A Minaret Over Manhattan

The most impressive new house of worship in New York City sits askew the corner of Third Avenue and 96th Street, where the high-rises of the Upper East Side begin to give way to the housing projects and tenements of Spanish Harlem. It is a big, square granite building, with a vast copper-covered dome, and atop the dome is the thin golden crescent of a nearly new moon. It is a mosque, and for nearly a million Muslims in and around New York City it is--apart from small converted storefronts and brownstones scattered here and there-the first one they have ever had.

Architecture of course began as the material expression of man's relation to the divine, but sought other sources of inspiration as soon as princes became richer than churches. That was in the West, where sacred architecture has been pretty much going downhill since the 14th century. But in Islamic countries, the prince and the faith are inseparable. The resurgence of Islamic power in the late 20th century has accordingly given rise to a world-class mosque 10 minutes by limousine from the United Nations. The only surprises were that it took so long-25 years (and a few internecine wars) from the time a consortium of Muslim countries led by Kuwait began acquiring the site-and that only $18 million was spent on it. There are apartments in New York that cost almost as much. The Islamic Cultural Center of New York, which opened last spring in time for Ramadan, serves both the diplomats and the local Muslim population. Not many of the latter actually live on the East Side of Manhattan, but if you have trouble finding a cab in midtown on Friday afternoon, it's because the drivers have all heeded the call of the muezzin and are double-parked on 97th Street. It is for their benefit, visitors are told, that there are signs in the men's room warning worshipers not to wash their feet in the sinks before going upstairs to pray; footbaths are provided.

A mosque is a wonderfully simple building. It has a mihrab (a semicircular prayer niche in one wall), a minbar (a small elevated pulpit for the imam), and the rest is pure unencumbered space, innocent even of pews. Among the countries of the Islamic world, which stretches from Morocco to Indonesia, there are of course a wide variety of styles and traditions. Rather than risk giving offense by choosing one, the Islamic center's architects, the New York office of Skidmore, Owings & Merill, wisely abstracted the mall in to a design that is spare, cerebral and highly geometric. The basic units are squares: squares building on squares to make a vast cube 90 feet long and surmounted by the hemisphere of the dome. It's one of the largest mosques in the United States; a thousand people can stand or kneel in it. A band of decorated clerestory windows fills the space with a uniform pale-green light like a fine mist; the colorful geometric carpet is as enticing underfoot as cool sand.

The idea was to "build something appropriate for the 21st century," according to Marilyn Jenkins, a curator of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and one of five scholars who advised the Kuwaitis on the design. That's an impossible task, naturally: who knows what will be "appropriate" in the next century? In fact, the mosque is a building strongly evocative of its own time, with its sober, bankerly facade of tawny pink granite. If big office buildings like the IBM building had chapels attached to them, this is what they would probably look like-- save for the accompanying minaret designed by Swanke Hayden Connell and the radically eccentric siting. The Islamic center sits behind a high wrought-iron fence, on a paved plaza set well back from the sidewalk, its axis rotated at an awkward, not-quite-45-degree angle to the street grid. That is how you can tell it's a mosque: it's the angle Third Avenue makes with Mecca.