A design object in its own right, the telling infographics, clever layout and three stunningly beautiful photo essays by Dick Barendsen and Christian van der Kooy are reason enough to find this new book a home on your nightstand. It’s our great good fortune that it also includes a handful of smart, sharp and thoughtful essays on Muslims in the Netherlands culled and written by two architecturally-inclined men seeking greater public dialogue about religion, assimilation, identity and design in what is—barring a bit of progressive goodwill toward potheads and prostitutes—a small, conservative nation.
Erkoçu and Bugdaci are ever-present throughout The Mosque, penning essays, reporting on the state of Islamic architecture in Holland and interviewing leading thinkers about Dutch society and the nature of mosques and how they should be built. Balancing the often tradition-minded desires of first generation immigrants with the decidedly more Dutch mindset of their children, the writers pose all manner of difficult questions, such as "For whom do we build mosques: the users or the critics?" and "How can we capture a society’s diverse identities in a single style?"
To answer these questions, they turn to religious scholars, architectural theorists, journalists and politicians from across the spectrum of Dutch life. As you can imagine, Erkoçu and Bugdaci are decidedly pro-mosque (a sentiment not wholly shared by their countrymen), but their investigation of this fraught structure seeks a greater understanding of mosques by Muslims and non-Muslims alike while pursuing a design language that treats the mosque as a site of innovation, not hidebound conformity.
One of the most interesting parts of The Mosque comes at the end of the book, an appendix of proposed, recently completed or under-construction mosques and cultural centers. They range from the sculptural blobs of Zaha Hadid to the precise mosaic work and twin spires of the Middle East’s most beautiful Ottoman buildings.
Perhaps the most fascinating is the proposed Polder Mosque (a polder is a low-lying tract of land surrounded by dikes), by Erkoçu’s CONCEPT0031 and MEMAR.DUT©H. Sited in the center of Rotterdam, it is as Dutch as it is Muslim. A modern dome with a grass roof and windmills, the Polder Mosque is imagined as an inclusive center of life and culture. The minaret is an elevator shaft from which imams can flash light signals as the call to prayer, a concession to nearby residents who view the call as noise pollution. A Turkish bath, office space, a restaurant, lounge and prayer hall round out the program.
All told, The Mosque is a book unafraid to challenge orthodoxy, to view the troubles between the West and the Muslims who find themselves living there as tractable, and to take up the mosque as truly public space: flexible and vital, welcoming and comforting, and ultimately, like all of our public spaces should be, sacred.
Aaron writes the men's style column "The Pocket Square" for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for the New York Times, the Times Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic and others.