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Volume 41, Number 3May/June 1990

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In the Mind of the Beholder

Written by Lydia Sharman Male

Tarek El-Bouri sits at his desk surrounded by piles of glazed, handmade clay bricks. Paramjit Takhar paints in gouache intricate designs based on fourfold geometry. Saeid Massroor practices calligraphy, which he combines with gold leaf in his paintings. Delia Whitbread is struggling with the design of a rose window in seven-fold geometry, and Simon Tretheway is designing the stained-glass windows that he frames in carved and cast plaster.

These students at London's Royal College of Art, gathered from India, the Middle East, North Africa, Great Britain and North America, are working on master's degrees and doctorates at the school of Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts.

On the walls of the studios, and filling the director's office, are meticulously executed, glowing paintings inspired by Turkish, Indian, Persian and Moroccan designs. Bulletin boards are covered with posters, articles and postcards announcing and discussing events related to Islamic art and architecture. Islamic music plays in the background while, outside the window, an English drizzle descends on the South Kensington district of London.

Founded in 1837, the Royal College of Art (RCA) is Britain's most prestigious independent post-graduate institution of art and design. Its faculties of fine arts, design and communications award higher degrees in subjects ranging from painting, sculpture and printmaking to automotive and industrial design and cultural history.

In a bold step, the Royal College of Art established the unique Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts (VITA) school in 1984 under the leadership of Keith Critchlow. Geometer, author, educator and lecturer, Critchlow is known internationally for his analysis of geometrical forms and their translation into structures and patterns. His research has found expression in three unique books, Order in Space, Islamic Patterns, and Time Stands Still. Critchlow has devoted 25 years to the study of Islamic patterns, has completed architectural and design commissions in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran and designed the Krishnamurti Study Center in Hampshire and Lindisfarne Chapel in Colorado.

Recipient of an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art, Critchlow was for 12 years a senior lecturer at the Architectural Association, one of England's most respected degree-granting schools of architecture, and at the RCA for nine years before he persuaded the college to create the Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts unit.

Fifteen years ago, when he was already a respected student of Islamic art, Critchlow was asked by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, at that time dean and vice-chancellor of Tehran University, to write a book on aniconic - nonrepresentational - Islamic art. The concept of unity, which is central to Islam, and a tradition that excludes the use of represerv tational icons, which encourage idolatry, gave rise to aniconic visual forms in Islamic art which communicate the spiritual world through geometry, calligraphy and flowing, often floriated, rhythmic designs.

Critchlow asked Nasr why a Western scholar should write such a book. Pointing out that Muslim students were being increasingly influenced by Western art and architecture, at the expense of their own traditions, Nasr argued that a Western scholar and artist who could awaken the West to the profound value of Islamic art would also re-awaken Muslim students to the value of their own traditions. Critchlow took up the challenge, and in his foreword to the resulting book, Islamic Patterns, Nasr comments that "the writings of Keith Critchlow are among the first in the West to analyze the geometry of Islamic patterns from the point of view of the metaphysical and cosmological principles involved."

Critchlow is concerned that traditional Islamic arts are in danger of dying out in many areas. Competition from mass-produced artifacts, and the weakening of the traditional craft guilds, where rigorous scholarship and craftsmanship are practiced together under the direction of a master, are affecting both demand and supply: There is a serious shortage of artisans as well as decreasing appreciation of these traditions by both Islamic and non-Islamic designers.

Having finished Islamic Patterns, Critchlow felt the need to establish a center where the theory and practice of visual Islamic arts - in his thinking a universal language of contemporary significance - could be studied.

For Critchlow, the study of aniconic Islamic arts is an important route back to the esthetic traditions of both Eastern and Western art and architecture. The influence of Byzantium in the East and the influx of Arabic translations from Spain, in the West, were both crucial for the kindling of the Renaissance 14th-century Italy. The philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, preserved and commented on in Arabic manuscripts and translated in Muslim centers of learning, were introduced to Europe (See Aramco World, May-June 1982). So were Indo-Arabic numerals. The mathematician Leonardo of Pisa, known as Fibonacci, whose father had employed an Arab teacher of mathematics for him, had a profound influence on the esthetics of Leonardo da Vinci, as well as several other important figures of the Renaissance.

VITA qualifies its graduates to practice, teach and research the Islamic arts as living art forms within an ancient tradition. Critchlow explains, "The first principle of Islamic art is unity. The great architectural feats of Islam, from the Taj Mahal to the Alhambra in Spain, demonstrate a profound integration of structure, form and beauty. This is achieved through the overriding sense of unity that lies behind all the arts and crafts of the Muslim world. At VITA the whole range of Islamic arts - from calligraphy to decorative objects, fabrics, tiles, ceramics, brickwork, buildings, cityscapes and landscapes - is considered in its entirety. In very simple terms, it is to the glory of God or to the glory of the unity of creation..."

The VITA curriculum, taught in English, combines the fundamental principles of geometry with the vegetal forms often called "arabesques," but more accurately known by the Persian word islimi, that represent the formative life forces. The program is staffed by a small, permanent nucleus of teachers supported by internationally respected Islamic architects, artists, artisans and scholars who visit to give lectures or courses and to work with individual students. These visitors have included Mahmoud Zaringhalam, superb artist of calligraphy and islimi who was rector of the first arts uni-versify of Iran; Martin Lings, author and scholar who was JKL curator of Arabic manuscripts at the British Museum; and Ibrahim Allawi, Director of the Buldan Center in London and an expert on the cosmology of the city of Baghdad.

Keith Critchlow, dedicated, endlessly energetic and a brilliant lecturer, enthralls his audiences as they follow him into realms where number and geometry express profound universal truths and concepts of beauty and harmony. He opens doors and creates new connections in the minds of his students, and of listeners at lectures, workshops and conferences around the world. VITA students come from diverse cultural backgrounds; they have in common the desire to explore the esthetic order at the heart of traditional Islamic and Western art and architecture.

The first students graduated from VITA in 1987, three years after the program was formally established. Architect Samar Damluji, from Iraq, obtained her doetorate from the VITA unit with a study of the mud-brick housing of the Hadramaut in South Yemen. As Damluji worked for two years in the office of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy (See Aramco World, May-June 1988) and edited his writings, she absorbed his belief in the value of building with local materials, local skills and local traditions. Now a post-doctoral grant from Britain's Lever-hulme Trust, a charity supporting research, will enable Damluji to make widely accessible, in both English and Arabic, a comprehensive study of the unique undocumented architecture of South Yemen, as well as a plan for the modernization and preservation of traditional local construction techniques (See Aramco World, May-June 1986).

Waeil Samhouri, an architect and urban designer from Syria, shares a corner of the VITA unit. His walls are covered with intricate plans of Islamic cities, even at first glance quite different from the plans of typical Western cities. Dwellings, in random patterns, are built to the edges of the streets and surround inner courtyards, in contrast to the grid patterns, sidewalks and exterior gardens of Western communities. Samhouri was planning to join the Aga Khan program in Islamic architecture at Harvard when a weekend workshop with Keith Critchlow in New York convinced him that the RCA would be the best place for him to pursue his research.

The projects completed by the first two groups of VITA graduates included a study by Sunand Prasad, a practicing architect who undertook a doctoral thesis on North Indian haveli courtyard houses, the traditional house style of his birthplace. Here, columns support delicate arches and upper stories have decorative corbeling. Prasad's study compares these houses, which are rapidly disappearing, with the modern bungalows which are replacing them, in an effort to understand and preserve the best of the traditional type of dwelling. Libyan architect Tarek El-Bouri, who obtained his master's degree from VITA, studied the relevance of traditional Islamic brickwork to modern architecture. Following a trip to Central Anatolia to study examples of Seljuk brickwork from the 10th and 13th centuries, he spent a month developing brick designs at Commonworks in Kent, a charitable trust founded by a large building firm, which includes a brick plant. Commonworks provided small, unfired standard handmade bricks from their own production; El-Bouri cut them to the angles required by the geometry of his designs. The bricks were then fired. El-Bouri also developed a blue glaze similar to the one used in traditional Islamic brickwork. Returning to architectural practice, he now hopes to incorporate the timeless, inspirational quality of Islamic brickwork into the design of mixed-use urban projects in countries where it will be appropriate.

Another group of master's graduates from VITA work in two-dimensional design. Blurring the distinction between fine arts and crafts, they contribute equally in both areas.

Simon Tretheway, from London, has a background in fine arts and stained glass. In the degree show in which graduating students present their best work, Tretheway exhibited glowing circular designs symbolizing cosmic rhythms in six- and eight-fold geometry, windows with stained glass embedded in carved or cast plaster, and a series of delicately carved tiles inspired by his study of traditional Islamic patterns. The tiles, now being commercially produced in England, are hand-finished with glazes duplicating the chemical formulae used in Egypt and Persia 700 years ago.

For Tretheway, joining the VITA unit was the beginning of a completely new way of seeing and working. He tried to explain the change that occurred in him as he worked patiently to understand the structure behind certain Islamic patterns, and then to use variations of these patterns in his own designs.

"I can divide a circle perfectly into six equal sections to create a hexagram, but I have not actually made a hexagram if I do that. Rather, I have adhered to something that was already inherent in the circle. What this means to me is that I am not just working with pencil and pen, I am also working with an inner restructuring. As I make the designs, I find myself attuning very deeply with them, becoming peaceful and more alive."

Saeid Massroor, an Iranian now living in Britain, exhibited beautiful works inspired by Islamic calligraphy, geometry and islimi. Massroor explores the geometry of calligraphy, the meaning of this geometry and the meditational and abstract aspects of calligraphy. His exhibition included exquisitely refined visual interpretations of phrases from the Qur'an and of a poem by the 13th-century Turkish mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi, all rich in meaning whether or not the viewer understands Arabic.

Paramjit Takhar, a Briton of Indian heritage, exhibited delicate, hand-painted patterns and designs for ceramics, textiles and carpets inspired by Islamic miniatures and ceramics and by the Moghul tradition of India. These patterns include very large, circular mandalas - requiring hours of meditative, repetitive brushwork - as well as many smaller-scale, individual designs.

Doctoral student Richard Foster, author and BBC television producer, undertook a thesis on the pavement in the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, laid in 1268 in the distinctive Roman Cosmati style. Its pattern based on eightfold symmetry, the pavement blends Roman, Greek and Islamic traditions, and is considered one of England's most important, least known and least understood art treasures.

Other students at VITA are pursuing such subjects as the mathematics of the ceramic art of the Alhambra, the drawing systems of Ottoman arts, the motifs of Islamic textile design, Coptic iconography, and the development of educational programs. VITA itself has been asked to develop a course on visual Islamic art that will lead to a General Certificate of Education for British high schools.

VITA students have already been awarded prizes - including The World of Islam Festival Trust Prize - at the RCA degree show. The Victoria and Albert Museum plans purchases; Prince Philip and other notable visitors to the show discuss the program and the students' projects. And Middle Eastern and Western patrons make their own purchases.

Keith Critchlow, even at this early stage in vita's history, feels greatly rewarded by the accomplishments of his students. He is looking forward to the establishment of similar programs in traditional visual Islamic arts, combining practical application and scholarship, at universities in Muslim countries: Existing programs tend to be largely theoretical. Muslim art students living in England have not been able to find other programs which help them to understand and build on the visual arts of their cultural heritage. At VITA, postgraduate artists, designers and architects study the contemporary value of different traditions within the overall unity of Islamic visual arts. At VITA, tradition is defined as the sacred thread of relevance that runs through all generations.

Lydia Sharman Male, a graduate of London's Central School of Art and Design, practices, teaches, studies and writes about design.

This article appeared on pages 10-15 of the May/June 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1990 images.