By Lisa Kwan:
Through the support of and residency at the Danish Institute I have been able to conduct a study on a small but important part of Islamic architecture. With a professional background in architecture, and using simple tools of drawing and research, I have been able to make some preliminary observations that are intriguing and worthy of further exploration. This written summary is based on an illustrated presentation at the Danish Institute on 2 Feb 2010. The study has shed new light both on the design of the grilles themselves and on their relationship to their spatial and historical context. This was also an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between structure and ornament in architecture. I suggest that geometry, in particular the golden ratio, was not ornamental in the sense of being non-essential and applied, but in fact integral and fundamental in the structure and design of many elements of the Mosque. As Euclidean mathematical ideas were revealed in the objects of study, I think that modern architectural expressions could build from experimentations in more current, non-Euclidean mathematics as a way of, perhaps, revealing Paradise on earth.
There are 6 marble window grilles located on the west side of the courtyard in the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus. They each have a unique geometrical pattern, two of which were studied as drawings to incorporate the golden ratio, and not based on more typical four- or six-sided forms. Claimed to be original elements in what is one of the oldest extant Islamic monuments, they may well represent one of the earliest usage of geometrical ornamentation in Islamic architecture.
The context, design, material, dimension, symbolism and functionality (or lack of – in modern building envelope terms) of the grilles suggest a bridge between the sacred and the profane, and between Islam and the ruling Omayyad Caliphate at the time. They lack noteworthiness (being under the spectacular Barada mosaic), functionality (providing neither light or view), and visual integration on the façade when viewed from the courtyard. The lack of functionality is underscored by the relocation of 4 of these grilles above their original sill location, such that the original header is behind and within the space of the grilles. I would suggest that these are exquisite pieces of artwork rather than architectural ornamentation, framed and positioned as if they were functional building elements, but noteworthy because they appear not to be so at all. The relationship between these grilles to the Mosque is less in terms of typical building connections but more in terms of the golden ratio. Drawings of two of the grilles suggest the use of the golden ratio, both in the overall dimension as well as in the interior geometric pattern. Moreover, using rough measurements on photographs and available drawings, the ratio is suggested to be found in the exterior dimensions of the Mosque, the two wings beside the domed nave, the exterior façade of the central nave and the original section through this domed nave. Just at the Mosque is a unique religious and – at the time, political – precinct, these grilles perhaps also have equal spiritual and political tones. They appear to be a “window” to Paradise but also windows into the Uthman Room, a reception room which, by the right-hand rule when facing the Mosque entry, would have been a politically important room.
It has been satisfying to look closely into a small part of Islamic architecture, and to look at the underlying lines beneath geometric patterns rather than simply copy-and-paste, a more common method of looking at “exotic” ornamentation. While it is anticipated that further drawings are made of the 6 grilles for exhibition, it is hoped that future study can look at the notion of ornament as fundamental, and how architecture can reveal and relate to more contemporary mathematics. Such would bring value and relevance of this historical study to modern practice, and continue the search for what makes architecture, architecture.