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Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Language of Park51

I've been reticent about jumping into the hoopla around the Park51 controversy, the community center on Park Place, a couple blocks from the World Trade Center site. Of course this is the project known by many as the "Ground Zero Mosque." But as I think about the project, the media coverage, the voices on both sides of the build it/move it fence, and the new renderings of the design, I'm struck by a couple things:

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.


  1. I thought I had heard that the idea for this community center came from a similar Jewish community center already in Manhattan that has a health club and a prestigious early childhood program. The developer of this project said on 69 Minutes that he is a member of the Jewish community center health club and thought it would be good to open an Islamic community center.

  2. That should be 60 Minutes. 69 Minutes might be on some "spice" channel or something.

  3. from what i have seen written about this center is that it is modeled after both JCC's and YMCA's around the city, with the idea that it will be a Muslin version of those.

    also this community center has received input from the community, as it went through the process of approval and before it became the political vote getting issue of the right

    but it is not even a mosque in the true sense, as its architecture does not meat the religious requirements

    as for the "formal arbitrariness" it is a welcome improvement from the mundane repetitiveness of most of what is being built at Ground Zero.

    it surprises me that the issue is so distorted on a blog that is usually well thought out

  4. Thanks for both of the comments on the JCCs and YMCAs, a glaring oversight on my part. That knowledge probably would have shifted my post to just number 2, how the design plays a part in the debate.

    chicagomontreal - Didn't see that 60 Minutes...I probably should have before writing this.

    Unfortunately my exposure to the project has only been through the local news and a few articles online. The former really simplifies things into yes/no issues (should it be built? should it be built there? etc.), without going into any detail at all. The latter seemed to follow the same, with a little extra background information.

    matei23 - What "process of approval" are you referring to? Does this project even need such a thing legally, politically? I'm intrigued.

    And I agree the design is an improvement over what's going up two blocks south -- it's an improvement over Libeskind's initial designs -- but I still think it's arbitrary...not that there's anything wrong with that. In this case I think the facade says more about what's going on behind it via the thickness of the lines than anything symbolic. Again, it's neutral, and I think that's intentional.

  5. In NYC each part of the city has a Community Board, which are advisory, but I believe that any new construction has to come before the community board before it can receive final approval.

    In any case, the muslin community center did go before Community Board 1 and won approval.

    It was a public debate and exactly what you were asking about in terms of community input.

    One other thing that I want to mention is that there already is a mosque in that neighborhood that has been there for more than 20 years and no one seems to have a problem with that. Which in my opinion just goes to show how much this is simply a political wedge issue and that after the election it will no longer be the front page story.

  6. I'm pretty sure new construction doesn't require CB approval if it's as-of-right. But who builds as-of-right these days?

  7. eBohn - Yes, that prompted me to ask. I'm guessing that actually most projects are as-of-right, so then they can be self-certified by an architect or engineer. But those aren't the ones that make the papers.


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