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Volume 38, Number 4July/August 1987

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The American Contribution

Written by Donna Drake
Photographed by Ilene Perlman
Additional photographs by Christopher D. Salvo

Gülru Necipoğlu can take you back in time. Her trip takes you directly to the 15th century and Turkey's Topkapı Palace, seat of the Ottoman empire for 400 years.

Restored to its original form, the palace dazzles you with bright silk carpets strewn across marbled floors, and with embroidered draperies hung on elaborately tiled walls. Its gardens, landscaped to resemble paradise, are home to lions and tigers; gazelles and ostriches drink from flowing fountains. Today, the palace prepares for the arrival of Austria's ambassador: Bejeweled horses, carpeted benches laden with gifts and a sumptuous banquet served on Chinese porcelain and gilded plates are part of the reception ceremony. The sultan sits cross-legged on a golden throne beneath a blue ceiling picked out with gold stars. He's attended and entertained by scholars, gatekeepers, foot soldiers, minstrels, musicians and dancing courtiers dressed in rich fabrics.

These scenes are not an Orientalist fantasy. They are well researched, and they live in Necipoğlu's 700-page doctoral dissertation, which she wrote as a Harvard university graduate student.

Necipoğlu, who left Turkey 12 years ago to study in the United States, represents a growing number of students pursuing the study of Islamic arts and architecture at American universities. Her work earned a half share in the grand prize of the first international King Fahd Award for Design and Research in Islamic Architecture.

Necipoğlu's extensive study unearths revelations about a centuries-old structure.

"I tried to address how the palace was originally intended by the people who built it," Necipoğlu says. "If we just interpret old buildings without looking at them in the context of their day, we can reach very misleading conclusions about the meanings builders gave their buildings."

People who look at Topkapı today see an extensive but essentially modest creation compared with later palace architecture, Necipoğlu explains. But when Topkapı was built, what mattered was not the monumentality of the building, but how it was used.

"Part of the glamour of Topkapı was the ceremonies that brought the building to life. The palace served as a stage, and if you don't understand the exhibits [on it], the palace is simply an empty stage.

"For the Ottomans, the image of power was completed by gilding, textiles and ceremonies, not by grand dimensions."

To bring life to Topkapı, Necipoğlu studied first-hand accounts of life in the palace in the 15th and 16th centuries. Written in Italian, Turkish, German and French, her sources were account books, treatises, travelogues, books of ceremonies, inscriptions, poems of dedication, inventories and imperial decrees.

"This enabled her to bring to her work archival discoveries that were heretofore unknown," says Necipoğlu's adviser, Oleg Grabar, a leading authority on Islamic art and architecture and mentor of 50 doctoral students.

"I discovered all sorts of documents that outlined expenses for new buildings, decorations, remodeling," Necipoğlu says. She had to resort to old dictionaries to recognize 400-year-old terms in the various languages but, she says, "you get used to these little peculiarities."

The only other complete work on Topkapı Palace has been out of print for 20 years and provides only a guide to the present-day structure. Necipoğlu's volume, on the other hand, describes precisely the original appearance of the building and provides a history of how it developed - and why.

Necipoğlu's information, and the insights she derived from it, went undiscovered for so long because, typically, art historians "don't see it as their job to do archival research," she says. No one had used the Ottoman-era sources to study Topkapı's development before. And though historians make liberal use of arcliives, they rarely quote information that would be valuable to art historians. She credits Grabar with pointing out the importance of using written sources.

Necipoğlu and Grabar are among nine student/adviser teams from American universities who each received one of the 31 King Fahd Award prizes, marking the United States as the largest contributor both to the competition itself and to its goal: to recognize and promote studies that enhance, rebuild and encourage the art of Islamic architecture.

That statistic points out a scholastic fact: Though U.S. universities are far from Islamic lands, they have become the international leaders in teaching Islamic architecture, thanks to students and support from the Middle East. The faculties, grant funding, library networks and other resources of American schools attract many gifted students interested in the Islamic arts.

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for example, offer a cooperative program established specifically for the study of Islamic architecture. At the nation's oldest university, students delve into the history of Islamic art. Then at MIT, they study the last two centuries of change and development in Islamic countries and, in that light, grapple with contemporary design issues.

Though Harvard and MIT have shared resources for many years, this program was formed after the schools received an $11-million grant from the Aga Khan Foundation in 1979. The foundation's intent was to establish a curriculum of Islamic architecture studies; its purpose was to form scholars and practitioners who would use their skills in the Muslim world.

But students pursuing the art of Islamic architecture had been choosing U.S. universities even before dedicated programs recently became available. In fact, says MIT's Standford Anderson, it was Middle Eastern students - not faculty - who initially fostered Islamic studies.

"Even before the grant, MIT already had two Saudis studying aspects of Islamic architecture," says Anderson, adviser to King Fahd merit-award winner Rajmohan Shetty of Pakistan.

It was one of those students who made MIT professors realize that, though the school then had no spedalization in Islamic studies, it was still the optimum place to learn.

"When Saleh al-Hathloul came to me and said he wanted to study Islamic architecture, I said, 'That's ridiculous. We don't know anything about Islamic architecture,' " Anderson recalls.

Al-Hathloul argued that, between Harvard and MIT, he had all the resources he needed - faculties that excelled in teaching history, culture and architecture, as well as in providing educational guidance. Anderson said he would consider al-Hathloul's request if Grabar of Harvard also agreed to play a role in his studies. Grabar did.

Today, Dr. Saleh bin 'Ali al-Hathloul - scion of a long academic relationship between the U.S. and the Middle East is Saudi Arabia's Deputy Minister for Town Planning.

"We learned that as long as you have a good student who knows how to use the resources, we can be of help," Anderson says. "Our role is to help students understand the issues that can be raised, the philosophical approaches that can be taken, and then to help with the exposition - putting it all in a way that others can

Of course, since the Aga Khan grant, MIT and Harvard's resources have grown. And as the foundation intended, its investment is paying off in the Middle East. Harvard is already trying to develop more modern techniques for sharing teaching tools with poorer countries, such as Bangladesh. It is also negotiating with universities in Pakistan and Jordan to establish architecture programs similar to the one it shares with MIT.

But for now, as Narciso G. Menocal puts it, U.S. universities' resources still "are not equaled anywhere else in the world."

Menocal is a professor of American and European architecture at the University of Wisconsin. He shared in the honors when his student Morteza Sajadian won the other half of the grand prize in the King Fahd Award competition.

Like Necipoğlu, Sajadian made discoveries about a major Islamic monument. He is the first to establish that Madinat al-Zahra, a 10th-century city palace in Spain, was in its day the cultural center of the Islamic world, giving rise to the "caliphal period - an energetic and brilliant burgeoning of the art, culture and political ideals of Islam."

Madinat al-Zahra, destroyed as early as 1010, was excavated in 1910. But in the years since then, Sajadian is the first scholar to recognize the palace's tremendous influence on the development of later Islamic art and architectural monuments in Spain. These include the Alhambra in Granada and even the nearby Great Mosque of Cordoba, which, he says, was actually designed with forms first established at Madinat al-Zahra. Sajadian showed that the palace, itself a fusion of earlier Eastern and Western elements of Islamic art, became a prototype in architecture and decoration that influenced the art of the western Muslim world.

His discoveries were so boldly original that Sajadian was uncomfortable publishing them. He shelved his research for two years, until, with the encouragement of Menocal and others at the University of Wisconsin, he expanded it into a thesis.

"The fragments are there. We know the floor plan, we know of the extensive French and Spanish literature that refers to Madinat al-Zahra," Sajadian says. "We need to give it credit for what it was."

Not all the King Fahd Award winners, however, explored history. Many sought solutions to problems facing Muslim communities today.

One of these winners was University of Pennsylvania graduate student Reza Ghezelbash, an architect who believes his job is "like a poet's: He arranges words to create beautiful verse." To enter the King Fahd competition, Ghezelbash arranged the language of architecture to create what could become a beautiful solution to one of the Muslim world's most difficult problems - urban housing.

Over the last 25 years, Middle Eastern cities have become engorged with new residents from rural areas. They have responded to this challenge as unsuccessfully as Western cities facing the same crisis: with project housing, a poor habitat for the human spirit.

Ghezelbash addressed the problem by creating designs for courtyard housing that can be prefabricated and built in modules: as single houses, housing clusters or entire neighborhoods.

"The most common housing in the Middle East is courtyard housing," says Renata Holod, Ghezelbash's adviser. "It suits the culture, it suits the climate. But the architectural profession has avoided working in a modern way on this very good housing solution."

After two years of studying the courtyard housing of Yazd and Isfahan in his native Iran, Ghezelbash spent months breaking down the basic courtyard-house design into its simplest architectural elements and plotting each of them on a computer. Combining the elements into larger units, he put together different types of houses, then designed clusters of houses around courtyards, and finally arranged the courtyards into neighborhoods.

Ghezelbash's computerized designs "bridge the timelessness of Islamic housing and the timeliness of today's technology," he says. His courtyard houses, for example, provide for a public-to-private hierarchy of space that includes the modern garage as well as interior gardens at the heart of each home - a standard feature of Islamic housing that dates back hundreds of years.

"It is very difficult to combine the sense and spirit of traditional architecture with the needs of modern living," he says. "The nature of my work was to create Islamic architecture for the present time, to regenerate and update the architectural vocabulary of the past for the present."

The computer became an important tool for accomplishing his design, Ghezelbash says, because Islamic structures are made of extremely simple forms. "You can put in all this vocabulary, such as gateways and transition areas, and recall it as needed. In Islamic courtyard housing, there are only certain types of rooms, and they can be located only in certain places. It's very ordered, so it's very amenable to the use of a computer."

The genius of Ghezelbash's work, however, is in the combination of elements, says Holod. "It has all kinds of potential." For example, one reason architects have rejected courtyard housing is because it "wastes" space. But Ghezelbash's design can make the requirements of Islamic living conform to the space available. One family unit can be as small as 110 square meters (1,185 square feet).

"It’s the quality of the space that is important," Ghezelbash says. "In the Islamic world, minimal housing has the same types of space as housing for the rich."

Beyond the modern-day significance of his work, Ghezelbash had wanted to tackle the subject of housing for years because, "in my viewpoint, housing has much more application than any other structure. Where you have two mosques, for example, you have 1,000 houses."

His work to measure Iran's courtyard homes, millimeter by millimeter, served to document a common but classic structure.

"If Islamic housing is ever destroyed, there are no drawings of it, no way to recreate or remember what was," Ghezelbash says. "Famous mosques, that's easy. But not housing."

Though it was not his primary goal, merit-award winner Rajmohan Shetty's thesis also documented a building type, as well as a social structure, already being forced to change by today's society.

Under Anderson's guidance, Shetty, a Pakistani, examined a Muslim matrilineal community in India's Kerala State, a social structure Shetty believes is unique in the Islamic world. There, women head families of up to 100 people in homes that have expanded as the individual families grew, often covering an area of more than a block. It's a dramatic, living example of how a social system affects the organization of space.

Rafik Mohamed Mavrakis, a student at the University of Washington in Seattle, went beyond housing to the larger problem of planning entire Muslim cities.

Mavrakis, originally from Libya, sees a crisis in today's Muslim cities.

"They are losing their identity. They increasingly look like Western cities. Rapid urbanization threatens the existence of what historical heritage remains, not to mention the cultural identity of the Islamic society," he says. "It's necessary to design environments that facilitate Muslim life."

For his merit award-winning doctoral dissertation, Mavrakis developed guidelines that, if followed by urban planners in the Middle East, could eliminate these problems from future Muslim cities. The dissertation explains four principles critical to planning a Muslim community: to create a strong physical link between people and their religious institutions; to create structures that maintain privacy; to incorporate the symbolism of gardens in the city; and to promote a sense of community and independence by maintaining a form of the traditional quarter.

"I think the jury has recognized Rank's work as a guide for future developers of Muslim cities," says Norman Johnston, Mavrakis's adviser. "No one has gone into it in the depth that Rafik has. It's a significant contribution, ideally suited to assist the urban planner in the Middle East."

Johnston, who has taught at Istanbul Technical University, says, "In the Middle East, where American firms came in, designs were conceived largely in the Western tradition."

This practice, states Mavrakis, has resulted in the rapid transformation and disruption of urban environments and of a heritage that took centuries to evolve. Serene and beautiful Middle Eastern cities have been transformed into ugly, unspecific urban environments because architects and planners overlooked the values of traditional design, as well as the character, customs and values of the local people.

The situation offers a lesson, Johnston says. "Designers of environments for human life must focus not only on functional needs, but also on psychic and perceptual needs. That's true of the Islamic world, and it's certainly also true of ours."

Through his work with Mavrakis, Johnston says he has learned that "the Islamic world has some very specialized architectural needs, based on its religion. We must recognize these unique circumstances and design accordingly."

The problems of applying Islamic principles to architecture are not limited to Muslim settings. Yahya Jan of Princeton University won a merit award for his design of an Islamic community center located in the United States - at the corner of Madison Avenue and 85th Street in New York City.

"I thought a community center was needed here, so I made up my own program," says Jan, a Pakistani who has studied Islamic architecture as a hobby, as Princeton has no specialized program. "I also thought it would be more challenging to do a project designed for a specific area, and that corner was empty at the time."

Jan's community center, much like the endowed mosque complexes of the Middle East, includes a mosque, a research library, living quarters for visiting scholars and the imam (prayer leader), and a center that includes an auditorium, a Koran school and common areas.

"What was interesting for me," says Jan's adviser, Allen Chimacoff, "was that the project had to contend with the liturgical requirements of the structure and the practical regulations of a New York City grid. From that confrontation emerged all the issues of the conflict between the idealism of the religion and the arbitrary constraints of the location.

"If you saw it," Chimacoff adds, "you would understand that the structure is part of both worlds, both considerations."

In each case, Award entries - some of which could have a profound influence on the future of Islamic architecture - grew from the joint efforts of both student and academic adviser, a fact the King Fahd Award was designed to recognize.

"The very attractive thing about the King Fahd Award is that it acknowledges that the writing of a thesis is not the lonely work of a student, but is the interaction of student and teacher," says Grabar. "It's unique and nice that the Award recognizes the people behind the scenes. It's like applauding a stage designer."

In turn, the King Fahd Award is being noted as a means of fostering not only Islamic architectural principles, but the spirit of Islam as well.

"I think that's what the commission has tried to say: It's the culture of Islam that is important, not just its location," says Sajadian, whose grand-prize entry dealt with a structure outside the Islamic heartlands.

"In the 15th and 16th centuries, Islam never conceived of itself as divided into countries. It was thought of as the community of Muslims, wherever they might be. Let's stop thinking of ourselves as Iraqis, Saudi Arabians, Tunisians, Libyans. We can bring people of all these different regions together through the arts. Programs like the King Fahd Award bring out the best from all these cultures."

Equally important, perhaps, is the Award's goal of encouraging gifted students by rewarding their early accomplishments. Even in its first year, the program has pinpointed an exceptional group of scholars who are already crafting futures that will extend understanding of the Islamic arts and benefit both their own countries and the United States.

Sajadian, for example, has recently been named associate director of the Museum of Art and Archeology at the University of Missouri in Columbia - the sort of position, says his adviser, that is offered "to the up-and-coming young stars."

As for Gülru Necipoğlu, she surprised no one with the news of her grand prize. Currently teaching at Columbia University on a Mellon Fellowship, Necipoğlu soon begins a job she was offered even before receiving the prize: teaching Islamic art and architecture at Harvard University.

Donna Drake is the editor of ASC Focus, employee paper of Aramco's U.S. subsidiary in Houston.

This article appeared on pages 11-15 of the July/August 1987 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1987 images.