Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Designing Controversy: The Semiotics of Cordoba House

AFTER A MUCH-NEEDED summer hiatus, The Weekly Rader returns to the most interesting controversy in American culture in ages--whether it is appropriate to erect a mosque and Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan, just two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Centers.

Here at the TWR offices, we are less concerned with the questions about how close to Ground Zero is appropriate or who supports or rejects the proposal.  

Two items that have gone virtually unmentioned, though, jump out to us--the architecture of the proposed building and the terminology used to describe it.  The former is ameliorative and even unifying; while the latter has proven divisive.  

Why has the name and purpose of the Cordoba Center taken precedence over its rather innocuous design?  In short, the symbology of the design does not traffic in the same cultural associations as a term like "mosque."  One connotes Islam's Islamness; one connotes Islam's Americanness.

To be sure, the American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Cordoba Initiative (the two forces behind the project) made a conscious decision not to create a building that resembles a standard mosque.  There are no minarets, no gilded domes, and no crescent and star.  One sees only the faintest hint of the Moorish design pattern one finds in some urban mosques (like the great mosque of Paris at left).

In fact, one could argue that the architects of the Cordoba House sacrificed the semiotics of Islam to blend in with the semiotics of New York (and by extension) the semiotics of America.  It was the semiotics of America--its tallest buildings, their symbology--that the terrorists attacked, and it is that symbology the Cordoba House seems to embrace.  Indeed, it is remarkable how similar the proposed building looks to the original twin towers--a detail no one seems to be talking about.

What people are talking about is the notion of a mosque near Ground Zero.  For many Americans, a mosque is a shelter for Muslim extremists (even if it isn't).  It's a place that cultivates, indoctrinates, and celebrates the symbology of Islam.  It is ultimately, for those who oppose the Cordoba House, a place that makes sacred the ideals that led to the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

I wonder if the design had been released first along with a plan to build a "worship hall" or a "prayer center," if the reaction against the project would have been as passionate.  When jabbed by fear, people can get a whole lot more worked up about a mosque than a worship hall.

As the plans for this proceed, and as the President and other prominent politicians back (or oppose) the Cordoba House, I predict the terminology and symbology of Islam will become increasingly important in the conversation.

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