Islamic design
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Arabic / Islamic design
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Towards a definition of Islamic design


What do we understand by the term, ‘Islamic design’? There has been a great deal written about Islamic art, Islamic design, Islamic architecture and other related areas, not just in the arts generally, but also in the sciences. In many cases the term appears to be incorrectly or inappropriately used – and this appears to apply not only to users brought up in the West, but also by many of those brought up in the Gulf but educated or trained in the West. This is a factor that should be borne in mind when reading or discussing Islamic design.

At its simplest, I believe that it is correct to use the term ‘Islamic design’ to refer to design specifically created within, and true to, an Islamic environment. By this I mean in its religious, socio-cultural sense. Islamic design is produced within Islamic culture; it is expressed in the architecture, design, music, organisations and structures of the Islamic society – wherever they are. Thus we should anticipate that Islamic design will differ from place to place, reflecting the traditions, pressures and solutions found by each cultural group, and expressed in the different vocabularies and materials available to them. Because of this care should be taken in understanding and distinguishing between ‘Islamic design’ and ‘Arabic design’. They are not always the same.

It should be borne in mind that Islamic societies were a development of existing societies which had their own traditions, vocabularies and materials prior to the introduction of Islam. Many of the characteristics that some believe are Islamic can be traced back to pre-Islamic times and, in general, these are responsible for the nuances that differentiate elements of design and the arts in the wide Islamic world.

Nevertheless, bearing this in mind we need to look at the intrinsic values of Islam in order to define the term ‘Islamic’ further with regard to architecture, planning, design and other areas. This might also relate to the sciences. I believe there are five values which are central to the manner in which Islamic design is developed and reflected:

  • first and paramount, a focus on the internal, cohesive family and its values,
  • consideration for neighbours and the wider society,
  • a lack of ostentation,
  • a distinction between public and private rôles and realms, and
  • conservation of the environment and the wise use of its resources.

‘Arabic’ design might be thought to share the above but may also differ from it in that there are here a series of related styles sharing similar characteristic but not necessarily having specific elements in common. This is relatively true for the wider, Islamic, world but, of course, is less so when dealing with a smaller, physical area. However, even the Persian / Arabian Gulf has conflicting styles related to the development of architecture in the Arabian peninsula and in Persia facing it. You should also be aware that, in the West, and with regard to design, the terms ‘Arabic’, ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islamic’ are often used interchangeably, with little understanding of their essential differences.

These issues will be looked at in a little more detail in the related pages but, for the moment, the important thing to bear in mind is that the way in which we tend to view Islamic design is overwhelmingly defined by the Western education we have been given. This applies not just to the framework in which we understand what we see, read and are told, but also to the way in which we understand Islam, the socio-religious framework which defines everything for a Muslim.

Perhaps worse than this, we in the West see Islamic design conceptually in a similar manner to the way in which our education prepares us to see Christian designs, even though this makes no sense and is based on a lack of understanding of Islam.

Edward Said’s book, ‘Orientalism’ was, probably, the most significant document to have given Western commentators the beginnings of an understanding of the manner in which many in the Middle East see the educational bias of those observing from the West. It is certainly worth reading even though it has, itself, come in for critical review.

The top of the minaret of Doha’s main mosque

It is imperative to remember that there is no prototypical Islamic architectural design. It may be that some of the better known buildings and developments can be regarded as being of Islamic design, but they will all be products of the Islamic society in which they were developed, and many would have been based on pre-Islamic designs derived from local socio-cultural traditions. The only exception to this argument I can think of as being a truly Islamic feature, is the minaret, and even that was a relatively late development.

The glass wall of a building in the New District of Doha

Finally, you should be aware that there are two contradictory design tendencies which can be seen in the Arab world. The first is the increasing use of modern Western styles of architecture, though this may be extended to other arts such as music and dance. This is argued to be caused by the disassociation of the privileged from their cultural roots and their desire to demonstrate progress with images and artefacts taken mainly from the West.

Twin non-functional wind towers

Conversely, the argument may also be deployed that people seek refuge in traditional arts and architecture in response to the uncertainty of the immediate changes happening in their countries, and their concern for the future: sometimes this being expressed as pastiche or reinvention. It may seem unfair to express or understand that as a criticism, for the same can be seen as a characteristic of the West where, particularly, elements of architectural vocabulary from centuries ago are desired – and are seen to add value to – new buildings.

The point of this is that times move on and change takes place. Qatar and those countries around it are moving from a rural or nomadic society to one that is essentially urban in character. This happened in many parts of the West just as it is happening, and will happen, elsewhere. It is irreversible.

One commentator has noted that there are three reasons for unease with modern architecture:

  • its environmental performance,
  • philosophical objections relating to the disappearance of identity, and modern architecture’s non-conformity with traditional architecture, and
  • visual aspects of modern building with, at one end of the design spectrum, particularly excessive decoration and, at the other end, excessive abstraction.

Another commentator has developed the argument, suggesting that there have been two schools of thought developing in response to pressures on architectural heritage:

  • that embodied in the work of Hassan Fathy, the Egyptian architect, and
  • that established by Rifaat al-Jadirji, the Iraqi architect.

It is argued that Fathy’s approach failed as he was unable to develop responses to the massive needs for building other than by providing a generic traditional and geometric style that could only provide for a small number of clients. He saw developmental pressures as encouraging materialistic values at the expense of traditional cultural values, and also considered this to be a class issue. It should also be said that Fathy’s approach was at odds with the Egyptian construction industry where steel and cement were valuable products to their manufacturers and users.

In contrast to this, al-Jadirji produced an intellectual approach based on analysis of Arab architecture and its relationship with Modernism. His approach suggested that:

  • it has to be understood that Modernism was established by the West since the fifteenth century, from when it has steadily spread both its ideas and values,
  • Arab societies have had to adopt Western principles in order to deal with issues created by Western developments, these principles creating conflict with Arab cultural values, causing loss of identity,
  • there should be no return to traditional styles as they are unable to respond to modern technologies and have failed to produce new characteristics in response to modern pressures and, through this
  • traditional design should be reevaluated and only adopted where it can respond and, better, produce features honest to a contemporary Arab style and capable of being integrated into modern technologies.

In essence these commentators are noting the massive domination of the market by modern technologies and those who design within them, and asking that a society with a traditional structure adapt itself to it – a development that has been a natural phenomenon for centuries. In considering this it is important to bear in mind that architectural heritage and modernity are not necessarily antithetical concepts, nor are they incompatible.

It is also important to bear in mind that much, if not all of the drive to preserve heritage can be ascribed to Orientalist texts and initiatives. Egyptian and Ottoman development saw no concern for changing architectural design and, confirming this Orientalist initiative, British and French developments in the Arab world saw Colonial styles developing, combining European architecture with traditional local detailing. In Qatar this witnessed the introduction of styles common in the Indian sub-continent where the British had learned much of their new vocabulary.

But these apparently contradictory trends relating to modernism and traditionalism are developing increasingly rapidly both in the Middle East and the West, and need to be understood in order to produce better solutions for those living in the Gulf – if not elsewhere… The challenge is to combine traditional cultural and functional theory within an Islamic design framework based on the best of environmental design theory, eschewing pastiche and, particularly, inappropriate Western design vocabularies.

In many countries of the region, the development of concern for a lost past now sees itself embodied in heritage organisations charged with enshrining or recreating something of what there once was. The motivation appears to be mixed and, perhaps for this reason, the results can be confused.

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Palladio and classical architecture

This section of the notes may seem out of place here, but I thought it useful, if not necessary, to take a brief look at the origins of classical architecture and the possible reasons for its use in the Gulf.

While there are some attempts to develop a traditional domestic and commercial architectural vocabulary and style in Qatar, the use of a classical architectural vocabulary is an interesting development. Buildings in the West using this language are generally based on the work of Andrea Palladio, the sixteenth century Italian architect. Palladio created work of a high aesthetic quality in keeping with rules he developed based on his understanding of Roman and Renaissance architecture. In this he hoped to set the stage for a better way of life in relation to buildings. He saw architecture as having the capability of improving the world through producing a refined physical framework that would inculcate this benefit into those who moved in and around his buildings. He believed that architecture has a direct effect on people – an early expression of architectural determinism. His intention was to produce well-proportioned buildings with dignity and propriety, a physical framework that was aesthetically, morally, and intellectually superior to that which had gone before.

You need to be aware that I tend to use the term ‘classical’ as shorthand, and rather more loosely than I should in these notes. Generally, I use the word in reference to buildings or elements where classical style can be readily noted and recognised. I hope this will not mislead any readers. Properly, classical architecture refers to the use of the five classical architectural orders of architecture –

  • Tuscan,
  • Doric,
  • Ionic,
  • Corinthian, and
  • Composite,

the Tuscan being a primitive form of Doric and the Composite a developed form of Corinthian. The original, Greek, orders were the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. These orders are applied to the whole of the building rather than to just a few elements as has increasingly become the practice. In particular they include not just the columns – their shafts, capitals and bases – but also the upper part of the façades including, especially, the entablature – the band above the columns that is divided into three horizontal sections – from the top, the

  • cornice,
  • frieze, and
  • architrave,

the overhanging cornice and the visually supporting architrave forming the frame for the central frieze.

The orders are progressively decorated or sophisticated from Tuscan through to Composite and, with this development comes a change in proportions. Tuscan and Doric are heavy, strong and squat in feeling, while Corinthian is taller, slender and more graceful and have been likened to male and female forms.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man

Invented by the Greeks and based on the form of traditional construction referred to as trabeated, these styles were based on a notional set of human proportions, developed by the famous Leonardo da Vinci, his drawing known as the Vitruvian Man, illustrating this idealised form. The theory behind this was later adopted and adapted by Palladio in his writings and in his built work.

Palladio, following the writings of Vitruvius, believed that architecture had to be useful, beautiful and strong, these characteristics leading to his requirements for symmetry and proportion which he developed into a series of scientific and rigorous rules for the design of his buildings derived, as he suggested, from a human figure, the Vitruvian man.

A detail of a page from Palladio’s ‘The Four Books of Architecture’

In 1570 Palladio’s ‘I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura’ – The Four Books of Architecture, was published, the work relating to Vitruvius’ previous work, ‘De Architettura’ translated into English as ‘The Ten Books on Architecture’. One of the most important architectural treatises, the four volumes have been used for centuries as a guide to the production of well-designed classical architecture. Aimed at both clients and architects the writings established the physical rules Palladio considered to be essential for the improvement of society through its architectural setting.

The nineteenth century saw the heavy use of Palladian principles in the production of public and other buildings. To some extent a vindication of Palladio’s aspirations for his designs, the classic style appeared to suit those who wished to project an image of security, good taste and stability and, by extension, domestic, municipal or commercial propriety.

Regrettably and increasingly, much of the use of classic elements has been eclectic, and has not been in accordance with the basic principles Palladio espoused. This is particularly true of the spatial proportions of his buildings. One curious anomaly, still with us today, is the entrance portico feature that Palladio developed, mistakenly, from Roman buildings, and which is now a feature of the entrances to many classically detailed modern buildings.

What we tend to see nowadays passing for classical architecture is the imposition of elements of classic vocabulary, particularly porticos, pediments and the use of symmetry on otherwise ordinary buildings. While these elements act as reminders of those characteristics mentioned above, they do little more than that. Although they may call to mind the associations of stability, safety and, perhaps, gentility, in doing so they are false and undermine the values inherent in true classical style. In architectural terms they are incoherent and the work of poor and lazy scholarship; in social terms they debase our values. Despite this, it is regrettable that in many parts of the world poorly designed buildings with classical allusions command a premium, and in doing so they illustrate the poor quality of our education.

Throughout these notes I have mentioned the increasing use of classic architectural features on private, public and commercial buildings in the Gulf in general, and in Qatar in particular. At the same time designers are attempting to find an Islamic style that might seem the proper way forward, especially in a country whose inhabitants are so proud of their Arab heritage as well as of their country. Curiously, some buildings contrive to combine both. So it seems strange that various forms of Western architecture are being not only accepted but promoted in the Gulf. While there may be some technical reasons to introduce Western vocabulary and materials to the Gulf, there seem to be more reasons to develop the indigenous architecture which has such strong links with the socio-cultural background of the area.

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Mixing of classical and Islamic styles

It should also be noted that it is possible to find classical and Arabic or Islamic architecture together, usually where one civilisation has supplanted another. In Moorish Spain, for instance, Islamic craftsmanship was so highly valued that Christian developments following the reconquista maintained Islamic features both in its architectural designs as well as in its vocabulary.

A Roman capital within the Mezquita, Cordoba, Spain A Roman capital within the Mezquita, Cordoba, Spain

In addition to this form of development, in many parts of the Islamic world builders were able to use as a construction resource the elements of buildings left behind by Greek, Roman and other civilisations that had gone before them. This was a feature of development to be found all around the Mediterranean and was an early and sensible demonstration of recycling. It suggests that the architectural vocabulary was not as important as the overall use of the building, and might be subjugated by it. Sometimes it required the use of a little imagination in order that a new building could incorporate a smaller number of similar elements, such as capitals, than were required. This often led to interesting inventions in the combination of features in order to produce, for instance, column heads at the same heights from which to spring arches. This might be effected either by adding bases at the bottom of short columns or sinking longer columns below floor level.

The two photographs above were taken in the Islamic mosque, known by its Spanish name as the Mezquita, in the southern province of Andalusia at Cordoba. In both photographs you can see that the columns and capitals are obviously not Islamic but were taken from Roman ruins in the area and re-used in combination with other materials and features – in this case the famous double arches, a device that supports the high roof.

So, it might be argued that, with the combination of styles in what are now traditional Islamic buildings, there might be thought to be a strong precedence for the combination of classical and Islamic vocabularies in the design of modern Islamic buildings.

But these features were amalgamated out of necessity; they were construction solutions and not design features. It is important to remember that the juxtapositions were not selected as the result of there being a coherent design philosophy.

A capital supporing and entrance porch to a residential villa in Qatar, April 1975

This capital was one of a pair supporting an entrance porch to a residential villa in Doha. The porch was designed in an extravagant and eclectic style with roses used as a feature on both the façade and the capitals of the columns. One is illustrated here and shows two of the four roses that encircled the head of the capital. The astragal – the lowest encircling ring of the capital – is visually heavy with a suggestion of Egyptian provenance to it, contrasting with the more delicate work above which might be considered similar to a Corinthian capital, but lacking its acanthus leaves. Instead, the roses feature as bunches of flowers alternating between what appear to be three levels of scrolled devices.

more to be written…

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