Make Mine a Minaret

As many—if not all—of you will know, last week saw Swiss voters ban the construction of new minarets in their country.

Fear, on one side, of watching Europe turn into "Eurabia"—even if the demographics don't justify such worries—and, on the other, of seeing centuries' worth of social liberalization—including women's suffrage and gay rights—fall apart in the face of religious conservatism, has led to the illegalization of an architectural form.

When your culture is under threat, ban a building.

Writing in the L.A. Times, Christopher Hawthorne calls it "Islamophobia lightly veiled"—whereas Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in a rambling article for the Christian Science Monitor, views it as "a rejection of political Islam, not a rejection of Muslims." The minaret, she continues, "is a symbol of Islamist supremacy"; its ban is thus a much-needed wall against what she calls "Muslim immigrant newcomers who feel that they are entitled, not only to practice their religion, but also to replace the local political order with that of their own." Writing on his own blog, meanwhile, architect Sam Jacob views this as a conflict over architectural ornament: "Switzerland has banned minarets," he writes. "In a sense, that is no real surprise coming from the home of architectural minimalism."

So what would happen if we temporarily—if only for the sake of argument—treated this whole thing as a design problem? What if architects could redesign minarets—what would that do to the efficacy of Switzerland's ban?

Archinect has stepped into the midst of this fight over religious expression, architectural form, visual traditions, national identity, future migration, international borders, the scenographic purity of the Alpine landscape, and more with a public design competition: Switzerland, We Have A Problem.

From the competition brief:
    To address this impasse between the rightful expression of the Muslim religion and the value of Switzerland’s overwhelmingly scenic environment, we challenge you to design a solution that allows the best of both worlds. Can you design a minaret as event rather than object?

    Your task is to design a deployable minaret that can attain full presence, visible from a distance, during each of the five daily calls to prayer.

    You may use any technology you like, choose any site in Switzerland, and your minaret may reach any height so long as it’s at least twice as high as the building it sprouts from.
There are more specific requirements over at Archinect.

In the end, then, how might certain building types respond creatively to a legal ban? What private chapels might result if megachurches were universally denied planning permission—and what effect might this architectural gesture have on Christianity itself?

Might Switzerland, ironically, become a site of intense design virtuosity and formal mutation in the historical typology of the mosque?

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Blogger Student of Life said...

Just to add 2 other pieces of information that I found striking:

There are only 4 existing minarets in the entire country of Switzerland.

The Muslim call to prayer has already been banned from these 4 minarets.

December 08, 2009 1:57 PM  
Anonymous saint said...

I have a far sillier solution to this problem.

Italian blue cypress trees trimmed into Minaret shape. The law banned "constructing" a minaret, not growing one out of a tree.

Turning the letter of the law back on the law makers is probably the sweetest joy I can conceive.

Oh, and it will also blend seamlessly into the Alpine countryside, enhance it even, which will really be adding lemon juice to the salt already in the wounds of those who sought to ban Minarets and justify it with piss-poor aesthetic hand wringing.

My apologies if this appears multiple times, blogger seems to not be accepting the comment but for all I know it's just not displaying a proper confirmation - but the post is not showing up on the page, so I'm assuming the worst.

December 08, 2009 2:16 PM  
Blogger Seth said...

these questions reflect the problems that i find in the competition brief and commented upon in my post (as nothing_engine) on the archinect announcement. perhaps BLDGBLOG could present a parallel idea-competition for an entry based on subversive deviation, camouflague, and quietly elegant proclamation of faith to complement archinect's apparently bombastic guidelines?

December 08, 2009 4:19 PM  
Blogger pete v said...

Seth: thank you for your comment re: antagonist tone on Archinect's thread. I very nearly copy/pasted it to this site.

Saint: I too am tickled by the general notion of "turning the letter of the law back on the lawmakers."

*I vote to ban the construction of new mega-churches, anywhere. Corporatist religion is so.... corporate.

*I think that harnessing/politicizing popular fear (as the Swiss People's Party had proven so apt to do) is loathsome and counterproductive.

*I think that knee-jerk leftist kowtowing to a supremacist movement that demands unilateral submission to draconian tenants is... unwise.

Let the minarets be, ban ignorant politics and fascist fundamentalism.

December 08, 2009 8:39 PM  
Anonymous Jack said...

The voting is completely blown up wrong. The media and politics are using this voting for their own benefit. 90% of their comments have nothing to do with this voting. The people spoke. That is what an open democracy is all about. If the Swiss don't want the minaret, it doesn't mean and doesn't say they are against Muslim or religion. They are against a tower. No more, no less. Stop blowing up this story. Last but not least; ask in Germany or the Netherlands they same question.

December 09, 2009 1:37 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The best buildings are symbolic and full of intent. This is similar to icons as traditional symbols. World wide, the Nazi swastika has been denied public acceptance. I see no difference between that symbol and the built symbol of a culture that is counter to most of our own.

December 09, 2009 8:04 AM  
Anonymous This is not — Yes it is said...

@ Jack, Ann:

Gotta love the delusional 'liberals' who mask their prejudice from their own selves.

Well, don't worry! In today's world you can have it both ways: you can be a lovely cool liberal and still get to 'object to' Muslims and anything associated with them. What demonisation?! This is totally hip!

December 09, 2009 9:32 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Saint, the tree idea is a not a bad one at all for this competition; you might want to submit it!

Seth, the points you mention are things that I would hope to see in the ideas generated by this competition; rather than initiate a parallel competition, I would simply encourage you and others to use this as an opportunity to explore "subversive deviation, camouflague, and quietly elegant proclamation of faith" in the context of a "deployable" minaret. "Deployable" is such an open term here that I think you've got a lot of space on your side for conceptual exploration.

December 09, 2009 11:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If the Swiss don't want the minaret, it doesn't mean and doesn't say they are against Muslim or religion. They are against a tower. No more, no less."@ Jack??? what is this, a country against a tower, that just by accident is the tower of muslim temple, at this time in history? do people really believe this?

December 10, 2009 6:00 AM  
Anonymous aem said...

What do you think the result of a similar referendum would be in the UK, the US, France or Italy? My feeling is probably the same way, with 57% voting for the ban in Switzerland

While I don't commend the decision, it is far to easy to externalise the issue to Switzerland, ignoring the fact that the fear and hostility towards Islam is prevalent throughout the west. At least the swiss had a democratic debate on the issue (if not an impartial one)

December 10, 2009 8:53 AM  
Anonymous MadProhet said...

Ok lets call things by their real names. Banning of minarets is fascism par excellence. And yes, it shows another face of Western society. The socitey that is very zealous in bringing ''democracy'' and ''freedom'' to distant ''savages'' but dislikes when those ''savages'' suddenly try to exercise that ''freedom'' on Western soil.

While I'm sympathetic for Archinect's call to circumvent the law, redesigning of mosques should not be an issue because mosques, if designed with care, can be a beautiful addition to any town on earth. try to google ''dzamija zagreb'' or ''bijela dzamija visoko'' For the design of the latter architect Z. Ugljen won Aga Khan award for architecture.

I'm a non-muslim living in a dominantly muslim country that has its share of inter-religious strife and hatred (Bosnia) but I can tell you that a muslim call for
prayer from a minaret is something that I always miss when I'm abroad. Westerners should try to look for things like that in Islam and they will find that, that culture can enrich their lives and society as a whole

December 11, 2009 2:47 PM  
Anonymous casper said...

@What private chapels might result if megachurches were universally denied planning permission—

See the exterior here:

and the interior here:

Sorry it is all in Dutch; at the time Catholoic churches were effectively forbidden and chapels like these were installed within ordinay hoses.

December 14, 2009 11:15 AM  
Anonymous Markus said...

@ petrahelena:

Swastikas are still a religious symbol in India, it is just us Westerners always associating it with the nazis...

The trouble with religion is that every believer thinks he/she is right and the others have to follow their rules or the non-believers have to be be destroyed (that is at least my impression lately). The fear of possibly being forced to believe in something one does not understand and being so different from ones upbringing was, my guess, one of the many reasons to ban minaretts as they are seen as a sign of the force coming. The other thing is, that religious people quite often think their rules are above the law. To ban minaretts is a pity, but the same is also valid for christian symbols in islamic countries, not really welcome either...

December 14, 2009 4:41 PM  

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