Islamic Art Prof. Calls Abu Dhabi’s ‘Masterstroke’ Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque at NYU AD

Mosques are an essential part of any Muslim city. And grand state mosques to represent a country have mushroomed over the past several decades. So in the UAE, what should a grand state mosque look like in a region that largely has no architectural history? Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which opened in 2007 after more than 10 years of construction with costs estimated at $500 million, offers one impressive example.

“In the region there is a lot of Modernist matchbox architecture with acres of windows,” said Robert Hillenbrand, a University of Edinburgh Islamic art professor, at a packed lecture at NYU Abu Dhabi’s downtown campus on January 12th. “No one wants to see a mosque like that. But what should it be?”

The stunningly white Mosque, which by some measurements is the third largest in the world, has a breathtaking courtyard with floral mosaics, dozens of domes and a gigantic sanctuary holding up to 40,000 worshippers. I haven’t been on a tour or inside yet, but apparently the Sanctuary also has the world’s largest hand-made carpet.

“It showcases Abu Dhabi and crests a building boom of grand mosques,” said Hillenbrand. “It’s a memorial, tourist destination and national symbol. It’s eclectic and pan-Islamic so that Muslims from all over will recognize the symbols of their local architecture. It serves Abu Dhabi and the Islamic World itself, and aspires for an Islamic future.”

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque illuminated for National Day 2011. / Photo by Stephen Baron.

The Grand Mosque also serves as the country’s state mosque, which Hillenbrand said requires eight characteristics: sited in the capital, immense capital costs, on the outskirts (because they’re so big), landscaped so that when the city expands it encloses the green heart, open to visitors, easy access by car, familiar but innovative, and has ancillary functions like a library, conference hall and lecture space.

There’s not much on the actual design phase, as Hillenbrand said it had been a work-in-progress, though Sheikh Zayed’s influence can be seen in the four minarets, the courtyard, colors, materials, water features and focus on the number of five instead of the usual eight, perhaps for the Five Pillars of Islam.

“It’s open on two sides, no other mosque in the world and is a masterstroke with open arcades,” said Hillenbrand. “The arcades are repeating endlessly, as infinity symbolizes eternity.” Hillenbrand also admired the floral mosaics. “They are not earthly flowers — they are flowers of the mind,” he said. “Trees, waters and flowers of Paradise are very different than our own world.”

Sheikh Zayed inspects Grand Mosque models in an undated photo, likely from the 1990's. / Image via Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center.

Intriguingly, from an urban planning perspective, the Mosque may have been better located elsewhere. Larry Beasley, the former co-director of Vancouver, Canada’s planning and who now advises the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council, attended the same lecture in NYU’s New York campus, and told The National:

“In the future, it’ll be right in the centre. Now, they built the mosque before we designed our new capital. I have a feeling that if we were doing it today, we would put the mosque right in the centre.”

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