“We’re going to build a grand mosque here, and I would like you to design it.”
So said Ahmed bin Sulayem, chairman of Nakheel, Dubai’s largest development company to Moshe Safdie, one of the world’s most distinguished architects, and an Israeli. The irony of a Jew being commissioned to design and build a mosque is wistfully recollected by Safdie in a recent memoir, If Walls Could Speak: My Life in Architecture (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2022), from which the following excerpts (with minor edits) were taken. It is an engrossing read not only of the project per se, but also of Safdie’s architecture philosophy.
“At its best, architecture has a demonstrated capacity to rise above the fissures that divide us. This may be especially true when architecture aspires to capture humanity’s spiritual aspirations. In 2007, while visiting Singapore, I got a call from an Israeli friend advising that he had arranged a meeting for me with Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan. Apparently there were a number of prospective projects to be discussed … When I landed in Dubai, I received a message from (my friend) saying that the president had fallen ill and that he and his party had unexpectedly flown back to Kazakhstan. The message added. “I’ve arranged a meeting for you with Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, the chairman of Nakheel.” Nakheel is Dubai’s largest development company. Everyone has seen pictures of its signature project, Palm Jumeirah, an artificial archipelago jutting out into the Persian Gulf in the shape of a palm tree.
I was picked up at the hotel and taken to the Nakheel offices, where I met bin Sulayem and his staff, including a Lebanese-trained Palestinian architect, Rula Sadik. After showing me a model of Palm Jumeirah, with its many components then in various stages of construction, bin Sulayem indicated the entrance, where a bridge from the mainland gave access to the island. He said, “We’re going to build a grand mosque here, and I would like you to design it.” He followed up quickly with some details – it would have to accommodate 2000 people; it would serve as the iconic gateway to the Palm – but I was still recovering from the surprise. A mosque designed by an Israeli?
There was a moment when bin Sulayem left the room, and I was alone with Rula Sadik. I turned to her and said, “Does he know what he’s doing?” I may have also said, “Is he out of his mind?” Everyone knew that I was Israeli, and it was not hard to see that this fact might entail certain complexities in a Muslim emirate, even one as tightly controlled by a ruling family as Dubai has been.
When I returned to Boston, I sent a memorandum. I titled it “Full Disclosure,” and I described my office and activities in Jerusalem and explained that I was an Israeli citizen as well as a Canadian and American citizen. I reiterated that I would be honored to take on the project but wanted the client to fully appreciate the context. I don’t know if I was expecting some subtle reversal by way of reply, but that was not what I got. The commission was reaffirmed.
This was a task to be treated as a calling, a task that is more than just coming up with a design but rather strives to embody what connects us all. I knew something about Islam and its rituals, but I certainly was no authority. I felt the need to immerse myself deeply in the subject and, among other things, to learn about the history and evolution of mosques. One name immediately came to mind – Oleg Grabar, emeritus professor of Islamic art and architecture at Harvard, whom I knew from my university days. Grabar had retired and was now established at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. I asked him to be my consultant on the project, to inform me as well as to review the design as it proceeded. Happily he agreed.
An elegant, French-born Turk from Istanbul, Grabar had written many books on Islamic art and architecture. We began by reviewing the history of mosque building in various traditions – Arabian, Persian, Ottoman. Grabar gave me an intensive reading list. We discussed the differences among forms of Islam. We explored the spiritual meaning of a mosque’s architectural features.
As I set out to work, sketching in my notebooks, Grabar was in effect looking over my shoulder. I began with a hollow sphere, which I “floated” on pylons above a pool. The highways entering the Palm archipelago passed underneath. The sphere hovered about five feet above the surface of the pool. Inside the sphere.
I set the floor level of the mosque one-third of the way up. I then sliced away part of the sphere, on a slant, turning that part into a large, concave surface, like a radio telescope facing the sky, and giving the sphere the profile of a crescent moon. I placed a dome, suspended within the concave surface. The perimeter was perforated with skylights. The topmost portion of the sphere became the minaret of the mosque, reaching up toward the day. Under the sphere, between the pylons would be the place of ablution, or purification. Water would pour from the sphere’s bottom and into the ablution pool. The praying public would then rise by grand stairs and elevators to the sanctuary above.
Soon, I was back in Dubai with models and renderings, and I experienced the pleasure, rare as it is, of jaw-dropping satisfaction on the part of the client … Then came the 2008 financial crash … Nakheel took a very hard hit, and the mosque project was suspended and remains so. The disappointment I felt was deep. I have always held out hope that the design will eventually see the light of day. In 2019, I met with bin Sulayem. Relations between Israel and the Persian Gulf States, which once had to be conducted at the level of an open secret, are today formalized. Bin Sulayem was in fact in Jerusalem when we saw one another. He smiled, recalling our days working on the mosque, and said, “I will get it built one day.”