Designing Sacred Spaces and Creating Culture: Maryam Eskandari

Designing Sacred Spaces and Creating Culture: Maryam Eskandari on


Through Islamic-inspired architecture, Maryam Eskandari and her team of social "architecture-preneurs" design mosques and communities and create cultures in the modern American landscape and beyond.  Maryam Eskandari is co-founder of MIIM Designs, whose mission is "designing inspiring sustainable solutions with social impact through physical, cultural, human and economical architecture". She is a graduate of the Aga Khan Program in Islamic Architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. Maryam has received many prestigious awards including the esteemed Aga Khan Award in Islamic Architecture for her work on Muslim Spaces in Contemporary American Mosques. The American Institute of Architects awarded her with the Associate of the Year Award for commendable architecture and design. Maryam is a contributing writer for The Guardian and New York’s Elan Magazine. She has lectured on issues of Islamic Architecture in America at Harvard University, and has served as a visiting critic for Yale University School of Architecture and Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. With more than 6 million observant Muslims residing in the United States, there is an ever-present demand for construction of mosques in U.S. cities. Here is what Maryam had to share with Al-Madina Institute:

Al-Madina: How were you inspired to study architecture?

Maryam Eskandari: I came across architecture at a very young age. My maternal grandfather was a textile designer and a teacher and my paternal grandfather was an architect. From the age of six, after my younger sister was born, my parents decided that it would be of best interest, even in the middle of the spring semester, to spend time in Iran with my grandparents. At that time from March to September, I got to alternate between my maternal and paternal grandfathers. With them I learned how to make traditional Persian rugs, textile patterns and colors. At a very young age my maternal grandfather taught me about the metaphysical aspects of Islamic architecture, the culture and the essentials of the religion itself.   My paternal grandfather, who was an architect, took me to construction sites, meetings and exhibits.  There, I learned a lot about Islamic structure, domes, and arches, the elements that come with architecture.  That year was my basic first training.  Every summer after that, I got to go back and we would continue our lessons —they would teach me every element that needed to be taught. At age 13, with the help of my grandfather, I drew my first floor plan, hand drawn with all the design elements of my very first mosque. I still have it and that’s when I knew I had to definitely become an architect.

You have done quite a few important projects worldwide. What draws you to those commissions?

Historically, both Prophet Adam (peace be upon him) and Abraham (peace be upon him) built the Kaaba. Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) basically rebuilt Prophet Adam’s work, and many other prophets had a hand in that.

One of the things that actually draws me into projects from parts of the world like the United States, India, Africa (Sudan and Ghana) is not necessarily building a building. It's using architecture as a tool to bring together a community, in reflecting on both Prophet Adam and Abraham, the forefathers of the Abrahamic Faiths. It is through building and design we can create a pluralistic language that will bring everyone together.  That is one of the biggest things that I find important as a role of an architect. We are trained to design, and represent the Divine in a way that is supposed to resonate with the Creator's creation (humans). At the same time we are trained to bring together community members and faiths, letting the architecture speak for itself and let it shine in that aspect.

How do you approach your projects and what makes your approach unique?

One of the things we do is when clients come to us we take the very first month actually studying the client themselves. So if it is a community project we spend time with the community because what happens is the community itself is in its own pace and they know how the community works well together. They know the culture and thus we learn about the culture through the community. If it is a residential client or one of our exhibits we try to make sure that the client’s aspects are understood in regards to family and the exhibition. We walk around with them and gain an understanding of what is important to them. We focus on what they feel. We build this connection and imagine a space that brings delight. Our craft is filled with details of intentions and obviously that takes time. We, humans, are very malleable creatures. Sometimes we don’t necessarily realize the psychological effect of a confined space that has been created for us, resulting in a norm. We design outside of the norm. We push design elements to the maximum ability, whether through materials or culture, until we perfect it. Eventually, after a million “no’s” we break through and get the first “yes”. That takes time. 

Many from the Muslim community in North America have immigrated from Muslim countries, and they may have not realized that the mosque across the street had been there for 200 years. They may not have noticed it and one day they wake up and say "Oh my gosh, I really miss the mosque across the street in Beirut." That is when they start looking for and searching internally for their own element. We perfect that epiphany and through our designs we enhance their lives and allow them to reminisce those senses and feelings. We listen to the clients, focus on their feelings, create a connection that is memorable and filled with delight, then once everything is designed and built to perfection we give it the “MIIM” signature. 

Were there any particular influences early in your career?

I think for me the most influential building is the Kaaba.

Islamic architecture is so different from China to California. There are various arrays of how one defines Islamic architecture but the most simplistic and holiest of them is the Kaaba, it’s the simplicity of a cube. I really hope that you know when we do design buildings we are able to really bring out the simplicity and metaphysical aspects of Islamic architecture. It takes a lot of practice to exemplify simplicity. As Mies van der Rohe once stated, “Less is more and God is in the details."

As far as people, I would have to say, besides my grandparents, it would have to be my father and mother. My father teaches and lives each day through Game Theory and Multi-Objective Decision Making. Besides being an amazing entrepreneur and professor, he taught us the most important element of life—culture. We actually grew up learning and understanding Rumi’s philosophy. I learned Rumi poetry at the age of 3, before I could actually speak clearly. My Dad actually has a recording of it. My mom taught me Arabic and Persian. These basics were the foundation of my childhood. They didn’t come into play until later in my career when I decided to focus solely on Islamic architecture.

What has your research on the design of mosques in America shown?

It has shown that our community is an eclectic community. During the research for mosques in America we realized there are so many hands that are in play when it comes to designing mosques. For example, look at the two iconic mosques in America, the Washington DC Mosque (across from the White House) and the 96th Street Mosque in New York City.  One can see from the example of the 96th Street Mosque, designed by a well-known architectural firm, that the main thing is that it has the elemental shapes of a mosque: the dome and the minarets. It is a modern contemporary mosque structure. The interesting fact about it is that the Prince of Kuwait funded it and the funding actually ran low and there was no dome or minaret. Rockefeller understood that those are the biggest and most important elements of Islamic architecture and mosque design, so Rockefeller funded $1.4 million to put those elements into the mosque itself. Placing the two images of these mosques, one can see the difference between the 96th Street mosque in Manhattan versus the Washington, DC mosque.

96th St. Mosque in NYC (left) and Washington DC Mosque (right)

The Washington mosque was not commissioned by an American architect, it has nothing modern and contemporary about it. It was actually commissioned by Egypt and Turkey’s princes and by the Shah of Iran. All of those elements of Islamic architecture are incorporated in it. It’s truly beautiful and fascinating.  Upon arrival, the influence of Mamluk and Egyptian architecture is very evident. The tile work is the signature cobalt blue of Turkey and the mosaic work is unbelievable; the chandeliers, the rugs were all hand made and brought in, imported in by the Shah of Iran. It is a very phenomenal building. However, the difference between these two communities that reside in NYC and DC are very transparent. The 96th mosque is hardly occupied. Sadly, when they built it there was not adequate space for women; they didn’t incorporate a space so now families in Manhattan decide not to go to the mosque. Families have now relocated to mosques in the suburbs of NY and the mosque is left empty.

The Washington mosque was built and it was supposed to allow the Muslim community and the embassy workers to attend the mosque and to this day it is part museum and the other part is used on Friday for Jummah.

On the other hand we can go to Oakland and San Francisco. In the heart of the city in Oakland, Imam Zaid Shakir, who we are doing a project for right now, he’s got this little apartment and the downstairs has been cleared out for the Light House Mosque. On Fridays, for Jummah, the main event takes place. The whole ​street closes out and worshippers pour all the way out onto the street. The 880 highway runs over the Light House Mosque, it is one of the most phenomenal views on Friday afternoons around 1pm when you are stuck in traffic and you look out your window and you see the Jummah prayers and you see Imam Zaid Shakir out there.  It just gives me goose bumps, as I am talking about it, it’s just phenomenal to see that.

The same thing in Boston, The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Centre’s (ISBCC) Imam Suhaib Webb is doing a fantastic job. There has never been a day, whenever I am in Boston and I go down to the Common Word Café, and the Jummah line is just backed up all the way. Approximately 500-600 people are there praying and there is no room. It is a phenomenal community.  You can see how our generation, the American Muslim community has actually progressed. Whether the Light house Mosque or ISBCC, these phenomenal buildings in their current status are occupying the spaces differently in comparison to the previous and older generations and communities. Sadly, the younger generation does not really relate to those [older] mosques and recently at the annual ISNA Masjid Forum with Imam Magid and Dr. Ihsan Bagby, we spent 3 days talking about various ways to create an all inclusive masjid/mosque and the vitality of including the next generation.

One is able to see the generation gap; the rock star Imams are actually a big component in the mosques in America and in parallel the architecture is very influential in creating an inclusive space. If there are spaces for women to come and pray in the mosque, the family comes and if not, its just a space for men, and obviously the family doesn’t come and probably a tenth of the people show up.

What are some of the opportunities and challenges your office faces now? 

I wish I could hire more people. Right now there is an influx of projects we are seeing and I just wish we had more people that are well versed in Islamic architecture. Perhaps in the near future we will have more students. Currently, with the Islamic Scholarship Fund we are working on developing scholarships for students pursuing Islamic Art and Architecture. 

What do you see as the future of Islamic Architecture in America?

I think that the future of Islamic architecture in America needs to go back to about the 1950s and 1960s. We need to look back at the great architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier and Minoru Yamasaki. For example Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed the Guggenheim in NYC and is very well known for the residence Fallingwater, actually built and designed one of the biggest theatres in Phoenix, Arizona that was originally designed for Baghdad, Iraq. American architects like the ones that I mentioned, are very well versed in Islamic architecture because they took the time and understood what the great masters in Morocco had to offer. They would spend two years in Morocco, India and other places and eventually they built in those places. They really do understand the whole array from Africa all the way to South Asia and what Islamic architecture is and they brought that back to the United States and designed buildings. So I think for the future of Islamic architecture we need to look back and really research and understand what those architects implemented in the modern architecture of the Americas and use their expertise as precedents.

What advice would you give to young designers starting out today?

When you are studying architecture you really have to be able to do so in parallels with Islamic history, philosophy and the metaphysical aspects of Islamic architecture. Learn all of that as a foundation and then implement that in design and start creating excellent architecture.

As a Muslim, do you feel that religion or spirituality has played a role in your work over these years?

Absolutely! Absolutely! There is not a day where we don’t invoke, meditate or center ourselves in our studio. Particularly before we start our projects, specifically a mosque project. There is this huge element of prayer, invocation and playing of the Qur'an that actually does help us in our studio to be able to create the good Islamic architecture that we are able to create.

By ImanWire , 09 Jun 2014

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