 1980, to the current 1,500 mosques that exist throughout the country, American mosques have experienced a transition from more traditional architecture to postmodern designs.
Rossi’s mosque was commissioned to honor a Turkish ambassador who had died in Washington, D.C., and, like most of the mosques of its time, it was very nostalgic of traditional architecture.
Park51, on the other hand, was designed to be very clean-cut and modern — and despite all the controversy that surrounded its location near Ground Zero — was intended to signal unity among different faiths.
“It was supposed to bring the three Abrahamic faiths together, and it had a very postmodern, contemporary style of architecture,” Eskandari said.
While Eskandari described the push for an end to American mosques as an external force, she also described the internal force of gender equality within mosques.
“Ahmad Mokhtar wrote that women didn’t need equal space, since they prayed less since women don’t pray during the menstrual period,” Eskandari said. “To me that doesn’t make sense anymore.”
While the first mosques actually promoted gender equality, Eskandari said, she described how over time men and women became segregated in mosques, with men taking the main floor so that women had to pray in the back, the balcony or the basement.
“We tend to forget that men and women actually [once] prayed together,” Eskandari said.
To promote equality between men and women, Eskandari proposed many different layouts, including barriers down the middle of the mosque or a design similar to those of modern churches.
“The problem is clearly the body and the position of the body,” Eskandari said, explaining the problems of men and women seeing too much of each other’s bodies during prayer.
This problem brought up the relations between physical architecture and personal architecture, as physical barriers only became necessary when people personally did not choose to cover themselves enough, she added.
In addition to gender equality, Eskandari also discussed the issues of sustainability and religious plurality, noting the successful construction of a mosque in Sudan that was funded by and supported the needs of both the Muslim and Christian communities.
“How do we do this in the states?” Eskandari asked. “That is what we are working on right now.”
Eskandari’s lecture ended with very involved audience question-and-answer session that focused on both gender equality and the relationship between architecture and spirituality.
“It was interesting to get a different perspective [on gender issues],” Aminata Seydi ’14 said. “People think that traditionally women are subjugated in Islam, but it’s really a question of what you see when you bend over.”