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The architecture of the Islamic world throughout history adapted and responded to different cultures and existing traditions of buildings without weakening the spiritual essence which was its source of inspiration. Urban centers in Islamic cities evolved over long periods of time with generations of craftsmen whose sensitivity and experience added variety and a diversity of styles to the environment. The traditional Islamic city reflected a unity which related the architecture of the mosque, the madrassa , the souq, palace and the home as a sequence of spaces. The identity of the city lay in the relationship of its elements. These relationships were generated by the harmonizing of the community with the forces acting on it, that enabled the interaction of cultures, building methods and methods to evolve an Islamic identity in the same way a language maintains its own identity even when it absorbs outside words. (Source: Martin, G: Buildings in the Middle East Today)
Islamic art is an art not so much of form as of decorative themes that occur both in architecture and in the applied arts, independently of material, scale and technique. There is never one type of decoration for one type of building or object; on the contrary, there are decorative principles that are pan-Islamic and applicable to all types of buildings and objects at all times (whence comes the intimate relationship in Islam between all the applied arts and architecture). Islamic art must therefore be considered in its entirety because each building and each object embodies to some extent identical principles. Though objects and art differ in quality of execution and style, the same ideas, forms and designs constantly recur. Because little furniture is traditionally used for daily life in Islam, decoration contributes to the creation of a sense of continuous space that is a hallmark of Islamic architecture.
Islamic design may seem restricted to two dimensions but that the very character of Islamic design implies three-dimensional possibilities. Through the use of reflecting and shining materials and glazes, the repetition of designs, the contrasting of textures and the manipulation of planes, Islamic decoration becomes complex, sumptuous and intricate. It is an art of repose where tensions are resolved. Regardless of form, material or scale, this concept of art rests on a basic foundation of calligraphy, geometry and, in architecture, the repetition and multiplication of elements based on the arch. "Allied and parallel to these are floral and figural motifs," Jones writes. "Water and light are also of paramount importance to Islamic architectural decoration as they generate additional layers of patterns and -- just as happens with surface decoration -- they transform space. Space is defined by surface and since surface is articulated by decoration, there is an intimate connection in Islamic architecture between space and decoration. It is the variety and richness of the decoration, with its endless permutations, that characterizes the buildings rather than their structural elements, which are often disguised. Many devices typical of Islamic architectural decoration -- for example, muqarnas [a honeycomb decoration that can reflect and refract light]-- are explained by a desire to dissolve the barriers between those elements of the buildings that are structural (load-bearing) and those that are ornamental (non-load-bearing). (Sources: Jones, D: Architecture of the Islamic World; Islamic Arts and Architecture Organisation)
Because of its role in recording the word of God, calligraphy is considered one of the most important of the Islamic arts. Nearly all Islamic buildings have some type of surface inscription in the stone, stucco, marble, mosaic and/or painting. The inscription might be a verse from the Qur'an, lines of poetry, or names and dates.
Like other Islamic decoration, calligraphy is closely linked to geometry. The proportions of the letters are all governed by mathematics. Inscriptions are most often used as a frame along and around main elements of a building like portals and cornices.
An inscription also might be contained in a single panel. Sometimes single words such as Allah or Mohammed are repeated and arranged into patterns over the entire surface of the walls. Calligraphic texts might appear in pierced cartouches, providing a pattern for light filtering through windows.
For many Muslims there is no more perfect a symbol of the Divine Unity than light. "God is the light of the heavens and the earth..." <Qur'an Nur 24:35> Just as shadow adds nothing to light, things are real only to the extent that they share in the light of Being. Light viewed directly is blinding; it is through the harmony of colours that we divine nature, which bears every visual phenomenon within itself. For this reason, the Muslim artist seeks to transform the very stuff he is fashioning into a vibration of light. In Islamic architecture, light functions decoratively by modifying other elements or by originating patterns. Thus in covering the interior surface of a mosque with mosaics in ceramic tiles, for example, the lining is often confined to the lower part of the walls, as if to dispel their heaviness. It is for the same purpose that the artists transforms other surfaces into perforated reliefs to filter the light. "Stalactites" also serve to trap light and diffuse it with the most subtle gradations, and with the proper light, pierced facades can look like lacy, disembodied screens. Light can add a dynamic quality to architecture, extending patterns, forms and designs into the dimensions of time. And the combination of light and shade creates strong contrasts of planes and gives texture to sculpted stone, as well as stocked or brick surfaces. (Source: Burckhardt T, Islamic Spirituality II edited by S H Nasr)
Islamic artists developed geometric patterns to a degree of complexity and sophistication previously unknown. These patterns exemplify the Islamic interest in repetition, symmetry and continuous generation of pattern. "The superb assurance of the Islamic designers is demonstrated by their masterful integration of geometry with such optical effects as the balancing of positive and negative areas, interlacing with fluid overlapping and underpassing strapwork, and a skillful use of color and tone values.
"...More than any other type of design (geometric patterns) permitted an interrelationship between the parts and the whole of a building complex, the exterior and the interior spaces and their furnishings."
Islamic artists reproduced nature with a great deal of accuracy. Flowers and trees might be used as the motifs for the decoration of textiles, objects and buildings. In the Mughal architectural decoration of India, artists were inspired by European botanical drawings, as well as by Persian traditional flora. Their designs might be applied to monochrome panels of white marble, with rows of flowering plants exquisitely carved in low relief, alternating with delicately tinted polychrome inlays of precious and hard stones, Jones notes.
The arabesque (geometricized vegetal ornament) is "characterized by a continuous stem which splits regularly, producing a series of counterpoised, leafy, secondary stems which can in turn split again or return to be reintegrated into the main stem," writes Jones. "This limitless, rhythmical alternation of movement, conveyed by the reciprocal repetition of curved lines, produces a design that is balanced and free from tension. In the arabesque, perhaps more than in any other design associated with Islam, it is clear how the line defines space, and how sophisticated three-dimensional effects are achieved by differences in width, color and texture...."
"The underlying geometric grids governing arabesque designs are based on the same mathematical principles that determine wholly geometric patterns...."
Figures and animals
Because the creation of living things that move -- that is, humans and animals -- is considered to be in the realm of God, Islam discourages artists from producing such figures through art. Nevertheless, a certain amount of figural art can be found in the Islamic world, although it is mainly confined to the decoration of objects and secular buildings and to miniature paintings. Figural sculpture is quite rare in Islam.
In hot Islamic climates, the water from courtyard pools and fountains cools as
it decorates. Water can not only reflect architecture and multiply the decorative
themes, it can also serve as a means of emphasizing the visual axes. Like the
images they mirror, Jones writes, pools of water are immutable, yet constantly
changing; fluid and dynamic, yet static.
Certain architectural features have become fixed and eternal. In this modern world, they help us find our architectural roots and remain true to our identity. Almost every architectural structure addresses, in a direct sense, cultural identity and philosophy within a physical context. If we want to understand, appreciate, and evaluate the architectural quality of a building, we need to develop a sense of dimension, topography, climate, material, structure, and proportion, and of the surrounding physical environment -- both natural and human-made. This sense goes far beyond the building's ability to serve utilitarian needs.
The Islamic world, and the Middle East in particular, is undergoing a transformation today unprecedented in its history, writes architect Garry Martin in the essay "Building in the Middle East Today, in search of a Direction." Oil wealth, along with social and political change, have threatened Islamic culture and traditions. This identity crisis is readily apparent in architectural design."
A desire for rapid development, Martin notes, brought to the Middle East the massive importation of Western technology, planning, design and constructional expertise. Many of the new buildings in the Middle East, continues Martin, are direct imitations of Western models that were designed for another culture, and they are creating an alien environment in Islamic communities.
Many Muslim planners and architects are reacting to this invasion of Western culture by reasserting their Islamic heritage. This leads to the questions of just what constitutes Islamic architecture! Central to this definition, Martin explains, is the Islamic concept of Unity, which was a determining factor in integrating Islamic societies. Islamic architecture was in harmony with the people, their environment and their Creator, Martin adds. Yet no strict rules were applied to govern Islamic architecture. The great mosques of Cordoba, Edirne and Shah Jahan each used local geometry, local materials, local building methods to express in their own ways the order, harmony and unity of Islamic architecture. When the major monuments of Islamic architecture are examined, Martin writes, they reveal complex geometrical relationships, a studied hierarchy of form and ornament, and great depths of symbolic meaning.
But in the 20th century, the Islamic concepts of unity, harmony and continuity often are forgotten in the rush for industrial development. Martin lists three directions contemporary Islamic architecture has taken.
One approach is to completely ignore the past and produce Western-oriented architecture that ignores the Islamic spirit and undermines traditional culture.
The opposite approach involves a retreat, at least superficially, to the Islamic architectural past. This can result in hybrid buildings where traditional facades of arches and domes are grafted onto modern high-rises.
A third approach, Martin notes, is to understand the
essence of Islamic architecture and to allow modern building technology to be
a tool in the expression of this essence. Writes Martin, "Architects working
today can take advantage of opportunities that new materials and mass production
techniques offer. They have an opportunity to explore and transform the possibilities
of the machine age for the enrichment of architecture in the same way that craftsmen
explored the nature of geometrical and arabesque patterns..." The forms
that would evolve from this approach, adds Martin, would have a regional identity,
a stylistic evolution and a relevance to the eternal principles of Islam.
(Source: Islamic Arts and Architecture Organisation)