Q) What inspired you to write
A) I was inspired primarily by the buildings themselves, particularly the work of the great Ottoman architect Sinan. His buildings in and around Istanbul are wonderful structures, beautifully designed and exquisitely constructed. In my history of Western architecture class back in college, I had been introduced to Haghia Sophia, the famous Byzantine basilica that eventually became a mosque, but I knew almost nothing about all the other buildings in Istanbul that were actually built as mosques. I didnt begin to appreciate them until we began filming the dome episode for the PBS series Building Big.
I first considered creating a book about the building of a mosque when I was doing the architecture books back in the seventies, but I just ran out of steam on the series and wanted to try something else. Twenty-five years later, September 11 happened.
Ive always tried to make books I thought would be useful. This time I wanted to make one I thought might actually be needed. Not so much because it would explain the differences between people but rather because it might remind us of the similarities. Great architecture seems to bring out the best in people, not only in those who create it but also in those who use it and are moved by it. It doesnt matter where in the world we encounter the finest buildings. They often have a universal appeal, an emotional as well as an intellectual one that goes way beyond their inherent respect for gravity.
Q) What was the most challenging aspect of researching this book?
A) The most challenging aspect of researching this book was, as usual, my lack of familiarity with the subject. This never stops me, of course in fact I think it probably drives me but there is always that worry about whether or not it is possible in a limited period of time to learn enough to know when youre asking the right questions. In this case, as a foreigner and a non-Muslim, I was concerned not only with the content of those questions but also with the way in which I was asking them, particularly as I met a number of experts both in Istanbul and closer to home.
Q) You have studied so many different styles and methods of construction. Was there a particular detail or tradition in Ottoman architecture that stands out to you?
A) The tradition that stands out most is that of orienting the mosque toward Mecca through establishing the kibla an imaginary line that links the faithful either as individuals or as a congregation inside a prayer hall to the holiest of Islamic cities. The most striking result of this is that most of the mosques dont follow the geometry of the surrounding streets or buildings. The detail that stands out most would have to be the dome. Large or small, grand or humble, the hemisphere is the roof of choice on almost all the buildings associated with any mosque complex.
Q) What do you hope people will understand and remember most after reading Mosque?
A) Beyond the idea that all people when challenged and inspired seem capable of remarkable achievement, I want my readers to remember that in most cases the mosque is the religious centerpiece of a complex of buildings, each created to house a specific religiously as well as socially motivated activity, whether a school, soup kitchen, hospital, or what.
Q) You are trained as an architect. How does this affect your approach to books such as Mosque, Castle, Cathedral, and others?
A) Being trained as an architect does two things for me. First of all, it gives me the confidence to believe I can tackle and solve any problem I can conceive of and stay interested in. This is sometimes an illusion, but its a useful one. It also gives me a very methodical way of breaking down complicated concepts and systems into manageable pieces. Once I understand the pieces, I can then concentrate my efforts on putting them back together in a way that makes them clearer to me and to my readers.
Q) In addition to writing and illustrating books, you teach illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. What do you talk about with your students?
A) Since Im about to start working on a book about the human body, a truly daunting task, Ive decided not to teach for at least the next couple of years. I just wont have the time. And this is a real loss for me, because I really enjoy teaching. Life in the studio, as you might imagine, is fairly solitary. Getting into a classroom/studio situation is incredibly stimulating. Not only can I share my experience with people interested in the same things Im interested in, but I can also talk about the problems Im struggling with in my own work as Im slogging through them. Its important for my students to know that even after thirty years I dont have all the answers. How could I, when the questions keep changing?
Q) Youve been creating books for thirty years. How has your work evolved?
A) How has my work evolved? Im not sure it has. Mosque is a perfect example. It took me a lot longer to complete than I had expected not only because of the material itself, but also because of the decision to produce full-color art instead of black and white as in days of old. The decision to use color was based on my feelings about the interiors of these buildings, but working in color also means you double (at least) the number of questions you have to ask. What is the color of that stone or the soil or the cloth over the casket, etc. In black and white it doesnt matter. There were times during the creation of Mosque, as the deadlines got closer and closer and eventually were replaced by new ones, much to the consternation of all involved, when it felt like I was working on my first book. I guess any evolution that has happened is in the ambitiousness of each project. Im competing with myself every time I start a new book, and each has to be better in some way than the ones that came before. This doesnt always happen, but it is nonetheless a motivator. All I know for sure these days and after all this time is that each project I take on will eventually get finished, and it will be finished to the best of my ability.