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Deconstructing the Mosque

Author DAVID MACAULAY speaks on his newest book, Mosque.
Author DAVID MACAULAY speaks on his newest book, Mosque.
By Jackeline Montalvo, Contributing Writer

Award-winning author and illustrator David Macaulay, who has made his reputation by making the art of architectural design accessible to children and adults alike, elaborated on his new book, Mosque, to a crowd gathered in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum’s lecture hall last week.

Macauley’s books combine detailed sketches and comprehensive text to detail how some of the world’s most astounding buildings have been constructed. After a lengthy authorial run spent meticulously studying the creation of monumental structures—among them an English castle, Egyptian pyramids, and a Roman city—Macaulay said he found in religious architecture a source of inspiration for Mosque.

Although the story outlined in Mosque is fictional, the titular architectural structure central to the book’s plot is modeled after existing sixteenth-century mosques created by Sinan, the most famous architect in the Ottoman empire’s history. Throughout the work, Macaulay unravels the mystery behind a building that serves both spiritual and functional purposes.

Not only does the mosque serve a religious function through its dome-topped prayer hall, it also serves as a college for religious education, a soup kitchen, a public bath and a fountain to serve the needs of the community.

“I began to realize what an urban center this was,” Macaulay said, his eyebrows arched in amazement, during an interview with The Crimson. “It says so much about at least one of the purposes of religion. It’s not just about the highest personal thought and communication with God, but it’s about life on earth, and making it better for as many people as possible, in a very tangible way. That just appealed to me a great deal.”

Surrounded by the hum and bustle of a city’s pulsating operations, Macaulay said, the mosque reminds its local citizens of an alternative to fast-paced life.

“It’s harmony,” Macaulay said. “You come out of these busy streets and windy little passages, and even if it’s a small mosque, there’s that space for quiet, there’s that space for reflection, and you sort of prepare yourself for the experience of praying.”

Macaulay sums up his reasons for undertaking this project in two words: Sept. 11. It’s not hard to see why.

In the tragedy’s aftermath, Americans came to better appreciate the link between a building and its community—how an architectural structure come to mean much more than the sum of its building blocks, Macaulay says. Mosque delves into this relationship between building and community by presenting an in-depth look at a socially important architectural structure located halfway around the world.

“When Sept. 11 occurred, I thought, ‘What do we do here? We have to do something to respond to this,’” Macaulay recalled. “I was working on another book at the time, and I just stopped—concentrated on becoming, in a year and a half, knowledgeable enough with this kind of architecture to be able to tell a story.”

The very fact that mosques possess a personal, spiritual element outside of their architectural identity complicated the process of assembling the book, as details acquired a much more immediate significance, Macaulay says. The author acknowledges that the task produced an increase in self-imposed pressure.

“The pressure meant that I had to be really careful with my information: my details, the models that I built; I wanted there to be no stupid mistakes, none that could be avoided,” Macaulay said. “Here I am, a Westerner, trying to explain Islamic architecture at a time when Islamic things are on our mind.”

A week-long trip to Turkey, hundreds of photographs, numerous sketches and many conversations later, Mosque was ready for publication.

This book was not Macaulay’s first dip into religious architecture. His foray into the publishing industry actually commenced with Cathedral, which outlined the construction of a fourteenth-century French Gothic cathedral. Yet the book, as well as Macaulay’s entire three-decade career, almost didn’t occur.

The original concept for Macaulay’s first children’s book was that of a gargoyle beauty pageant set in the Middle Ages, against the backdrop of a half-finished cathedral. Macaulay said his editor, Walter Lorraine, took one glance at the drawings of flying gargoyles in the cathedral and asked, “Why don’t you just tell us about the cathedral? There’s enough fantasy stuff out there, but this is something we haven’t seen.” The rest is history.

Macaulay’s training as an architect—he graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in architecture—allows him to pull double duty as both writer and illustrator, and maintain full creative control over his books. It is that control which appealed to him about book production, causing him to decide, just months before graduating college, that architecture was “a profession of compromise” between all those involved in the industry.

Macaulay says thinking about writing and illustrating at the same time is as complicated as it is rewarding.

“You do it simultaneously so that in the end, if you’ve done it right, you end up with a seamless connection of words and pictures,” Macaulay remarks. “It shouldn’t look like it was written at one time, and then I changed hats and became the illustrator. I think of myself as the guy who makes the book.”

This ‘maker of books,’ currently in the midst of his next project about the human body, said he hopes that his readers take hold of the message that architecture is something that affects us all at a fundamental and universal level. Whether it comes from Turkey, Rome, or the United States, Macaulay said, architecture is conceived of, built, and appreciated in the same manner.

“There’s an accessibility to these books that goes across age, and I hope that it’ll go across nationalities,” Macaulay said, adding that his books have been translated into a dozen languages. “We all admire common sense. Mosque is much more a book about the similarities between people than their differences. We can all relate to problems, and we can certainly relate to solving them.”

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