The Sancaklar Mosque, Turkey: History, Modernity and Spirituality

Should new mosques be built always according to old established traditions? Or there is room for change. Cleo Cantone discusses architecture of the Sancaklar mosque in Turkey and how it is different from all others

Shortlisted for the Design of the Year award, the Sancaklar mosque near Istanbul marks not just a new mosque but a new concept of a mosque. Designed by Emre Arolat Architects and completed in 2013, aside from its raw use of materials-cast concrete and exposed stone-the mosque is not a public commission but a private one at the bequest of the Sancaklar family for their neighbouring ‘gated communities’. Clearly in breach with Ottoman convention, Sancaklar mosque is articulated by its angular forms, stark materials devoid of decoration and its almost literal embodiment of ‘communion with nature’. Rather than acting as a modern eyesore in its natural surroundings, the mosque is perfectly integrated: a series of stepped terraces delineated by courses of stone and encasing the grass-filled steps as well as the pool of water reflecting a natural stone wall calling to mind the architecture of the Taj Mahal (rather than local religious architecture) which is characterised by a prominent central dome and pencil-like minarets. Where Ottoman architecture respects and embraces the past-namely Byzantine church architecture-the architects of Sancaklar proclaim that: ‘The design is aimed at representing purest forms of light and matter, just as a primary inter world, free from all cultural burdens.’ Indeed, the design pays homage to Turkey’s pre-Islamic past in creating an exterior ‘theatrical’ space not unlike the theatres of Thermessos, Side and Xantos, all in Anatolia. The ‘minaret’ of Sancaklar mosque consists of a vertical rectangular prism fronted by a calligraphic panel. A similar device was used in another mosque project, the Mau Religious Complex, this time with a sun-dial as opposed to a clock. As this is an interfaith space, inclusive of Christian and Yazidi faith groups, the sun-dial seems a particularly appropriate and non faith-specific symbol. Another liminal zone is the semi-enclosed garden with a central and symbolic olive tree behind which are concrete slabs to serve as benches, almost like church pews in their parallel alignment. At the same time, with the grass floor, this space is yet another manifestation of the mosque’s topographical integration and its juxtaposition of interior and exterior spaces where tranquillity and prayer can be cultivated. In the words of the architects, the mosque ‘aims to address the fundamental issues of designing a mosque by distancing itself from the current architectural discussions based on form and focusing solely on the essence of religious space.’

Where Ottoman architecture respects and embraces the past—namely Byzantine church architecture—the architects of Sancaklar proclaim that: ‘The design is aimed at
representing purest forms of light and matter, just as a primary inter world, free from all cultural burdens.

The interior of the Sancaklar contrasts with its puritanical exterior in its dramatic play with light deriving from skylights and descending as beams into the prayer hall. The ceiling patently echoes the stone terraces outside: concrete steps forming squared layers of an onion hover above the heads of the worshippers below. The architects inserted ‘slits and fractures along the Qiblah wall’ in order to enhance ‘the directionality of the prayer space’ and to allow ‘daylight to filter into the prayer hall.’ Gendered Conventions One very interesting omission in the architectural firm’s literature is how the space caters for female worshippers. In an article provides us with the following information, which is unfortunately unaccompanied by an image: “Male and female worshippers are separated by a black screen in the prayer hall, meaning women are segregated into a strip along one side of the building. The perforated screen provides privacy while allowing the congregation to maintain eye contact with the pulpit.” This solution to the perceived requirement of gender segregation constitutes a breakthrough with convention in general, and with Ottoman tradition in particular. Here we find in many Ottoman mosques the ‘mezzanine’ scheme to accommodate women. It will be worth remembering that Turkish architects working for private clients in wealthy suburbs are often not only more creative, but also more open to questioning gendered conventions. Such is the case of female designer Zeynep Fadillioglu who is reputedly the ‘first female designer of a mosque’ (to which I may add, in Turkey) who nevertheless retained the design specifics of the dome and cylindrical minaret mentioned above. Although Fadillioglu acknowledges the participation with her team of twelve architects and thirteen designers, her aim in designing religious space is to “provide a serene atmosphere to the worshipper” while being “very careful not to offend the believers’ traditions.” It seems that Emre Arolat Architects are making a bold statement by overtly parting with cultural, architectural and perceived religious conventions by introducing a style that is so unapologetically ‘Turkish’ and yet so profoundly integrated into Turkey’s topography.
Breaching conventions, however, does not necessarily mean creating something ‘ex nihilo’ and the designs put forward by Emre Arolat need to be seen in the context of their modernist roots. Modernist Roots of Modern Design One of the founding fathers of modernist architecture, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret- Gris, later to become known as Le Corbusier wrote on returning from his trip across Europe to Turkey: “And already we have Ankara, and the monument to Mustafa Kemal! Events move fast, the die is cast: one more centuries-old civilisation goes to ruin.” This may have been a somewhat nostalgic moan of a westerner affected by Orientalism but the impact of the ‘Kemalist doctrine’ on dismantling the Ottoman caliphate and replacing it with westernising institutional reforms was systematic and ironically, Le Corbusier’s ‘brutalist modernism’ served as inspiration for Turkey’s new architecture. Conversely, in Le Corbusier’s travelogue-“ Journey to the East”-undertaken in the years 1910-11, what transpires is the architect’s fascination with local, vernacular architecture. Describing the prototype Istanbul mosque he wrote: “It must be a silent place facing toward Mecca.

During the Kemalist years building mosques was far from a priority given the essentially secularist tendency of the regime. Thus the contemporary diversity
in built form, particularly of places of worship, represents a new beginning, albeit built on solid modernist foundations…

It needs to be spacious so that the heart may feel at ease and high so that prayers may breathe there. There must be ample diffused light so as to have no shadows; the whole should be perfectly simple; and a kind of immensity must be encompassed by the forms. This description is far closer to the Sancaklar mosque rather than the elaborate, poly-chrome and decorated mosques of Sinan. Le Corbusier perceptively remarks that mosques are built in permanent materials as opposed to dwellings constructed in perishable materials: “Stambul is a tight-nit conglomeration; all mortal dwellings are made of wood, all Allah’s dwellings are made of stone. … There are only two types of architecture: the large, squashed roofs covered with furrowed tiles and the bulbs of the mosques, with their sprouting minarets. Cemeteries link the former to the latter.” During the Kemalist years building mosques was far from a priority given the essentially secularist tendency of the regime. Thus the contemporary diversity in built form, particularly of places of worship, represents a new beginning, albeit built on solid modernist foundations, of a different direction in mosque building, not specifically in Turkey, but in the Muslim world as a whole. In decades of studying mosque architecture, I have not come across such a strikingly modern yet timeless building that integrates ancient history, modernity and spirituality.


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1 Comment on The Sancaklar Mosque, Turkey: History, Modernity and Spirituality

  1. As a (Turkish) designer, I find it paunfil to confront the ugly buildings of Istanbul every single day, even when I don’t leave my relatively nice neighbourhood. I had to visit another part of town last week, I was depressed for several days after! So freaking ugly. I also want to tie industry bosses on to a chair and Clockwork Orange their eyes and make them view Dezeen for a few days. Very few people here have good taste in design, it’s so frustrating.

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