Toohey Miller

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When the head of the philanthropic Sancaklar Foundation, Suat Sancak, first approached Emre Arolat with a request to design a new mosque for 500 worshippers, the architect turned him down. “I told him I’m not that kind of architect,” he remembers. Arolat wasn’t simply playing hard to get, “It was a prejudgement. I thought they were looking for a replica of an Ottoman mosque.” While Arolat ‘adores’ the volumetric composition of classical Ottoman mosques, there has been a propensity to build ‘pathetic’ imitations of these 500-year-old buildings. These new mosques are often commercialised forms, he says: “We are accustomed to seeing every kind of replica and even some caricatures”.

Arolat reels off a few recent egregious examples: a mosque in Ankara that combines a supermarket; in Mersin a mosque’s minarets “look like rockets” about to be launched; and the Mimar Sinan mosque is a “clumsy replica” named in honour of a nearby mosque designed by legendary Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, that’s now surrounded by skyscrapers. It’s not limited to Turkey. One of the latest landmarks of Islamic architecture is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. “It’s renowned for having the biggest carpet in the world and the most bombastic chandeliers,” says Arolat. “It’s a tourist attraction. It’s a place to see and to be seen at. It’s a place for Instagram or Facebook. Islamic architecture is passing beyond a very dangerous period because of the pressure of global capitalism.”

Respectful of religion rather than devout, Arolat believes the ability for the secular and religious to live together harmoniously has been lost.

Embedding cultural memory in contemporary architecture.

Luckily Suat Sancak wouldn’t take no for an answer. A few days after their first meeting, he came to the office with a picture of the site on which he wanted to build the mosque. Büyükçekmece on the outskirts of suburban Istanbul overlooks a picturesque valley with a lake below. “I was quite impressed with the panorama and the untouched aura of the valley,” Arolat recalls. “They told me they were willing to give me a degree of freedom with the design, and this time I was supposed to accept the job.”

As Turkey’s pre-eminent practice, Istanbul and London based Emre Arolat Architects (EAA) has produced the full gamut and scale of building typologies. From factories to luxury shopping centres and multi-residential buildings, EAA have been the recipients of numerous awards including the Aga Khan Award and the Mies van der Rohe Award. Among their many works they have also designed two housing projects for the Sancaklar Foundation. But EAA weren’t known for designing mosques. Since Arolat formed EAA in 2004 with partner Gonca Pasolar, a modernist rationality has governed their work. Yet it’s steeped in research. The practice develops a deep understanding of the history of a building type, and its location. Indeed, sensitivity to the role architecture plays in cultural memory is evident in such projects as the Antakya Museum Hotel built over an archaeological site and EAA’s refurbishment of the disused Russian textile factory in Kayseri as part of the Abdullah Gül University City Campus. “EAA aims to keep and project memory in the form of traces of a previously undervalued industrial heritage,” according to Suha Özkan, co-author of the EAA monograph Context and Plurality (2013), and a former director of the for architecture. “Implicitly, Arolat returns a sense of honour to the structures that served their industrial purpose for almost 80 years.”

Arolat’s sensitivity is hard won. His university education and experience working with Metcalf Associates in the United States for a year inspired a postmodernist dalliance. “I was influenced by postmodernism—Michael Graves and James Stirling were my heroes,” he told Philip Jodidio, co-author of Context and Plurality. “I did a number of things [in Turkey] that I should not have done in terms of design in the late 1980s,” he admits. “Putting American postmodern high-rise buildings in the middle of Istanbul was a mistake. I did not try to use Turkish forms, but opted instead for an international vocabulary. I designed a building that was inspired by something I saw in Boston. I still see it every day and it is a kind of punishment for me.”

If memories of bad buildings haunt him, positive memories of place inspire him. “[Pritzker prize winner] Rafael Moneo wrote in one of his articles that ‘the place whispers to an architect’,” says Arolat. “I’ve adopted that saying practically as my motto. That intimate sense of place is what really excites and inspires me.”
Indeed it’s not just an appreciation of place or a respect for the architectural history of Islam that would play an intrinsic part in the design of the Sancaklar mosque. For Emre Arolat it was also deeply personal. When not spending time in the studio of his architect parents, Arolat spent his childhood summers holidaying with his grandparents in the idyllic surrounds of Bursa, in Turkey’s Marmara region. The area known as ‘Green Bursa’ because of its numerous parks and gardens, the vast and verdant forests surrounding the city and the picturesque setting in the foothills of the Uludag mountain, was the first capital of the Ottoman Empire. Among its many famous 14th century mosques, is the Emir Sultan mosque.

“Their house was one of the most peaceful places on earth,” Arolat recalls. “My grandma was by far the nicest person I have ever known. She was extremely big hearted. She was decent, humble and reliable. She was quite religious, reading the Quran every day and praying regularly. Conversely my grandpa was an atheist. He was a real intellectual who read French books instead of the Quran and he made fun of religious rituals. In spite of their religious differences, my grandparents loved each other … Instead of causing any trouble or fighting, the religiousness of my grandma and the atheism of my grandpa somehow balanced each other … I lost a remarkable piece of myself when my grandma died,” he remembers.

The crowded funeral was held in the Emir Sultan Mosque. Long after the funeral ended and people had walked away, Arolat stayed. “I didn’t know why, but I didn’t move at all. The courtyard was getting sombre and lonely and the silence was a bit creepy, but somehow I felt comfortable. I was not yet an architect, but the power of the place affected me and it was a very important moment in my life.” Looking back, he sees the experience as playing a “very critical role in my architectural career”.

Respectful of religion rather than devout, Arolat believes the ability for the secular and religious to live together harmoniously has been lost. “In Turkey 40 years ago, religion was not the destructive factor in the society [that it is today],” he says. “It’s not very easy to find these kind of values today and it’s sad. I miss them. I miss the sincere religiousness of my grandma. I miss the tolerance, the non-polarised, soft and tender intentions of the society.” Capturing that lost purity and creating a sincerely religious space, appears to be one of the key motivations behind the design of Sancaklar

As with all their projects, EAA immerse themselves in research. By going to the “roots” they can find a way to be “radical”. Having criticised so many recent mosques, understanding the essential characteristics of Islamic architecture was clearly the best way to avoid the same pitfalls.

For the first three months Arolat did no drawings. “Drawing should be the final result of the thought,” he says. He read the Quran. He discussed the history of Islam with theological scholars. He understood that certain fundamental requirements govern a mosque—the central prayer hall; a mihrab or niche, within a solid qiblah wall orientated towards Mecca; bodies of still water, ablution facilities for washing prior to prayer; as well as separate spaces for men and women. Yet beyond these basic program requirements, Arolat discovered that no Islamic texts stipulate a particular form of architecture for prayer. “We realised that there is no formal definition in the Quran,” he says. “A mosque does not have a predefined form, and anywhere that is clean can be a place for prayer.”

Over the years various Islamic cultures—Ottomans, Moors—have produced their own architectural interpretations. The ornament and tessellated patterning that Islamic architecture is so famous for is just that—an embellishment. Ironically this freedom authorised Arolat’s self imposed restrictions for the project. “Rather than trying to create a very new or extravagant form, we tried to reach to the essence,” he says. “We wanted to suppress the architectural language as much as possible. We wanted to get to the essence of the ritual of prayer, with humility and nobility.” To Arolat’s surprise, the Sancaklar Foundation and the Mufti agreed to his minimalist vision.

EAA achieve an ‘essential’ architecture by subordinating the building to the spectacular landscape and burying much of the building below ground. Nothing is ostentatious. The entire sequence of buildings—walls, floors, even gravel landscape—are constructed from concrete and local grey slate allowing the mosque to further blend into the landscape. This also accords with his firm belief that every building be true to its context.

From a distance, as visitors walk to the site, they can glimpse a garden enclosed by a series of horizontal stone walls. A tall stone monolith acts as a minaret. On its top corner, calligraphy becomes legible as one gets closer—the only indication from above ground that this is a place of worship. Arolat didn’t want to include a minaret, but it was the one thing the local Mufti insisted on.

From the vantage point of the garden, visitors can enjoy the view of Lake Büyükçekmece. Cows are known to graze among the stone walls. Native plants don’t require watering and like the stone work, blend with the prairie surrounds. Mosques aren’t just places of worship, they are a public meeting place, says Arolat: “They enable the community to socialise. There are few appealing spaces around the [Büyükçekmece] neighbourhood for people to congregate, but here people can set up a screen and a projector, so that they can even watch movies outdoors.”

To worship, one walks down slate steps cascading down the grassy hillside. It’s like walking through an ancient amphitheatre. Pathways ‘feather’ into the grass, further enhancing the feeling that this is an overgrown ruin. Trickling waterfalls and reflecting pools dampen the worldly street noise. Opposite the mosque entrance, another outdoor space in front of a library and teahouse enables people to socialise. “This is a public space, a real space,” Arolat says.

After removing your shoes, one enters the mosque through a small, modest doorway. Light and shadow take over. In contrast to the austerity of the grey minimalist stonework outside, spot floor lighting accentuates the walls and highlights the steps in this interior amphitheatre. Overhead a stepped concrete, domed ceiling reflects the amphitheatre’s levels below.

Rather than recreating a classical domed prayer room Arolat turned beyond Islamic architecture, back in to the core reaches of Islamic faith. The prayer room is like a cave. This is architecture that touches upon the essence of both architecture as shelter and Islamic religion. It was in the Cave of Hira on a mountain near Mecca, that Muslims believe Muhammad received the first revelations of the Quran from Allah, through the angel Jibril. “The cave is a simple space that was not designed,” says Arolat. In keeping with that “the materials have been reduced to their most elemental form”.

For all the effectiveness of uplighting the most spectacular use of light is natural. As worshippers face Mecca, a split above the qiblah wall allows natural light to fall across its off form concrete. Sunlight varies during the day. This feature is “the sole ornament of this twilit space,” says Arolat. “The sense of spirituality that this light adds to the space is designed to enhance the pleasure of worship and create a sense of enthusiasm for visitors,” he says.

From a reflective black ‘infinity wall’ a glowing calligraphic composition by Mehmed Özçay reminds worshippers: ‘AND always mention God’. Arolat doesn’t perceive the composition by this master calligrapher as decorative.

“Special care was to be given to avoid every possible form of symbolism—religious or otherwise—in the building’s elements while absolutely no decoration or embellishment of any kind was to be allowed on surfaces,” he explains. “The essential point of this frugal use of materials was a concern that the building’s ‘decoration’ should reveal itself solely in the junctures of surfaces: what Adolf Borbein referred to as ‘the art of joining’. What informs the building’s tectonic expression—and also guarantees its austerity—is this attitude towards junctures.”

Arolat describes the prayer room as a “primordial space” where “matter and light exist delicately”. In essence he believes this is the “aura of Islamic architecture … It’s a simple, humble interior … The walls and the ceiling strengthen the sense of purification and humility. The aim was to create a haven for the house of worship to take refuge in. From that thinking emerged the initial design concept of settling into the earth and creating a world relatively isolated from the outer one.” As Sancaklar mosque’s Imam, Ali Elmaci, told Architectural Record: “There are no distractions to the worshippers. You have a closer, more peaceful relationship with the Creator.”

Significantly, for the first time in Muslim architecture, women too have a closer physical relationship with God. “Unlike the conventional mosques in Turkey, here women can pray at the forefront,” says Arolat. This makes perfect sense. EAA is a modern office where five of its six team leaders are women. Nor should one forget the woman whose sincere religiosity helped inspire Arolat.

Aside from gaining its own local community who pray regularly—especially on Fridays and specific religious days—the mosque has become a landmark destination; part of cultural and architectural tours, with visitors coming from around the world to see this contemporary interpretation of mosque architecture. “The deliberate austerity in the design of the building’s structural elements, is compatible with the devotional practices of Islam,” he says. “It inspires both humility and a sense of awe.”

One trusts that this modest, tranquil space also embodies the experience that so affected Emre Arolat at his grandmother’s funeral. Still he feels cause for concern. “Religion has shape-shifted and the general atmosphere is getting more and more depressive,” Arolat reflects. Secular states the world over blur the separation of power between church and state. In Turkey, as Ugur Tanyeli writes in Architectural Review, what mosques sanctify is not the architecture, but a political ideology that amalgamates religion with nationalism. “Turks, or at least a large majority of them, define the architectural task within a historical imagination in which 16th century Ottoman Empire was defined as a military and political world power … Modern Turkish Muslim identity was and still is increasingly constructed as the heir of Suleiman the Magnificent … The modern mosque has to be an icon or a complex of icons, the main function of which is to support that realpolitik.”

In The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War, Robert Bevan identifies the importance of buildings as vessels of symbolic cultural memory. It’s the reason why they are ransomed, ransacked and destroyed in battle. Yet in grounds that look like ancient ruins, Emre Arolat hopes that by focusing on “the essence” this primordial space might one day “turn a light on—that’s what we tried to capture with the architecture of this mosque”.

Arolat is fond of quoting the Quran passage: “Do not walk upon the earth bragging. You can never cleave the earth, nor can you reach up to the mountains.” Despite this call to modesty, Arolat arguably has some cause to brag. With the Sancaklar mosque, this non-religious architect respectfully cleaves the earth above this manmade mountain ‘cave’, allowing natural light to fall across the qiblah wall. It is an act of respect, reflecting his personal hopes for a modern Turkey; one of unity and tolerance that he witnessed 40 years ago with his devout grandmother and atheist grandfather.