In order to find an architect for their mosque, a Muslim community in Germany conducted an open tender process. Now the German non-Muslim Paul Böhm was awarded the first prize for his model. Thilo Guschas interviewed the architect
Mr. Böhm, how does one design a mosque?
Paul Böhm: This was the first time we worked on such a project, and it was an exciting challenge! Until now, my father and I had only amassed experience building churches. First, we thoroughly studied the history of mosque architecture. As to our design – you go from the street up a flight of steps leading to a courtyard, which stretches out over two levels. The courtyard serves on the one hand as a meeting place, and on the other hand as an interface between the hectic city and the actual prayer room, which is meditative and calm. All areas can be reached from the courtyard. Next to the prayer room one can also find event rooms, stores, a restaurant, and so on.
Are modern church buildings similar to traditional mosques?
Böhm: Yes, you could say that. One exits the hectic of the city and enters a meditative space where one can find tranquility. This is the same for mosques and churches.
Are you personally religious?
Böhm: Religious, yes, but I am not a practicing believer. And I am also not a Muslim. I am often faced with this question. Yet, you don't have to be a criminal to build a prison or be sick to build a hospital! Instead, what is important is the art of empathizing with the needs of those who will later use the building being designed.
Did your religious convictions play a role in the awarding of the contract to build the mosque?
Böhm: No. Recently, an old developer congratulated me. He said, "I take my hat off to the Muslim community for conducting such an open tender process! We were only allowed to hire a Catholic architect for our church construction project."
Does this openness also reflect itself in your design?
Böhm: Yes, this is why there is a large, inviting staircase coming up from the street. Even the dome, which is made of three leaves and looks like clasping hands, reflects this openness. Although one shouldn't overinterpret the gesture, the thought was that here was a place where religions could meet.
How concrete were the guidelines of the competition, for example, as to how to portray the sacred character of the mosque?
Böhm: There were certain functional guidelines – the direction of the prayer room, the division of rooms for male and female visitors to the mosque, and a vestibule where people could take off their shoes. One condition in the competition struck me as being particularly important – the mosque is meant to be a forum that is open to all confessions. This applies primarily to the secular areas, such as the event halls, the Hammam area, the stores, restaurant, and so on. The developers also wanted to attract non-Muslim fellow citizens. We actually hope that our design can help to reduce the great anxieties, which, to some extent, still exist.
In your design, the dome and minarets can be seen from afar. Was this a condition?
Böhm: It was an expressed wish of the competition that there should be two minarets. The dome was not specified as a condition, but was mentioned as a classical element. This is a mosque and it should clearly and consciously present itself as such. Muslims should not try to hide. Every community should be able to present itself outwardly. Signs and symbols are required to present oneself as different. A mosque certainly isn't a Catholic church.
How do you feel about having the mosque being built in a relatively central location in Cologne?
Böhm: For years now, I have regarded the situation of Muslims in Cologne as painful. It took me a long time to realize that some abandoned storefront locations were actually mosques. Prayer rooms in back courtyards certainly leave one with the impression that something forbidden is going on there! Some 100,000 Turks and Muslims live in Cologne. They are all respectable citizens and they require a space where they can pray together.
Do you feel yourself pushed into the middle of a conflict between different interest groups, i.e., the client, city administration, and political parties?
Böhm: The tender was an anonymous competition judged by an independent jury, which consisted of politicians from all parties, church representative, and, to a lesser extent, developers. As such, we did not encounter any tension. Of course, there are those who are fundamentally against the construction of such a mosque. My hope is that our Muslim fellow citizens will find greater acceptance. You don't achieve this when you have to hide away to pray in some dive! When you present yourself in the right building, perhaps you also create more trust.
The interview was conducted by Thilo Guschas
© Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by John Bergeron