Rendering Shows Little Detail Of Mosque's Design

There's been a lot of debate over the planned Islamic community center that would be built near the spot where the World Trade Center once stood. But there's been very little talk about what the building will look like. Rick Bell, executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, talks to Steve Inskeep about design concepts for the building.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's try to get some more insight now into a proposed Islamic center in New York City. That center is planned near the spot where the World Trade Center once stood. It is generating fierce debate. And the people who approve of the idea include Rick Bell. He directs the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects and for almost nine years now, Bell has been involved in the debate over rebuilding Lower Manhattan.

When you talk with Bell, you begin to sense what the building might look like, and the messages its architecture might send.

If you're physically standing on the site of the World Trade Center, do you see this piece of real estate, where this Islamic center would be?

Mr. RICK BELL (American Institute of Architects): No, you do not. It's not across the street. It's not adjacent. It doesn't contribute to the meaning of what the memorial will be.

INSKEEP: What do you know about what kind of a building it is supposed to be?

Mr. BELL: Very little. I think the building will be an Islamic cultural center. That will include a place of worship. Strictly speaking, a room where people worship can be called a mosque. But it's not a building, as I understand it, that will look like a preconception of a mosque.

There'll be no minarets. It'll be a building that has a character, I am sure, that will be consistent with the types of activities that occur within. What that will likely mean in terms of renderings - a single rendering that was shown at the community board meeting is something that has a strict geometry, that doesn't have a representational quality. There'll be no super-graphics or advertising, but you could be sure that the symbolism that is involved in many beautiful buildings of Islamic culture around the world will start with a strong sense of geometry, and a symbolism of that geometry.

INSKEEP: You said strict geometry. Is one of the things that you mean by that, that it's basically it's a rectangular building. It's a 13-story building; it just looks like a building.

Mr. BELL: Well, I think a building, especially in the middle of a block where the shape of a building can't be all that volumetrically varied, is going to be a box. You know, I think the organizers of the building have said that. Let's assume that that box will be decorated by a facade that has a way of both allowing light in and screening light - something that will look timeless and beautiful. That's the aspiration, that's the hope.

INSKEEP: What kinds of messages can a building send by the way that it's designed?

Mr. BELL: You know, I think it's altogether to be expected that any building that talks to a spiritual dialogue is going to have a facade, is going to have windows and doorways that talk about invitation, that talk about transparency and connectivity. If those are words that imply, then, architectural form, the symbolism of the building's facade is going to be, I think, one of acceptance, you know, and tolerance.

INSKEEP: Let me make a crude example here, of this, if I can. If youre talking about transparency or connectivity, youre maybe talking about, for example, a building with lots of glass as opposed to a lot of stone walls.

Mr. BELLS: Well, glass that can be also tempered by screening. If you look at the old police stations in New York from a generation ago, the Fort Apache in the Bronx was a fortress. More recently, the city has built police stations -Richard Dattner in Washington Heights - that talk about transparency by using more glass, yet they're not glass boxes.

To say that a mosque, a synagogue, a church, any building at which people get away from or try to get away from the pressures and constraints of daily life -churches are defined, in many instances, by their portals, by the beauty of their doors but certainly, as much - in some cases more - by the beauty of the windows, by the stained-glass rose windows, by the veiled connection allowing light in and a sense of the outside inside. That doesnt mean a glass box.

INSKEEP: So if you were the architect that they came to, to design this building, you'd be looking for something that was somehow open to the community but at the same time, allowed a certain amount of privacy and contemplation once you got inside.

Mr. BELL: That says it very well. An opening to the community, I think, also has to address the rancor, the controversy that has grown up about this building, fears that some in the community have that need to be addressed - and no better place than here.

INSKEEP: Do you think it's likely that no matter how it's designed, no matter how it's built - that if it ever does come to pass, if this Islamic center is constructed - that the vast majority of people who come to Lower Manhattan, or even who walk on that particular street a couple blocks from the World Trade Center site, will never even notice it?

Mr. BELL: People see what they want to see. And there will be people who will stop at this building after it's done and say, you see, I told you so. Look how different and alienating this is. How different from our experience - how different from my synagogue, how different from my church, how different from the place I work or the place I live. That won't be bad. You know, it'll cause people to maybe think about why it's different, and in what ways it might also be similar.

As an architect, I dont think I would claim a doctrine of architectural tolerance, but if you look at the streetscape of New York in terms of its great variety of styles, its great historical variety of when buildings were built, it's an active and vibrant mix of architecture that talks about how, on this world, we have to live together.

INSKEEP: Mmm. Rick Bell of the American Institute of Architects, thanks very much.

Mr. BELL: My pleasure.

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