1 - How language is being used by supporters and detractors, and
2 - The role of contemporary architecture in the debate.
Regarding the first, basically opponents are arguing that a mosque should not be built so close to the site of destruction caused by Islamic terrorists. The developer and supporters counter that the project is a Muslim community center and is not close enough to the site of the Twin Towers to be associated with the words Ground Zero. I'm most intrigued about the use of the term "community center" and what this really means and entails, rather than just as a rejoinder to the moniker "Ground Zero Mosque."
When I think of community centers in New York City, I think of the little ones added to public housing projects, the towers in the park devoid of the mix of uses that most neighborhoods maintain. In this case community centers were and are necessary pieces for a particular demographic, the residents of the housing where they are located. Of course the Park51 community center has a much larger demographic and a location with an abundant mix of uses. But when the use of the term "community center" is used, it potentially opens up one important element: community participation. In other words, should the community have input into what is built? Should the local residents shape the result in terms of what is included in the building? Or is the term merely a strategy to move people away from the word mosque? I think it's the latter.
I also think Park51 is an example of how the word community has become meaningless. Like the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine says she'll be ostracized from the community for breaking up with a guy (Jerry: What community? There's a community? Elaine: Of course there's a community. Jerry: All these years I'm living in a community, I had no idea.), the word means something and nothing at the same time. Or like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, in which the word's use could easily be a drinking game, it's used so often. In the case of Park51 the word is attached to a building type that implies both filling a need and welcoming different people, but if the developers want to truly embrace the democratic process that says they have the right to build in that location, then dealing with the community (whatever that may be) should come to the fore. So instead of "build it/don't build it" or "build it here/build it somewhere else" dichotomies, how about "what does the community need?" and strategies for allowing the community to provide input. The latter may occur in the town-hall-style meetings in the works.
[Park51 rendering by SOMA Architects | image source]
Regarding the second, the role of contemporary architecture in all of the hoopla, SOMA Architects' striking design is mired enough in today's formal arbitrariness that it can purport to be inspired by Islamic motifs without making them overt. As the Guardian describes the facade:
"The device is a clear allusion to the intricate arabesque motifs found in Islamic architecture, and is reminiscent of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, which shot the architect Jean Nouvel to fame in the 1980s. But it also pays homage to other religions, with the Jewish Star of David being clearly visible among its patterns."So the front of the 15-story tower can be read as an incorporation of numerous religious symbolism; or as a bunch of diagonal lines that are thin to allow in natural light, and thicken where abundant light is not desired, a functional response to what is inside. The avant-garde design reminds me of Daniel Libeskind's early designs for the World Trade Center masterplan, before his signature diagonals and slashes gave way to business-as-usual corporate architecture. I'm guessing the same may happen here if and when the project happens. Speculation puts ground breaking in 2013, and SOMA Architects is not the official architect for the project. Nevertheless I see their role as an important one: create images that neutralize the religious associations and drum up even more attention for the project towards raising money for the its construction.
Update 10.13: A good article on the project at The New Republic, by Sarah Williams Goldhagen.