The Department of Landscape Architecture at Illinois is hosting an Islamic Landscape Symposium on September 13 to explore the design of contemporary Islamic gardens and landscapes, and we are inviting designers, historians, and students to attend. We connected with the organizers, Professor D. Fairchild Ruggles and PhD student Amir Habibullah to learn more about the symposium.
Why a symposium on contemporary Islamic landscapes?
We tend to think of Islamic landscapes as historical landscapes, things of the past. But they are an active area in the design world. New Islamic gardens have been proliferating in recent years, due in large part to the patronage of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Among the many goals of His Highness the Aga Khan are the promotion of Islamic art and culture around the world and the revitalization of Islamic historical sites.
What are some issues you’ll be exploring?
We are interested in issues of identity, which are becoming increasingly complex in the modern world. How do you express the identity of a cultural community, both to that community and to outsiders? When the Aga Khan hires landscape architects, the designers are sent on an observing tour so that they can be exposed to the many different styles and cultures expressed in Islamic landscapes throughout the world.
For instance, the Mosque of Paris was built in a Moroccan style to express the identity of a community of Muslims from North Africa. But when the New York Islamic Cultural Center was built, it wasn’t clear what identity should be expressed. Should it reflect the Islamic culture of Spain, Egypt, Turkey or India? In the end, the designers avoided culturally specific references and went with modernism.
We’re also interested in how new landscape design mixes tradition and modernity. How do contemporary designers use the rich archive of past work for inspiration, while contributing something new to that tradition?
What makes the symposium unique?
Research on Islamic landscapes and gardens has mostly been written by and for historians. Rather than focusing on history, our symposium features the voices of contemporary designers of Islamic landscapes. We want to understand how designers grapple with contemporary issues related to identity, representation, modernity, nationalism, globalization, and tradition.
The designers who will be speaking at the symposium represent some of the leading landscape design firms in the US and abroad—OLIN, Nelson Byrd Woltz, and Sites International.
Who should attend?
We hope that contemporary designers will attend, especially those who work with religious communities and design cultural centers. We’ve also invited a number of historians, hoping that they will contribute to rich conversations about the relationship between past and present. Students of landscape design and history are also welcome! We are offering some small scholarships to cover hotel expenses for graduate students who are traveling from far away.
Can you provide us with an example of a modern Islamic garden that might be featured at the symposium?
The landscape designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz for the university’s botanical gardens in Edmonton Canada will certainly be discussed. One of the challenges faced by the designer was to adapt Islamic garden forms so that they could function in the very cold winters of Canada, and of course plant selection required careful thought.
How can I find out more and register?
We hope you will join us in September!