Architects have designed structures that will be remembered through the test of time, they leave behind a mark, but very few of these structures are those that never got built. The Park51 by SOMA is one such structure that created waves throughout the entire United States and specifically through New York.

Architecture has the power to change minds, it can influence perceptions, and it can mend boundaries. The significance of architecture in the world is understated and underestimated. It is much more than just the form of the building. It is about the emotion that engulfs the user and the feeling that it evokes that makes a structure memorable and unique. But like all art, architecture is interpreted differently by each individual, and hence not all architecture is going to be appreciated. I think the point of architecture is to invoke a thought, and then that can be positive or negative.

Michel Abboud is a catholic born in Lebanon who practices architecture. He has offices in Lebanon, Mexico, and New York City, and he started his own practice ‘SOMA’ in 2004. It is imperative to understand why it was essential to state that Michel Abboud is Catholic. As architects, we often distinguish various architecture styles by their origin, the Greek columns, Dravidian temple architecture, or the Gothic churches’ tinted glasses. Still, we forget to mention that architecture has the potential to transcend beyond race, religion, or even location if we try. 

The philosophy of SOMA revolves around the understanding of their client and their needs. They focus on incorporating craft, digital technologies, and environmental responsibilities into their designs. But this isn’t just a bio that you can find on their website. This philosophy is applied in their work too, which ranges from building complexes to restaurants. SOMA is one firm for which the concept is craft fully integrated into their architecture. And Park51 is no different. 

The attacks of 9/11 scarred the lives of Americans forever. The work of Militant Muslims dented the perceptions of Muslims not only in America but the rest of the world too. What followed the attacks was the rise of Islamophobia, but the problem with fear is that it does not take time for it to turn into hate, and that is what followed. 

The site where the twin towers once stood is called “Ground Zero”. This site was at least two blocks away from the “would be” location of the Park 51. The place where the new park 51 would stand was used for many years as a prayer space where many Muslims would go to pray regularly. Sharif El-Gamal, the owner of SoHo properties, bought the site with the idea of building something from which the community could benefit. This idea of having a community center was well received but only shortly. The fact of there being a prayer hall of 2 levels in the basement was not well received by the public, and protests started against the construction of what the people started calling the “Ground Zero mosque”.

The real intention behind the Park51 project was not meant to be, as the protestors said, “A win for the radical Islamists” but quite the contrary, the structure was supposed to be one that brought together people of all religions and unified everyone under one roof. The project developers intended to change the perception that all Muslims were dangerous and allow New Yorkers to see Islam’s peaceful side. For this, the developers wanted a complete glass facade, this gave the idea of transparency, to let the outsiders to see inside the structure and hence truly appreciate its openness. 

The function of the building was far greater than just a prayer space. When I say prayer space, its because there never was meant to be a mosque in the first place, a mosque has a specific characteristic. But, this design did not possess any of it. There were no minarets or domes that you would find in a traditional mosque. What was provided were two levels as prayer spaces for the Islamic community. The other 90% of the building was meant for the community with activities such as a daycare center, restaurants, sports areas, Auditoriums, pools, libraries, and administration zones. The building was never meant to be religious in nature, but one that was secular and accepting to followers of all faiths and no faiths. 

The planning and spacing of the functions further reinforce the idea of the building being secular. The community functions were provided from the ground floor up, and 12th floor being a memorial to the 9/11 victims and a sanctuary for all faiths. The two levels under the ground floor were to be utilized as the prayer spaces for Muslims. On a Friday, the expected footfall was to be around 2000. If the prayer space was provided on the upper levels, the number of Elevators required would go up. In addition to this, waiting for the elevator would cause a commotion and not only waste time but effectively halt the circulation in the building. Therefore, what SOMA did was that they provided the prayer spaces as spaces that were also accessible from the streets, which acted as an addition to dividing the religious function from the more secular functions.

The challenges in terms of design and form were, one, the structure shouldn’t look exactly like the buildings surrounding it and therefore be modern while still having a sense of culture. And two, how can you make a structure culturally look Islamic without perceiving it as a religious building. Michel Abboud found the answer by combining the two questions and following the design strategies adapted by SOMA for most of their projects, having two skins. The structure consisted of a self-supporting exoskeleton or external facade that was generated using parametric scripting tools, and the design for the facade originated from an olden Islamic architectural element called the “Mashrabiya”. The Mashrabiya is the star-shaped latticework that is traditional to Islamic architecture. The function of the Mashrabiya was to pull in air from outside and hence cool the insides of the structure and also create fascinating shadows.

Park 51 by SOMA: Multifaith Community Centre - Sheet1
Courtesy of ©SOMA architects

Michel Abboud took this idea and modernized it using it as a facade, allowing light to enter through the structure and create interesting shadows, but he made sure that the light entering the spaces was controlled. Hence, wherever the light required was less, the lattice exoskeleton would be less open or permissible, whereas the lattice shape allowed for more porosity wherever the spaces needed to be well lit. The facade was to be made of Glass Reinforced Concrete. This material’s Versatility would allow for the facade to thin wherever required while still maintaining structural integrity. Michel adapted the Mashrabiya and made it the forefront of his design, this allowed the structure to breathe as it was open, while still providing the critical aspect of transparency between the inside and the outside. He took forward these geometric patterns as he applied them onto the floors of the structure, not only promoting communication between the inside and outside of the structure but also within the building as the structure truly exuded porosity. 

Courtesy of ©SOMA architects

The Park51 was indeed a controversial project, but it was one that arguably greatly catapulted SOMA into the world of architecture as it showcased the daring and unique architecture of a young designer who unabashedly portrayed what he believed in through his architecture. Park 51 was a perfect example of how architecture can retain culture while not compromising technology and modernization. 

This project makes you understand the power of architecture and how architecture truly affects the world around us. At the end of it Park51 was supposed to be a community center in a community that was not yet ready to accept it. Not because it wasn’t something they needed, but because what they needed more was time to heal from scars that were just too deep to disappear.

Author

Harshvardhan Jhaveri is an aspiring architect studying at the Academy of Architecture. He believes that being inquisitive is an essential aspect of learning and growing in any field. His inclination towards research and the curiosity to learn motivates him to voice Architecture through the mediums of design and writing.

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