When the Domes and Minarets Speak to the Sun and Wind

The Ninth Biennial Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art will be held online between November 8 and 15, 2021. The programme includes a keynote speech by Prof. Nasser Rabbat, renowned educator and architect, Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The stage is set for one of the world’s most prestigious events focusing on Islamic art and architecture.

Under the theme ‘The Environment and Ecology in Islamic Art and Culture’, this is one of the first conferences dedicated to the environment in Islamic Art and Architecture, according to Jochen Sokoly, Associate Professor of Islamic Art (VCUArts Qatar) and one of the three Symposium Co-chairs.

“It brings together experts in the field of environment and Islamic art and architecture into one common discourse to create awareness among key stakeholders and policymakers. We are trying to raise questions that can take the subject of Islamic art and architecture and environmental studies further, and explore it in detail to provide moments for introspection for people from both academic and non-academic circles,” says Sokoly.

Jochen Sokoly, Associate Professor of Islamic Art (VCUArts Qatar) and one of the three Symposium Co-chairs.


The Connect

On the symposium theme of Islamic architecture and environment, Sokoly insists that the links between the two subjects have been evident since their early beginnings. “Architecture and environment are natural companions as it is impossible to design good buildings without understanding their relationship to nature. It is also impossible to understand the natural environment without knowing how human intervention affects it – both positively and negatively.”

“Built environment is never devoid of connections with the environment, because we build in the environment, keeping in mind the needs of the surroundings. Architecture, everywhere, reflects human discourse with the environment in which humans live and it needs to adapt to their surrounding environment. Islamic architecture understood this from the beginning, the environment is embedded in the undeclared and unarticulated aims of Islamic architecture,” explains Sokoly.

Image of Umayyad Palace by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay.

“Islamic architecture has always been in discussion with the environment. The Umayyad Desert palaces were built in accordance with the environment they were set in. Urban dwellings in Iran or in the Arabian lands are all examples of adaptations in architectural methods to reduce the impact of the often hostile or harsh environment,” Sokoly insists as he brings our attention to one programme within the symposium, that talks about this particular subject. On November 10, Alexander Brey, Assistant Professor in the Department of Art, Wellesley College will give a talk on ‘Gushing Pools and Verdant Meadows: Rural Estates and the Reshaping of Umayyad Rural Landscapes’

The Speakers

The keynote speaker, Prof. Nasser Rabbat, will speak on ‘The Quest for Thermal Delight’.  Prof. Rabbat has published several books and numerous articles on issues related to Islamic architecture and cultures, has worked as an architect in Los Angeles and Damascus and has held several academic and research appointments in Cambridge (Massachusetts), Princeton, Los Angeles, Cairo, Granada, Rome, Paris, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Munich, and Bonn. “We chose the keynote speaker because of his involvement with and importance in the field of urban studies. And he has worked on so many projects in the Arabian Peninsula that he was absolutely our first port of call.”

Sokoly maintains that each speaker in the programme comes with a treasure trove of knowledge and experience in the focus subjects. “We invited a few speakers who had the absolute breadth, the depth, and the seniority of the subject. We then also had a call for proposals from a wider range of speakers, from whom we arrived at the current selection. They all work together to make this symposium a wealth of knowledge that will make us think deeper on the subjects of Islamic art, architecture, ecology, and environment.”

Another exciting speaker, who will be speaking about urban spaces and modern-day influences of Islamic principles on urban designs, is Farid Esmaeil, Founding Partner and Principal Architect at Dubai-based architecture firm, X Architects. He is speaking on November 9 and will touch on designs closer to home, working with the environment using principles of Islamic architecture.

On the larger aim of the symposium, Sokoly says, “The talks will help the audience think about the environment and ecology, and also whether Islamic art is deeper than just being a thing of beauty. The younger generation is more interested in subjects related to the climate crisis. The new generation is looking at much more fundamental topics of how the subject of Islamic art is adapting itself to the requirement and challenges of the post-modern age.  As art history shifts its disciplinary attention to the unfolding global crisis, this symposium considers how ecological art history can examine objects, materials, and the built environment through the lens of Islamic culture.”

Landscapes of Arabia

The symposium has another feature, an exhibition called ‘Landscapes of Arabia’ featuring the works of Camille Zakharia and Tarek Al-Ghoussein, which can be seen in the VCUArts Qatar Gallery for the duration of the event. Curated by the co-chair Jochen Sokoly, the exhibition will conclude with a virtual roundtable conversation with both the artists on November 15.

The theme of the exhibition takes its title from the seemingly romantic notion of landscape that was shaped by European scholars and travellers as far back as the 18th century and up to the mid-20th century — notions of a serene overbearing landscape inhabited by noble Bedouins. It is here that the works of Zakharia and Al-Ghoussein will provide a counterbalance, documenting the environment of the modern Arabian Peninsula with a sense of realism rarely seen.

To throw light on buildings that fall into the category of Islamic architecture while it continues to have a discourse with nature is The Cambridge Central Mosque by Marks Barfield Architects, which was honoured with the RIBA Awards this year, is a classic example of Islamic architecture that continues to have a discourse with nature.

The defining internal characteristic of the Cambridge mosque is the timber ‘trees’ which form the structural support for the roof and the roof lights. The geometry of the trees was developed through work with geometric artist Keith Critchlow, creating the underlying geometry of the mosque.

“The Cambridge Central Mosque needed to be respectful of its surroundings while simultaneously standing out. The urban intervention of inserting a mosque capable of welcoming 1,000 worshipers within a low rise, residential neighbourhood, without dominating it, is masterful. Its presence is clear but modest, considering the size of the mosque relative to the two-storey terrace houses around it. What makes this mosque even more striking is the fact that it is the best example of an Islamic structure in a non-Islamic country and unique in the materials used in the project,” says Sokoly. The Cambridge Mosque features in the printed volume of the proceedings of the last Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art in 2019, published by Yale University Press.

The Format

Sokoly explains why the pandemic, though it has imposed certain conditions which are unsettling, serves the climate change plan. “While we all love travelling, and live discussions are the best possible way to hold a conference, the fact that the pandemic restricts us from travelling unless it is a dire necessity makes sure that the environmental footprint of the symposium is kept to the bare minimum,” he says, explaining the context of the symposium’s format. “But this remote/online format of the conference has also made it possible to bring experts from all around the world to join us virtually, widening the participation and thus, the scope of the event.”

While the pandemic seems to make us more responsible in our behaviour, the isolation associated with it brings back the desire for public squares and gathering spaces. “It is rather difficult for humans to be isolated; we are meant to mingle, gather and imbibe experiences. Think of great spaces like the Jema el Fnna Square in Marrakech, Taksim Square in Istanbul or the great Maidan in Isfahan, these are spaces meant for people to congregate. Covid may have set us back in terms of how we have used these spaces, but I think that this will change. People are desperate to go back to using common spaces as they were meant to be,” says Sokoly stressing the role of public spaces in Islamic architecture and their impact in modern times.