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When home has a dome
by Muhammad Yusuf November 08, 2012
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Phil Pasquini, restless traveller, inquisitive historian and US-based man-about-many-towns, recently published his book Domes, Arches and Minarets: A History of Islamic-inspired buildings in America. This noteworthy and informative door-stopper traces the over 200-year history and development of Islamic-inspired architecture in America from the earliest Spanish Moorish buildings constructed in the 1700s to the more contemporary buildings of the 21st century.

Through its well-written and revealing text and illustrations, it introduces readers to the influences and evolution of Islamic-inspired architecture in America. It includes an extensive full colour photographic portfolio of more than 100 buildings arranged in chronological order, each accompanied by text describing the building and its history. Among other pluses, it also has a glossary and bibliography, which will provide more enlightenment for those who think that American architecture was blueprinted from European ideas only, but who have a feeling it was otherwise. The photos of the buildings have been graced by voluminous texts on the mirror side of the page, and gives acres of information on the whys, hows, wheres and whens.

To reinforce the argument that American buildings also found its sources in Islamic culture, Pasquini reveals that many of the buildings shown in book were designed, not by fly-by-night carpet baggers, but by some of America’s most revered national and regional architects, including Leopold Eidlitz, Samuel Sloan, Richard Morris Hunt, Louis Sullivan, James Francis Dunn, Arthur and Nina Zwebell, Timothy Pflueger, Frank Lloyd Wright, brothers Carl and Robert Boller, Minoru Yamasaki, Philip Johnson and Burgee. Here is gilt-edged provenance, if ever one was needed.

The author spent over four years travelling across the country, visiting and photographing each of the carefully selected buildings and chronicling their fascinating stories. The book examines buildings that have influenced and impacted the American cityscape and includes examples of private villas, homes, commercial buildings, atmospheric movie theatres, service stations, Shrine temples, churches, Synagogues and family tombs, each of which, in its own way, says the author “has contributed to creating (a) rich and exotic American ‘Orientalist’ style of architecture.”

The Muslim world has had an effect on the architectural development of the USA for almost four hundred years. This is, however, a particularly underappreciated and seldom-acknowledged aspect of American history. Many of the continent’s earliest European settlers were Moorish craftsmen from Spain, who brought with them the skills and knowledge from their native home in the Andalus. Their influence is seen in the Spanish mission buildings in the American Southwest and California.

A great deal of interest in and imitation of Oriental or Islamic architecture was also been generated through literature, personal travel, art, world fairs and films. Wealthy patrons often sent their architects to North Africa, India and the Middle East to observe and record buildings firsthand in order to create more genuine-looking structures for them.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the modern American cityscape has long been defined by its jumbled architecture. There is a cohesive but visually chaotic mix of styles and types, among which one can identify French Colonial, English Tudor, Exotic Revival, Gothic, Modern, Storybook, Spanish Revival, Ranch style and others of no particular heritage.

“Interspersed among this variety are numerous buildings with origins based wholly or in part on Islamic architecture,” says Pasquini. “Some of (them) portray their Islamic origins and influences subtly while others scream for attention.” But he adds a caveat. When they were put up, he says, “many of these Islamic-inspired buildings were more about atmosphere or fantasy than about any attempt to adhere to the style of influence of a particular building.” In this way, a single building may display references to such diverse sources and styles as Moorish, Islamic, Indo-Islamic, Persian and Turkish, among others.

So, style ruled over substance and the final effect is often referred to as atmospheric or novelty architecture. Pasquini labels it “collage” architecture. The fantasy effect was not confined to buildings alone: it also appears in cemetery monuments, family mausoleums and tombs from the late 1800s into the twentieth century. Islamic influence certainly affects the dead as the living in America!

Pasquini points out in detail some of the springs of Islamic-inspired architecture in America: the Bible; the American novel Kaloolah; the novel The Berber; the Arabian Nights; Tales of the Alhambra written by Washington Irving; Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad; tourists who went to Turkey, Egypt, Morocco and Jerusalem and world fairs.

One early example of Islam-inspired architecture was Iranistan, the home of P T Barnum (of Barnum and Bailey Circus) in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Another is Olana, the Persian revival home of Hudson River School artist Frederic Church. Inter alia, Pasquini points out that the longest diplomatic relationship America has enjoyed has been with Morocco, which in 1777 became the first country to recognise the US as a sovereign nation.

One of the unfortunate fallouts of the horrendous events of September 11, 2001, was that the US and the Muslim world began to speak of their differences than their similarities. Pasquini’s book, on the other hand, while respecting differences, probes and brings to light many common links between the Islamic world and America. He is an award winning photojournalist, artist and educator who has travelled extensively across the US, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa for more than four decades.

His insights and observations of the subject, along with his excellent photographs, make this book a must for anyone interested in Islamic studies, architecture, history and Americana. Published by Flypaper Press, besides being a good read, the book is an entertaining and informative treatise on a subject that, heretofore, has unfortunately enjoyed too little exposure and is generally unknown to the American public.

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