Teaching Architecture in the Age of the Great "Mosque" Debate

09/13/2010 12:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It is an interesting time to be an Instructor of Architectural History. For several years now, I have been teaching students about the movements of the past, which spawned debates often elevated to deadly crescendo by one architectural expression or another. Consider for example, the design for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which was once considered heretical, too pagan in its decoration because Michelangelo refused to clothe the nude. The decision to cover (or not) the objectionable parts of the human form could easily have led to a schism in the church, the expulsion of a pope, or worse: war and bloodshed. It was perhaps only an appeal to man's stronger sense of reason that avoided such calamities.

While debates in modern American architecture can get heated, condemnatory (the Bauhaus Modernists famously condemned the work of Frank Lloyd Wright as being far too bourgeois,) most often the central feature of contention is aesthetic consideration. Rarely, at least in this country, do these arguments consume the minds and passions of the people on the periphery of the argument -- the non-users or the passive viewers.

The debate over the Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero (erroneously referred to as the "Ground Zero Mosque:" it is not located at Ground Zero, nor is it exclusively a mosque), may be the closest any of my students in this country will come to experiencing some of the all consuming passion that caused citizens of previous generations to go war over the height of a spire or the inclusion of the circle (which was once associated with pagan temples) in the plan for a Christian church. As I teach my students, site selection and formal considerations are not merely random facets of taste or convenience, but deeply probed decisions about the statement an architect or a patron or a community is trying to make, and their relationship to the history of the materials and context of their creation. One need only look at the bloody conflict in the Middle East for proof of this.

Part of the discipline of teaching architectural history is teaching the history of war, usurpation, theft, and genocide. Manhattan Island was once owned by a people who sold it to the Dutch for a paltry sum, whose fellow Native Americans were systematically exiled from ancient lands or enslaved or killed or worse. Death and betrayal were a part of the American landscape long before that black September day. When considering the proposed Islamic Cultural Center, a larger question looms- one for which I certainly don't have the answers, especially as a beneficiary of the European dominance of this country. Are we really allowed to declare hallowed -- that is, untouchable -- ground in this country at all since the site of so many American triumphs of industry and technology is also the site of others' vanquishing?

Yet the American landscape, like the contested landscapes of so many other countries, continues to live, to evolve as time and an influx of new people and purposes rend and wrench the land to fit their own time and needs. I agree that there is a time and place for memorials. Sometimes a trauma or an injustice is so great, that a space must be preserved so that posterity never forgets what happened there. The Nazi death camps in Europe are such places, as is the field at Gettysburg where so many gave their lives in service of their country. I support those faced with the arduous task of designing a tribute at the site of the felled Twin Towers themselves. Their task is the creation of a static structure that says this ground died along who those who were killed here. That is, at least in part, what monuments do. They remove a specific piece of land from the flow of time, preserve it in a static expression so that posterity will never forget that tragic day.

However, it is not only those who died whose memories will be preserved at the memorial, it is the memory of those who did the killing as well. We cannot remember the effect without also contemplating the cause. It is this that I believe is truly at the heart of the opposition to the cultural center whose proposed site is near Ground Zero. To my mind the dirty secret behind the opposition to the construction is not the answers to the tortured game of "six degrees of separation" so many on the extreme right are playing looking for a villain to connect to the new center. Instead, it seems to me that what those making the most noise are actually opposed to is the idea that a symbol of peaceful Islam will be near the site, thus muddying the idea that many have so much invested in -- namely that all Muslims are in some fashion bad, to be feared. For how often is the fact that peaceful, innocent Muslims were also killed on 9/11 brushed aside as inconvenient to the practice of villainizing the religion as a whole?

We've seen this line of thinking in America before. One need only to look at the hate speech of Reconstruction or the era of lynching or the Jim Crow South were old segregationists used heavy rhetoric and, yes, architecture to keep whites and blacks from co-mingling. Allowing blacks and whites to spend time together in the same restaurants or swimming pools or schools or neighborhoods might allow them to get to know each other, to begin to view one another with compassion and as the equal citizens that they rightfully are. This was something that invested segregationists could not allow, just as those committed to coloring all Muslims as inherently evil feel compelled to protest the creation of a non-extremist Muslim center which would have even a proximal relationship to the Ground Zero site.

It is not a matter of opinion but a matter of numbers that the majority of Muslims in this country value peace, tolerance, and coexistence every bit as much as the majority of other Americans. Why send our architecture to war for us -- a proxy for our own intolerance? I think it is imperative that the Center be built at the proposed site as an architectural antithesis -- a foil against which peaceful Islam will be shown all the brighter for its contrast against the literal backdrop of Muslim extremism.