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Architectural milestone

July 18, 2011

Cologne's central mosque suffered many critics before its construction began in 2009. It's now almost finished and is being hailed as a new artistic and social vision for the predominantly Christian city.

Computer representation of the Cologne mosque currently under construction
The mosque is designed to be open and welcomingImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Cologne's new central mosque has already endured years of criticism - and it's not even finished yet.

There are those who have complained about the height of its minarets and those who call it der Meiler - from Atommeiler, German for nuclear reactor - because they say it looks like an atomic facility.

When plans were first unveiled for the redevelopment of the central mosque, some critics even saw it as an opportunity to raise a fundamental debate about the city's Turkish Islamic community.

The right-wing group Pro Köln and the prominent social commentator, Ralph Giordano, campaigned to have the construction plans stopped. Giordano's focus was not the mosque - he complained instead that integration of the Turkish Islamic community had failed and that the problem was Islam.

Now six years into the project, its architect Paul Böhm says the mosque is itself an act of integration.

"This is one of the most important buildings I have ever designed," Böhm told Deutsche Welle. "It's given me a chance to do something which is not only for a specific group of people, but for the whole community."

Cologne's central mosque, under construction, July 2011
Finishing touches are being applied to the Cologne mosqueImage: Zulfikar Abbany

An open invitation

Speak to a supporter of the mosque and you will soon hear descriptions like "open," "inviting," and "light." Paul Böhm says the very design of the building aims to communicate a sense of openness and invitation.

"The prayer hall is very open and we have this huge square, which invites people from all religions," he said.

There is also a massive dome, which appears to open like a bud, and the two minarets.

Before construction began in November 2009, the minarets were often targeted as being too big. Pro Köln and others said the minarets, which were taller in the original plans, threatened to overshadow Cologne's famous cathedral.

The Cologne Cathedral is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which means city planners are obliged to protect its visual integrity. There were protests, newspaper articles, television and radio programs - a raging, public debate - and eventually, a compromise was found to make the minarets smaller.

Ayse Aydin of the Turkish-Islamic Union, which commissioned the new mosque, says the debate was often "hurtful." But she says it also raised awareness and made people acknowledge the local Turkish community.

"Spiritual houses are open places, they are inviting, and a building like this can help reduce people's fear and provide a platform for communication," said Aydin.

A German mosque in Europe

It will also help create a new network of impressive sites in Cologne. The city was heavily bombed in the Second World War and has never recovered architecturally. Put simply, it's not very pretty.

But the central mosque is one of the few new major buildings that has its own distinct style and is not made of a uniform steel and glass. It is a showcase of Islamic architectural heritage.

Posters protesting the central mosque in Cologne
The Pro Köln group protested the construction of the mosqueImage: DW

Islamic architecture tends to soak up its environment, so there are mosques that are part of a western Roman tradition and others that are more eastern. Cologne's central mosque has itself been described as modern and German. Ayse Aydin even jokingly calls it Kölsch, which is also the name of the local dialect and beer.

Jokes aside, the head of architectural history at Cologne University, Norbert Nussbaum, calls the mosque a "milestone for religious architecture in Germany." But he says it is also distinctly Turkish.

"This is a building that could be located anywhere in the Turkish state," said Nussbaum. "It has a particular shape that's found in Ottoman architecture. It's a Turkish mosque in the middle of the Islamic Diaspora - which is good because most of the Muslims in western Germany are of Turkish origin, so it gives them a homely atmosphere."

Under Suleiman the Magnificent, a long-reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire during the 16th century, Ottoman architecture was renowned for its mosaic patterns. Istanbul's famous Hagia Sophia mosque is a good example. To this day, mosaics are a popular characteristic of Turkish design.

The Cologne central mosque will open in early 2012 without much interior design other than natural light, which will cascade through a flank of windows. But, in time, the mosque could come to feature classic Ottoman mosaics or other decoration from Turkish design heritage. The Turkish-Islamic Union says it wants the mosque to grow with the community and that it will decide on an interior design at a later stage.

Religious traffic

There is another striking sight (and odor) at the mosque - that of a petrol station right next door. It's not what you might immediately associate with a grand, spiritual building in the heart of a city. But it is a reality here.

Paul Böhm laughs when asked about it and says he hopes his design is "strong enough to overcome the petrol station."

From the perspective of city planning, the petrol station may still be an eyesore, but quite practical all the same. Susanne Gross is an architect and city planner, who is not directly involved in the building of the mosque, but one who admires it greatly. She says the petrol station is irrelevant.

Architect Paul Böhm
Architect Paul Böhm took on a unique challengeImage: Zulfikar Abbany

"Who knows whether it'll be there in 30 years," commented Gross. "The design [of the mosque] is right, especially the stairway that leads you up from the street, almost alongside the petrol station, right into the main courtyard."

And that is the point. Visitors are unlikely to stand in front of the mosque without being drawn into it by the open stairway, inevitably creating a constant stream of traffic.

"Well, the petrol station is funny," conceded Nussbaum, "because it evokes an atmosphere of traffic and religious traffic."

The power of architecture

Whether that traffic will include a stream of non-Muslims is hard to tell. But the intention is there - not quite written on the wall, but mixed into the mortar.

The city planner, Susanne Gross, believes architecture shares the same power as art because architecture draws in the community. Buildings are where people gather, meet and mingle.

"We can offer possibilities," agreed architect Paul Böhm, "like the possibility for men and women to pray in the same room and the possibility to non-Muslim people to come here. But it is just an offer. It's up to the people to use it and make this architecture work."

Most new architecture needs times to settle, to become a true part of its environment, and for a community to open itself up to new possibilities. But in the case of Cologne's central mosque, the offer is already there.

Author: Zulfikar Abbany

Editor: Kate Bowen

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