My Problem with the Ground Zero Mosque (It’s Not What You Think)
Now that the debate over the Muslim community center at Ground Zero has trickled down to The View, where Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar famously marched off the set after Bill O’Reilly’s inflammatory comment that “Muslims killed us on 9/11,” every word worth saying about this (or not worth saying) may already have been said.
But I can’t stop thinking about the center – and its planned mosque, which has caused so much controversy – and wanted to add my voice to the fray. The truth is, I have a major problem with the mosque, but it has nothing to do with its right to exist.
For what it’s worth, I believe that the Park51 project, as the community center is officially known, has an inalienable right to be built. I also completely understand why so many Americans are outraged at the prospect of a mosque so close to Ground Zero. The wounds of 9/11 run deep, and it is an undeniable fact that Muslim extremists were responsible for the attacks. I personally would never have chosen this site for such a building, because of the sensitivities involved.
But I find it deeply un-American to deny freedom of speech and religion to any group, especially when they have demonstrated a legal right to build, assemble and worship on the site. I think the fact that this debate has stirred up such anti-Muslim bigotry may be even more of a reason to build the community center than not to do so. Ignorance is not bliss.
That said, I do think the mosque is disrespectful, primarily because of its in-your-face conceptual design. Sadly, the project would entail the demolition of an 1850s Italianate structure, but the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission did not see enough integrity in the original building to give it historic designation and therefore some measure of protection. Without it, the project’s developers can proceed with a dramatic modernist design by New York City-based SOMA Architects. The design, which currently features an abstract, white, webbed façade, honors neither the ancient symbols of Islamic architecture nor the historic streetscape of lower Manhattan.
I understand that this part of New York City, perhaps more than any other, needs to look forward and embrace rebirth. You wouldn’t house a new mosque in, say, a walk-up tenement house. And it’s probably smart that the Park51 folks do not overtly remind people of the domes and minarets of Kabul. But this proffered design turns something so meaningful, so controversial, so symbolic of who we are and what we’re currently struggling with as a nation into yet another whiz-bang, computer-aided, “starchitect”-style product. I find its purported edginess and modernity totally banal.
In the history of America, it has never hurt us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In the history of architecture, it has also never hurt to go back to the drawing board.