Amid the controversy surrounding Park51, the Muslim community center and worship space in Lower Manhattan labeled the “Ground Zero Mosque” by its opponents, the young New York-based firm SOMA Architects last week quietly unveiled designs for the new 15-story building. “I think the location of the center has been overexposed and overrated,” says Michel Abboud, principal at SOMA.
Abboud recently sat down in the firm’s new Midtown office to answer questions about Park51, its design, SOMA’s history, and the controversy that has been swirling almost since plans for the project were announced.
New York Construction: How did this project come to your firm?
Michel Abboud: Originally, the developer wanted to have a competition. First of all, so people could see it. Second, so people could see where we’re going. Third, because we had to come up with a program. And we had to respond to at least the basic zoning and building mass problems.
When you go in front of the community, and the project becomes controversial, it’s important to release some sort of imagery representing the project. We were retained as the architectural design consultants. We came later in the process, obviously, and I’m sure a lot of people asked, “Why these guys?” Yes, we’re young, and, yes, we haven’t built as many buildings as Skidmore, Owings and Merrill — but we’ve been involved with the developer for a long time, so they trust us.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be a bigger corporate office with more construction experience in New York that will take over the project for the development phases that we’re working with…We have a few candidates in mind.
NYC: New York firms?
MA: Definitely. That’s the whole point – a firm that’s built several things in the city.
NYC: What can you tell me about your firm?
MA: We have offices in New York, Mexico, and Beirut. I’m originally Lebanese, and, especially with the crisis now, we wanted to extend our projects in the Middle East, so the past couple years we’ve done a lot of work there. Some of these projects are under construction. The Mexico office was working on projects in Costa Rica and Mexico, and they used to be our backup office for New York, as well. We are trying to do this round-the-clock production, because of the time difference. We like to get the best of each world where we can, which is actually a good thing, a very New York thing to do.
NYC: And you’re the principal?
MA: I’m the principal, yes. I’m the one who founded all the offices.
NYC How old are you?
MA: [Laughs] I’m 33. That’s the whole point. Even the developer is young. The developer is 37. We have 50-year-old people, and we have 26-year-old people. It’s like any other office, we just like to do our projects a little differently, and what better office structure to have to work on such a project? For example, I’m Catholic, so that shows that it’s not an Islamic firm, that it’s not all Muslims. For us, it’s about joining cultural differences into one project. You’ve got a developer who’s Egyptian, who’s from a Polish Catholic mother, who goes to a Jewish community center, an architect who has citizenships from France, and Mexico—French and Mexican and Lebanese at the same time, so it’s a mix of a cultures, isn’t that the whole point of this project?
NYC: What other New York projects do you have?
MA: We’re doing another building in Tri-BeCa that is almost finished. We’ve done 93 Crosby in SoHo. Mostly condos, and also lots of restaurants. Tartinery in NoLita, Naya in Midtown, restaurants in Washington. We’ve built in seven different states.
NYC: What are you trying to convey with the design for Park51?
MA: From day one we knew this was going to be a complicated project in terms of controversy, how many parties we have to please – starting with the developer – the religious institutions behind the prayer space, the community, and not to mention all the political parties. Some parties required a more traditionalist approach to what Islamic architecture should look like — whatever that means. If you try to define that, it’s going to be pretty hard. Other people just expected another building in New York, and from the start we knew that we didn’t want that building to look like anything else. We wanted the building to be able find its roots into what makes Islamic architecture culturally recognizable as Islamic, without necessarily being religious — because that’s a fine line also: What makes an Islamic cultural element, or religious element?
So we went back to really some of the most ancient traditional elements, internationally — even though we’re so aware it’s been done before, by other architects, namely by Jean Nouvel — taking the Islamic motif and converting it into some sort of facade. In our case it was a little more than that. It was going back to the very essence to what makes Islamic architecture recognizable, and if you go back to history there’s a single motif, the Mashrabiya, the sun screen really, using abstract representations, very elaborate arabesques, and turn that motif into some sort of a map to create the facade. A map that would, through several manipulations and articulations, respond to the interior program. It’s a map that starts becoming denser in areas that require less openness, and less dense in areas that require more openness. Also in relationship to the site — you’ve got to keep in mind that this is a southern facade that gets hit with direct sunlight, which requires some sort of sunscreen. At the same time this facade is a structural element on its own, so it’s actually an exoskeleton that holds itself. A little bit like a curtain wall, but it’s truly structural. But not only is it structural, it’s projected into the building and starts defining voids inside the building.