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Beyond the Classroom

Islamic Landscape Symposium

The Department of Landscape Architecture at Illinois hosted an Islamic Landscape Symposium on September 13 to explore the design of contemporary Islamic gardens and landscapes and invited 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 explored at the symposium?

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 featured the voices of contemporary designers of Islamic landscapes. We wanted to understand how designers grapple with contemporary issues related to identity, representation, modernity, nationalism, globalization, and tradition.

The designers who spoke at the symposium represent some of the leading landscape design firms in the US and abroad—OLIN, Nelson Byrd Woltz, and Sites International.

Can you provide us with an example of a modern Islamic garden that was featured at the symposium?

The landscape designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz for the university’s botanical gardens in Edmonton Canada was 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.

Visit the event site.