Mosques have long been places of wonder, in which the elegance and serenity of the architecture have enhanced the atmosphere of worship. But in recent years, alas, new ones have looked much less attractive. Either they take the “Saudi shopping mall” approach of enormous dimensions and extravagant bling, or they follow the trend for large copies of traditional Sunni mosques, whose towers and domes try to emulate classical forms such as Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia without attaining its delicacy and exquisite colour palate. They are often inelegantly proportioned, built of concrete or other coarse materials, and have garishly lit yet drearily decorated interiors.
Zeynep Fadillioglu (below), a 60-year-old designer and the first Turkish woman to build a mosque, has struck out in a different direction with the Sakirin Mosque in Istanbul, marrying scale with lightness of touch. Challenging the conformism of mosque architecture has not, however, proved easy. Six years after its grand opening, the Sakirin (which means “thankful to God”) still attracts heated debate over everything from the role it accords women to the patterning of its carpet.
Not everyone warmed to Fadillioglu’s involvement in the project. One critic fretted that “it might end up like a coffee shop or restaurant”, a jibe at her work on swanky bars and hotels. (She is married to Metin Fadillioglu, a well-known restaurateur, and has decorated many of his enterprises.) Turning her hand to a mosque may have seemed an odd call but Fadillioglu, who is herself secular, cites her family’s influence. Her ancestors were wealthy silk and cotton merchants. Her grandmother introduced her to Ottoman textiles and visited mosques with her to observe their architectural variety.
Originally, Fadillioglu was commissioned to design only the inside of the mosque. But she persuaded the original architect, the late Husrev Tayla, to abandon traditional side walls for lead filgree screens, decorated in traditional Islimi style with flowers and arabesques, that filled the interior with light. “It was a tug of war,” she admits, but the Sakir family, the Turkish-Saudi dynasty who funded the mosque, backed her more radical approach.
In order to avoid the severe outlines of state-commissioned mosques, the Sakirin’s modern aluminium dome is softened by a shell pattern and a subtle blue-grey wash. “People had got the idea a mosque should be dark and gloomy, or a very stark, modernist building, which can feel forbidding,” Fadillioglu says. “But we have too many bad copies of previous designs and I felt we needed something uplifting, as well as contemplative, at a time when life and religion can feel so fraught and people need respite.”
Fadillioglu insists she does not consciously adopt a female perspective, yet its influence is perceptible. The mihrab, the niche that indicates the direction of Mecca, is a womb-like turquoise acrylic arc that swells outwards. The mosque’s minbar – the staircase leading to the lectern – is a curved, light acrylic structure carved with carnations and leaves, drawing on the great 16th-century mosque designer Mimar Sinan’s evocation of a bountiful universe.
At the heart of the mosque hangs, at a jaunty angle, a vast, asymmetrical Perspex chandelier, with transparent droplets suspended from it, as though a rainstorm had been frozen in time. The feature helps to solve an important design quandary for Fadillioglu: the need to involve women in the ritual life of the mosque. “Women are very active in Turkish society, thankfully,” she says, “and we should include their presence respectfully.”
But modern Islamic interpretation of male and female roles is often rigid. One hadith (report of Mohammed’s life and thought) states that “the best rows for men are the first rows, and the worst ones the last ones, and the best rows for women are the last ones and the worst ones for them are the first ones.” Modern scholars differ over what this means in practice, but mosques today generally construct separate prayer rooms for women. Fadillioglu rejected such a solution. Instead, she created a balcony that extends across the length of the building, which gives the female congregation the “best seats in the house”. “They are at eye level with the chandelier”, she says, “and get the full effect of its light spreading across the mosque…I have upheld a view that female worshippers should be able to see the imam and so be part of the service.”
Notwithstanding her shrewd balancing act, tensions are noticeable. The mosque’s guardians watch our tour a little suspiciously. Seemingly small matters have the potential to ignite raging passions. The camelhair carpet, for instance, caused disagreement. A dark cream expanse with maroon zigzags, it was intended to infuse a modern aesthetic with a sense of calm and order. The mosque authorities soon demanded that additional lines, indicating the required alignment for prayer, be woven in, a look that might kindly be described as “overly busy”. “Worshippers have known for centuries where to put their heads!” Fadillioglu complained, to no avail. The floor pattern has had to be changed. More recently, an oversized red digital electronic board, displaying the verses which should be declaimed during prayer, has been added.
In themselves, such changes are small. But taken with an official push to enforce the conventions of mosque design, many Turks, who are drawn to the country’s cosmopolitan traditions, are dismayed. The city’s creative classes are disparagingly called Beyaz Turkler or “White Turks” – a term popularised by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s Islamist president, for the republican, urban elite, in contrast to the earthier “Black Turks” of more religious Anatolia, whom he has harnessed for his political victories for over a decade.
The mood among the well-heeled has acquired an anxious undertone. The country’s biggest newspaper has recently been raided and placed under state control. Elsewhere, journalists stand trial behind closed doors. The threat of violence from Islamic State and the marginalised Kurdish minority is ever-present. At such a time, the Sakirin looks like a bright beacon. It is, Fadillioglu declares, “my attempt to acknowledge the contradictions of Turkey and Islam in a way people can contemplate and pray in, but also enjoy”.