When Park51 released a suite of renderings of the planned Islamic community center recently, the move seemed intended to neutralize the toxic verbiage swirling around the project with evidence of enlightened design. Instead, the images just added to the murk. They show a sugar-white fifteen-story building slotted between sooty masonry relics. The façade is covered in a riff on a mashrabiya, the carved screen that in traditional Islamic architecture veils interiors from intrusive eyes and the penetrating sun. The motif of the six-point Arabic star has been fed through software to create an irregular pattern. Inside, escalators lead from a light-bathed upper story to an even airier mezzanine above, though we get no clue as to what those bare and generous spaces may be for. We could be looking at an airport or a hotel lobby.
The sketches are the work of Soma Architects, which was founded by the 33-year-old Columbia-trained architect Michel Abboud and has offices in New York, Mexico City, and Beirut. The firm’s thin portfolio of built projects includes the Lebanese restaurant Naya in midtown, where white-on-white booths and perforated screens resemble pods for some chic scientific activity.
The design’s vagueness reflects a certain muddle about Park51’s mission. Will the new building be a religious establishment or a cultural one, an interfaith center or a Muslim organization, a symbolic place or a pragmatic facility? It’s an architect’s job to ask these questions, then weave the answers into concrete and steel. But the Park51 website refers to Soma merely as its “Architectural Design consultants,” which is another way of saying that Abboud might not design the building when the clients figure out what they want, assuming they can raise the money.
In the absence of clarity, Soma resorted to facile globalism. The façade invokes a series of Western architects’ glosses on the mashrabiya more than it does the real thing—its most relevant antecedents are the elaborately patterned balcony screens in the new showcase enclave of Masdar in Abu Dhabi, designed by Norman Foster; the high-tech metal-and-glass curtain on Jean Nouvel’s Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris; and the white concrete grille with which Edward Durrell Stone cloaked the front of his East Side brownstone. Park51’s version yields a generic whiff of the Middle East, but ignores its immediate surroundings. The allover pattern even obscures the basic module of New York architecture: the story.
Until now, the debate over an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan has centered on location and its literal and symbolic proximity to the World Trade Center. Park51’s founders and supporters have lucidly defended the organization’s legal and moral right to build on the lot it owns and suggested that even if they found an alternative, they could not let themselves be bullied into moving. You would think, then, that the architects would make the logic of this location seem inescapable. They might have given more than a perfunctory nod to the financial district’s modernist towers and ornate palazzos of capital or to the future complex rising a couple of blocks away. But instead of embedding the spirit of the place into the building, Soma has imagined a generically ornate box that could be dropped in another neighborhood—or work equally well as the offices of a software company in Cairo.
The current version of Park51 may bear no similarity to the eventual design. But even as a statement of architectural ambitions, the pictures are not encouraging. Rather than use the opportunity to battle paranoia with precision, the nascent institution has chosen to crouch behind all-purpose, prerecession fanciness. Instead of taking a step toward reality, Park51 has proffered a decorative distraction, a picture to adorn a fund-raising brochure. And so an ideal of ecumenical enlightenment is starting to look like just another developer’s mirage.