Seeing a BIG Mosque

There must be many reasons why the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) rakes in one competition victory after another, but the way the firm presents its projects is definitely a factor. BIG has become the master of the atmospheric rendering, and it reaps rich dividends. In the case of the firm’s latest win – beating Zaha Hadid, among others, to build a mosque complex in Tirana, Albania – the sun-kissed images are a triumph of orientalist seduction, and I confess to being willingly mesmerized.

From all BIG projects, we have come to expect a standard template for visual presentation. First, the dramatic photo-realistic images: full of light and people, but dream-like, as though viewed through a fogged window. Then there are the explanatory diagrams, gradually leading you by the nose through the architect’s conception. And finally, the animation – the videos have few colors, the human figures are almost always just white, and the only concession to realism is a few renderings edited into the animation.

All three elements are wielded powerfully in the Albanian project. The mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama, was looking for a new Mosque complex to further his plans to drag the city out of its communist hangover. Five architectural firms emerged as finalists in the competition to design the 27,000 square-meter cultural complex: BIG, the Spanish architect Andreas Perea Ortega, Architecture Studio from France, the Dutch firm SeARCH and London-based Zaha Hadid. Last week, BIG’s proposal for a Mosque, an Islamic Centre, and a Museum of Religious Harmony was declared the winner, and we got to see the visual material that supported the win.

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The diagrams explain the basis of the architectural forms, requiring almost no verbal support. It seems only logical that a plaza for praying should be oriented towards Mecca, and that the mosque should be built at the head of that plaza so the praying multitudes face the mihrab. This standard requirement of all mosques seems to automatically generate those skewed architectural forms, when superimposed on Tirana’s urban grid. And if that superimposition also creates a plan that is a perfect octogram – the heart of so many Arabic mosaics – it only seals the symmetry of the concept.

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BIG’s contribution to the skew, in the form of swooping lines, can only be fully appreciated in the video. It is unlikely that any human eye will really see the curves move quite that beautifully – we are not likely to ever circumambulate the mosque at break-neck speed. Yet, that sense of movement is mesmerizing, like so many sinuous arabesques unfurling.

 

And then we come to those glorious renderings. Drenched in sunlight, or glowing at night, and always full of people, they are incredibly upbeat. Some of the details are enchanting – I love those hundreds of windows. BIG likens them to mashrabiya, which are usually balconies screened by intricately fretted panels of wood or stone. But the term is also used more generally for the lattices found in every mosque from Istanbul to Indonesia. And maybe the quality of sunlight in Tirana will indeed be just so, filtering through the windows to create magical interiors.

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 But as I step away from those details, the larger import begins to sink in.

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First, an aerial shot with the plaza empty, then one full of the devout in orderly lines.

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And how do you prefer to see the public space?

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With jeans, sunglasses and tan blazers, balloons going up into the sky? Or with the skull-capped, genuflecting faithful, their solemnity shaded against the sun?

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One dark image is indoors, with prayers offered toward a misty mihrab under a crystal chandelier, the other is dramatically lit, and populated by bicyclists and pigeons.

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Now it is a mosque, now it isn’t!

And every frame is carefully chosen to capture the building’s curves at their most suggestive – you begin to see traces of pointed arches, even a dome, in the twisted boxes.

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This project may be a mosque, but it is also contemporary starchitecture, the visuals proclaim. This is supposed to be the architect’s genius – bringing those two things together, thereby suggesting that they are usually difficult to reconcile. You want a minaret? You get a twisted ribbon.

That might be a problematic position to many, but it must be particularly appealing to rapidly modernizing Albania, which must at all costs avoid the communal tensions that have torn the other Balkan nations apart. BIG’s mosque is the last in a trio of new religious buildings in Tirana –A new orthodox cathedral and a catholic cathedral are also in the works. It might turn out that BIG’s mosque complex will just be a bunch of perforated white boxes. But the renderings promise a sunny, if simplistic, dream of modern, moderate Islam, of an easy religious harmony. That dream won the competition.

Read more about Bjarke Ingels’s many 2011 competition wins here.

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