The difficulty of designing a mosque for Prishtina

The Kosovan city’s journey towards building a significant new place of worship has been anything but easy, writes Stephen Hitchins

Words by: Stephen Hitchins

Most people seem to know little or nothing about the Kosovan capital of Prishtina other than that was where the pop star Rita Ora was born. Coming in to land there for the first time a few years after the 1990s war had ended, I certainly had no idea what to expect. There were a lot of military vehicles around the airfield, and while there is a military presence at many airports, here it was a little different.

They called it an ‘integrated operation’. The division of labour was evident from the moment the plane touched down. The Germans were responsible for passport control, the French for customs, the US for airport security. The roads into the city were patrolled by Swedes, whose sky-blue helmets bobbed about on top of white UN armoured vehicles. Specialised units of the Italian carabinieri were in the city and the tactical reserve was Hungarian. More than a dozen countries had armed forces there.

Zaha Hadid’s avant-garde design for the Prishtina’s central mosque Credit: Zaha Hadid Architects

Meanwhile, there was a multitude of badges on everyone and everything. The UN, NATO, the EU and the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) were all present too because security and stability in the Balkans were vital for all of them. Operation Joint Guardian, mandated by the UN Security Council, had deployed 50,000 KFOR (Kosovo Force) personnel for an international peacekeeping mission.

Post-conflict reconstruction was underway, stabilisation and reconstruction inextricably linked to security, governance, law and order, with UNMIK, the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, effectively running the country. It progressively transferred executive and administrative responsibilities to a government and a national assembly and gradually moved to a monitoring and support role. Its idea was ‘standards before status’ – Kosovo was after all still a province of Serbia. But then, on 17 February 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared its full independence and everything changed. Revered by Serbs as the cradle of their nation and Orthodox faith, the move to Kosovan independence divided the international community as much as it did the people who lived there.

Kosovo’s National Library – a mad agglutination of concrete cubes topped by 99 hemispherical domes 

A decade earlier, open conflict between Serbian military and police and Kosovan Albanian forces resulted in the expulsion of 1.5 million people – 90% of the population of Kosovo – from their homes, and their houses, villages and crops were destroyed as ethnic cleansing became the order of the day. Massacres occurred. At least 5,000 Kosovars had been executed and some 225,000 Kosovan men were believed missing. In Martha Gellhorn’s phrase, they were ‘sufferers of history’ – those who find themselves caught up in the decisions of leaders from which they have neither the influence nor the means to extricate themselves. The fighting ended in 1999 after the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia and a USA-led NATO bombing campaign over Serbia.

The United States’ President Clinton recognised the grave injustices that led to the ethnic cleansing and chose to intervene. To this day he is seen as something of a saint in Kosovo and continues to make occasional visits. There is Bill Clinton Boulevard and a statue of the former president. Posters abound on the backstreets; he is omnipresent still. A boutique called Hillary is devoted to selling the styles of clothing Mrs Clinton wore.

The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint Mother Teresa

Prishtina is not a city you fall in love with. The Grand Hotel, for instance, is not that grand. Once a byword for Balkan opulence, the country’s president spoke of its steep decline last year when he said: ‘I don’t think it is the worst hotel in the world, but that is because the world is very big.’ Yugoslavia’s dictator, Josip Broz Tito, maintained a suite on the fourth floor, and rooms were commandeered for several years by Arkan, the nationalist Serbian fanatic and career criminal who banned ethnic Albanians from the building. After the war, as Serbian hegemony came to an end, the place swarmed with journalists, military officers, aid workers and European officials. Today, it stands as a bleak monument, haunted by darker memories of the country’s past; several floors have been reduced to rubble, remnants of a remodelling programme that ran out of money, although it still has a valuable collection of modern art that may yet be sold to cover the cost of finishing the work. Meanwhile, the futurist, brutalist, prison-like National Library, built by architect Andrija Mutnjakovic and completed in 1986, is a mad agglutination of concrete cubes topped by 99 hemispherical domes, inspired by Islamic architecture as much as by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic experiments. Its previous lives have included being living quarters for Croatian and Bosnian refugees and a command centre for the Serbian Army.

The Orthodox Cathedral Church of Christ the Saviour is a large brick shell that since independence has been vandalised extensively

But the people are something else: great fun, welcoming and hospitable. And yet, on that first trip, despite life being good, it was still like visiting the Wild West. The place was awash with guns. Lots of them. And although the war had ended, the shooting had not. The place was on the edge. Dangerous. It was best not to go anywhere within 300m of certain districts because while the iron sights on an AK47 are not very good for long-distance shots, it is still lethal. You could buy one in a bar, over a beer, for about £52, or a Browning semi-automatic pistol for about half that; a Glock cost a bit more. There was a good trade in assault rifles, heavy machine guns, rocketpropelled grenades and mines. They were all there for the taking because not many weapons had been surrendered voluntarily following the war. With an estimated 550,000 small arms looted from military armouries looking for new homes, and strong links between criminals, politicians and guerrilla fighters well established, it was a violent, lawless place.

In such circumstances it was not surprising that people felt the need to pray. The Orthodox Cathedral Church of Christ the Saviour was begun in the mid-1990s in an era of Serbianisation, but never progressed beyond being a very large brick shell, and since independence it has been extensively vandalised and desecrated, set on fire, and used as a public toilet.

A statue of former United States President Bill Clinton, who is revered 

Another church as yet unfinished is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint Mother Teresa. Named after the ethnic Albanian nun and missionary, it’s been funded by the Albanian community in the USA and was consecrated in 2010. Once lauded as a symbol of religious tolerance, the new cathedral has stirred simmering resentment among the predominantly Islamic community, and inevitably a political dimension. Questions were asked: with a Catholic community of just 60,0000 was Kosovo turning west? Was this a sop to the EU?

So in a predominantly Muslim land, where religious conflict has existed for centuries and Orthodox Christians and Catholics were building places of worship, it was inevitable the Islamic authorities would want a new, national mosque too once the fighting stopped. But nothing here is simple.

As an entry for a competition to design a new mosque for Prishtina, Taller’s multifunctional focal point for the community maximises natural light

By 2010 a group of devout Muslims had begun protesting that the authorities were not moving fast enough. Already in 2009 the police had arrested one ‘foreign-backed’ group that reportedly seized guns and body armour in preparation to use violence to see that their demands were met. An open international competition for designing the mosque was finally launched in 2012, with submissions having to be made by March 2013. Among the many requirements laid down were that it should be a ‘landmark building’, a ‘symbolic expression of both Islamic identity and local tradition, inviting and attractive… an open place for all society’.

There were already four significant mosques in the city. The oldest building in Prishtina is the Çarshi Mosque, completed in 1389. The Sultan Mehmet al-Fatih Mosque dates from 1461, the Pirinaz Mosque was built 100 years later, and the Jashar Pasha Mosque of 1834 was fully renovated in 2015 as a gift of the Turkish government. They are all at the top of a register of 3,000 cultural sites and monuments in Kosovo requiring conservation and protection.

Tarh O Amayesh’s sweeping, spiritual, architectural shell was another submission

There were some splendid entries among the 90 submissions. They ranged from the Prishtina-based Maden Group’s ingenious combinations of geometric elements, which developed the traditional concept of linking mosques with a bazaar – the prayer hall and a series of galleries sitting above an underground shopping centre – in one highly energy-efficient envelope, to the Iranian Tarh O Amayesh’s sweeping, spiritual, architectural shell, which also featured subterranean shopping and parking in order to maintain a modest building above ground. Both designs made provision for up to 80 business units and were both characterised, unsurprisingly, as a mall with a minaret.

The same soubriquet could be applied to the submission from Gezim Pacarizi and Arber Sadiku. They redefined a very traditional style to put forward a red concrete building with a 55m-diameter golden dome over the prayer hall, set back in order to create a large, open court terrace and a three-level arcade (hayat) that exploited the site as it falls away from one of the main east-west thoroughfares through the city. Three levels of underground parking, a library, offices and a bazaar were also included.

Gezim Pacarizi and Arber Sadiku put forward a red concrete building with a 55m-diameter golden dome over the prayer hall

A less distinguished entry, from Podgorica in Montenegro and led by Rifat Alihodzic, took as its starting point the connection between science and religion in Islam to produce a multilevel, multiuse solution with commercial facilities, a conference hall, restaurants, education facilities, day care rooms, and garage parking – all in the mix with the mosque.

Sadar & Vuga used the Sultan Mehmet al-Fatih Mosque in the city as its prototype. A series of narrowing belts rise from a rectangular core towards a grand dome, the spaces between the belts allowing diffuse daylight to flood the interior.

Atelier V proposed an entirely glazed minaret, 83m high, together with a 2,580 sq m octagonal prayer hall located under a glass cube that follows the city grid while the structure within turns to the Kaaba, a gesture that protects the sacred mosque much like a jewel in a jewel box. Sadly, however, it still resembled a cross between an industrial complex and a commercial development.

With the Maden Group’s submission the idea was to convey tradition through contemporary architecture

Taller is based in Bogotá, Colombia. It combined with a Dutch practice, L+CC (Land and Civilization Compositions), to create a sustainable, multifunctional focal point for the community by reinterpreting the elements of a mosque within the principles of Islamic architecture. This fresh reading of history developed the largest possible uninterrupted unified space, which maximised natural light and aligned it with some of the historical details of Kosovan mosques such as the hayat.

In Islamic legend the ascension of the prophet Muhammad into heaven is known as the Mi?raj, the ladder. A Swiss/USA firm, Aptum, put forward a proposal that ‘materialises the journey of ascension to prayer and the spatial experience that follows’. Approached from both ends of the site, via a slow stairway onto an open plaza with views across the city, there was a further ascension to the main lobby where men and women would separate, the men taking a steady ramp to the prayer hall and the women two flights of stairs to the balconies. Everyone emerges into the hall through a series of fanlike arches.

The entry from the Porto consortium of OODA

Dubbed the ‘butt plug building’, a collaboration between Italian architects led by Paolo Venturella and Angelo Balducci resulted in a remarkably futuristic, solar panel-covered ‘kiblah wall-dome’ merged into one element. Looking like something out of a 1970s sci-fi movie it did not have a minaret but did have a ‘double skin’ envelope to facilitate circulation around the prayer hall, with the outer façade of louvres covered by a thin photovoltaic film to harvest energy while enabling natural ventilation.

A Hyderabad firm led by Madhusudhan Chalasani, Studio MADe, separated two main elements: the mosque, which could accommodate up to 4,000 people, and a housing/educational complex. This allowed for the creation of a sunken garden and a plaza that would enable a further 2,000 worshippers to attend prayers on special occasions, and where a symbolic minaret was to be located.

The design from Swiss/American firm Aptum

The Porto consortium of OODA (Diogo Brito, Francisco Lencastre, Rodrigo Vilas-Boas, João Jesus, and Julião Pinto Leite) together with And-Ré (the firm of Bruno André and Francisco Salgado Ré) and Rui Furtado of AFAconsultia produced a submission dominated by a dome, a symbolic expression of the heavens that in this case worked as a protective envelope for the prayer space and was tectonically expressed with a fibrous double skin on the outside and a light-fracturing interior mesh inside. Green roofs and promenades weaved the building into the urban space of market and retail outlets, with the whole signalled by a towering conical minaret.

Three minarets distinguished the entry of Ivanisin and Kabashi, which was reminiscent of the work of Albert Speer or perhaps the nuclear reactor dome at Sellafield rendered in limestone. XPlan Studio from Albania submitted a particularly striking solution and Studio Rebus produced a similarly monumental proposal.

Paolo Venturella and Angelo Balducci’s futuristic, solar panel-covered ‘kiblah wall-dome’

Meanwhile one Olympian dignity, the Madonna of modern architects, Zaha Hadid, winner of the Pritzker, and twice the Stirling Prize, submitted an entry.

Ahead of her time, or trapped in it by her own stylistic quirks and characteristic design flourishes, Hadid’s mosque would have generated so much publicity that it might have become symbolic of Kosovan regeneration. The mere mention of her name in association with a country that has little to offer the world in terms of architectural merit would have ensured a wave of positive comment that could help in the drive to create interest in Kosovo, and in particular Prishtina – dusty and depressed due to generations of neglect.

Albania’s XPlan Studio came up with this striking interior

Fresh thinking in the ultra-conservative world of Islam is something in itself. The struggle to depart from the cube with a dome idiom is not easy. The flowing design and the lack of historical association were no surprise, but Hadid’s willingness to carve out new forms were coupled with a profound understanding of Islamic ritual, and the unapologetically avant-garde design, meshed with evocative nuances of the act of prayer, endowed the fluid forms with remarkable symbolism.

As a secular Iraqi Arab who grew up a Muslim, with the religion’s ambience, rituals and architecture all around her, such an assertion of identity would be irrelevant but for the fact Hadid produced three of the most innovative mosques ever seen, with the others being in Strasbourg and Kuwait. Had any of them been built it would have seen a significant shift away from traditional Islamic architecture, exploring alternative approaches to modern prayer halls.

The proposed solution from Atelier V

But the unrealised mosque in Prishtina would have been so much more, bringing a focus to the city centre, a refreshing new identity to a new country, and been a symbol of Islam’s ability to adapt to the demands of the contemporary world at the same time as expressing its enduring relevance to society. Her work raised questions about the classical nature of typical structures used worldwide and how modernism might reinterpret Islamic requirements in new and exciting ways.

There are plenty of other wonderful contemporary mosque designs to see. From Amanda Levete’s design for a mosque as part of the new World Trade Centre in Abu Dhabi to Henning Larsen’s in Copenhagen. Also worth a look are the works of Sima Malak and Alssamoure Design Associates in Manama, Bahrain; Tuncer Cakmakli Architects, Adnan Kazimaoglu and the MAM Architectural Research Centre, and Manco Architects – all in Istanbul; CAAT, with its new proposal in Tehran; BIG in Copenhagen; Fariborz Hatam and Farouk Yaghmour, both in Dubai, along with Rux Design; Dusan Dzamonja, Darko Vlahovic and Branko Vucinovic in Rijeka in Croatia; Makespace in Hackney; Mirza Abdelkader Baig in Karachi; Paul Bohm in Cologne; and FXCollaborative in the financial district of Riyadh.

The Prishtina project wasn’t Zaha Hadid’s first go at designing a mosque, as this conceptual image of one in Strasbourg shows

And then there is the Sakarin Mosque, also in Istanbul, that opened in 2009. Designed by Hüsrev Tayla and Zeynep Fadilloglu, the first Turkish woman ever to design a mosque in Turkey, and a graduate of Sussex University, it was shortlisted for the Aga Khan Prize in 2010.

Following the excitement generated by Hadid’s design for mosques in Strasbourg in 2000 and the Avenues Mall Mosque in Kuwait in 2009, it came as no surprise that the Prishtina proposal should be so popular. Local architects such as Arbër Sadiki and Visar Geci supported the scheme in print, but to no avail.

FXCollaborative’s proposal in the financial district of Riyadh

Difficulties arose when the jury failed to agree on a clear first prize winner. The resulting dispute has been used as a weapon in continued infighting between the political parties, both in the city and nationally, which became worse once Turkey decided it would pay for the new mosque. As the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, put it in 2013, ‘Turkey is Kosovo, and Kosovo is Turkey’ – a comment reflecting the country’s significant role in the history of the Ottoman Empire for 500 years following the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The project is being overseen by the Diyanet, the Turkish state’s directorate for religious affairs, which has built mosques across the Islamic world in recent years as a key vehicle of Turkey’s power play. It will be modelled on the monumental 16th-century Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, Turkey – the zenith of Ottoman architecture with 999 windows and 71m-high minarets and designed by Mimar Sinan, the most distinguished architect of the empire with more than 300 structures to his credit.

Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) won a competition to design a mosque, Islamic centre and museum in Tirana in Albania

Arianit Bytyçi of Studio Rebus in Tirana, the capital city of Albania, called for the competition to be judged afresh with a new jury following protests. The deputy mayor of Prishtina admitted he really liked Hadid’s work. At the end of last year, Nils Fischer who led the design team at Hadid, accepted that any funder would always have a significant say in the project, and that it was inevitable that such a project would attract political overtones. Interviewed by two Prishtina publications, Zëri and Ndërtimi, Fischer said the firm was still ready to develop its scheme.

Another Zaha Hadid design, this time in Kuwait Credit: Zaha Hadid Architects

In 1983, when there was an open competition for the Opera Bastille in Paris, at least two of the judges believed they had chosen Richard Meier, only to express great surprise when a young unknown, Uruguayan Carlos Ott, had been selected from 756 entries, after which there followed a great deal of criticism and argument about the design that an established architect such as Meier would not have been subjected. By contrast, the history of the success of new young firms in Germany has for generations been in no small part due to its attitude towards holding open competitions, and the success of unknown people winning them and going on to greater things after that first big win.

In the UK, sadly and perhaps uncharacteristically for a free market economy, open competitions seldom take place, the powers that be always seeking a measure of control. In the 1990s the Design Council CEO for one openly expressed the view that open competitions were not for us. They were too unpredictable, a waste of time and expense, and were no guarantee of quality. That attitude led to established names becoming entrenched, always being on lists of potential firms, winning more and more, and becoming richer at the expense of aspiring talent as a result. Young people could not even get on to long lists of potential designers and architects. It was a case of ‘round up the usual suspects’ when new businesses could have become established. What is now happening in Kosovo is not dissimilar, where he who pays the piper calls the tune. Now, there is a slab of stone hidden beneath weeds in a car park that mark the site of what will become the National Mosque. The construction of the Turkish-funded solution is slated to begin in the spring.

… but the mosque that will probably be built will be modelled on the monumental 16th-century Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, Turkey

Kosovo is still an eerie place to visit, a land more divided than at peace, its people pawns in a larger game. Free of Serbian control it is a country stuck in limbo, recognised by some, denied a seat at the UN by others, and routinely harassed by its larger neighbour and their supporters. Radical clerics have moved in, fundamentalism is taking a hold, a once tolerant society is turning into a font of extremism and a pipeline for jihadists. Kosovo now has over 800 mosques, 240 of them built since the war and blamed for helping indoctrinate a new generation in Wahhabism. They are part of what moderate imams and officials here describe as a deliberate, longterm strategy by Saudi Arabia to reshape Islam in its image, not only in Kosovo but around the world.

You never quite leave a country like Kosovo behind.

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