Words and walls: Taha Al-Hiti’s fresh take on Islamic architecture

Updated 15 June 2018
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Words and walls: Taha Al-Hiti’s fresh take on Islamic architecture

JEDDAH: “The power of words turns music into songs. I’ve always been attracted to the power of conveying a message in a beautiful way, be it in a song, in calligraphy, in poetry… that’s how I chased my career in calligraphy.”

The renowned Iraqi master calligrapher and architect Taha Al-Hiti is explaining to Arab News his passion for the visual art that has dominated so much of his life. As one of the oldest Islamic art forms, and one of the most widely revered, calligraphy has a special place in the culture of the Arab world.

Al-Hiti studied under the patronage of Iraqi master calligrapher Abbas Al-Baghdadi and has showcased his command of thultuh script in multiple international exhibitions over the years.

For many, becoming a master calligrapher would be enough of an accomplishment for one lifetime. But Al-Hiti is also an accomplished and innovative architect. His company, Squadra Architects, specializes in modern designs infused with traditional elements: arabesque ornamentation, and — of course — calligraphy.

“I had feared I would become a trade calligrapher,” Al-Hiti says. “Competing over who writes the best letter. But these are technicalities of the art — they reflect practice and technique, recycling what you’ve learned rather than bringing in something new. So I chose architectural engineering, because of its relation to design and creativity.”

Combining his two great passions was a way for Al-Hiti to begin to answer a question that had long interested him: What qualifies a particular structure as ‘Islamic’ architecture? He mentions the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Andalusia — a building that, because of its Qur’anic calligraphy and the fact it was built by Muslims, is often regarded as Islamic, but, as Al-Hiti points out, is so much a product of its environment that it would look out of place in the vast majority of Islamic countries.

While it’s true that architectural designs have often, historically, been linked to civilizations, it’s also true that similar designs are found in disparate regions, and, Al-Hiti explains, the very notion that architecture can be deemed to belong to a particular culture is increasingly being questioned.

It’s a thorny, much-debated topic, and one that, he suggests, is open to countless interpretations, depending on researchers’ individual opinions.

 “Islamic architects belong to different schools,” he says. “They follow varied architectural elements. But the common denominator in all Islamic structures is calligraphy. It’s right in front of our eyes.  It’s hard to call a dome or pillar ‘Islamic’ — it’s only called that because of a verse, or a mention of Allah’s name on a wall.”

Certainly, Islamic architecture and calligraphy are inexorably intertwined. And yet, historically, they remain separate; architecture is the conceptual form and organization of a building, while the latter is artistic ornamentation — traditionally presented without any real consideration for the structure on which it appears.  

Al-Hiti , though, wanted to find a way to introduce calligraphy into buildings in a more innovative and organic way.

“People are moved by beauty,” he says. “And in calligraphy, it’s the beauty of the flow that defines it. Not the phrase, nor the meaning. The composition makes it what it is and that paved the way to an answer: To modernize my take on architectural design, and have my passion for calligraphy incorporated, I needed to go back to basics.”

He was led to this conclusion, he admits, in part because the strict rules that have traditionally governed Islamic calligraphy have, in recent decades, become looser, making the art form more open to personal interpretation.

“Calligraphy is not so confined anymore,” Al-Hiti explains. “It has been developed by Muslims in the most successful manner and has since spread around the world. You can find non-Arab speakers who excel in it. You’ll find non-Muslim Arabs who turn poetry, names, or just a letter into beautiful works of art.”

Al-Hiti’s point about non-Arab speakers adopting the art leads back to his belief that it is the form — rather than the meaning of the words — that makes it so appealing to people. He once told me that, as an Arab, the first thing I would do when I see a piece of calligraphy is to decipher the words, whereas a non-Arab would contemplate the lines and curves. Arabs, he said, are more used to analysing works of art first, rather than appreciating them aesthetically.

That is something he hopes to change with his contemporary take on Islamic architecture, using calligraphy less for what it says — though that is still important — than for how it looks; creating work that mirrors the flow and curves of the building it adorns.

His innovative post-modern design proposal for the yet-to-be-built Saadiyat Beach Mosque in Abu Dhabi, for example, defies convention with its upturned circular dome and the bold sweep of enlarged Qur’anic verse on its exterior walls. His concept for the Saudi Arabian embassy in Jordan, meanwhile (which was not ultimately selected for the project) cleverly shaped verses from the Qur’an in the entryway to resemble the traditional ‘mashrabiya’ latticework that is such a popular feature of traditional Arabic architecture.

The ultra-modern Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies — the exterior and interior façades of which were designed by Al-Hiti — utilizes calligraphy not only as a readable, aesthetic element, but one that matches the concept of the project. Al-Hiti stresses that the verses were carefully selected to complement the design, rather than just plastering writing onto a building. The building’s library, for example, has five pillars, each representing a pillar of Islam, and each bears a verse representing that pillar. “It’s an example of the integration of calligraphy in ultra-modern design,” he says. “The calligraphy literally had to be designed to complement the fluidity of the design. Traditionally, all the calligraphy would have to be presented horizontally, so the verses could be easily read, but most of them here are vertical lines and the letters are constructed vertically, (breaking) the norms of calligraphy whilst adding to the uniqueness of (the building).”

Al-Hiti is well aware that his willingness to defy convention goes against many purists’ views of how calligraphy should be presented. It’s an art form that, for centuries, was bound by strict criteria — some would even say that taking calligraphy off paper and onto a concrete wall was unacceptable. So he knows that not everyone will be a fan of his new take on Islamic architecture. Still, he is unapologetic about his approach.

“Art evolves, and its basic concepts are no longer basic,” he says. “An artist’s take is what breaks the norms; beauty in conveying the message is what counts.”


What We Are Reading Today: Becoming by Michelle Obama

Updated 18 November 2018
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What We Are Reading Today: Becoming by Michelle Obama

  • As Michelle Obama writes in “Becoming,” she long ago learned to recognize the “universal challenge of squaring who you are with where you come from and where you want to go.”

Michelle Obama emerges in her memoir — “Becoming” — as a first lady who steadfastly believed in her husband’s abilities but had no illusions that the sludge of partisanship and racism would melt away under the sunny slogans of hope and change, according to a review published in the New York Times.

She is the wife of the 44th president of the US, Barack Obama, and is the first African-American first lady of the US.

According to NYT critic Jennifer Szalai: “The book is divided into three sections — ‘Becoming Me,’ ‘Becoming Us’ and ‘Becoming More’ — that sound like the bland stuff of inspirational self-help.” 

Obama’s friend and former NPR host Michele Norris, who will soon interview the former first lady at her book tour stop in Boston, says the memoir is about much more than politics; it contains “real-life lessons.”

“She is honest about how difficult it is to make a transition. She’s honest about dealing with people who doubted her or underestimated her,” Norris says.

As Michelle Obama writes in “Becoming,” she long ago learned to recognize the “universal challenge of squaring who you are with where you come from and where you want to go.”