Interview with the Architect Hilmi Şenalp concerning The Tokyo Turkish Mosque and Cultural Centre:
You are the architect of the Tokyo Turkish Mosque and Cultural Centre in Japan. Can you give us some information about the construction of the mosque?
The construction of the mosque began on the 30th of June 1998 and was completed in two years. The opening of the mosque was done on the 30th of June 2000. The Kajima Corporation, one of the five biggest construction firms in Japan, carried out the rough construction of the mosque and cultural centre and the detail work was realised through the skill of Turkish craftsmen and artists. All the finished and semi-finished products made of stone, wood, marble, lead, plaster as well as the doors, windows and crescents were manufactured and measured in Turkey and sent to Tokyo by ship, the total of which weighing approximately 3000 tons. On the Japanese side, Sumio Ito and Akira Wakabayashi surveyed the project coordination and site chief Tsuruki Furukawa surveyed the rough construction. On the Turkish side, Sami Gören did the coordination and the site chief was Mustafa İskender. At a distance of 9550 km far from Turkey, this work of art was executed in quite difficult conditions and its total project was fulfilled in 1200 plan sections.
When realising this project, what types of criteria did you take into account while determining the special features of the mosque? Besides the technical details, could you give us some explanations from an emotional point of view?
With its deep-rooted past, its still practised traditional arts and its high technology, Japan is a good example of the dualism between tradition and modernity. While carrying out this project, we were careful at realising a structure whose character would attract the attention. We were bringing to a different civilisation a product coming from a different culture. We are a nation with a deeply rooted civilisation who has experienced the same development as Japan but in a different way.
When searching for points of contact in the bridge of aesthetics between tradition and modernism, the dignity and honour of being a human being should necessitate not seeking for a clash of civilisations but for what these civilisations can bring to one another. Today, any attempt at performing any form of art without the clarification of this dualism is bound to be in vain. We therefore tried to protect your values. The Tokyo Turkish Mosque and Cultural Centre represent the summit of religious architecture in the Islamic civilisation and, with its Ottoman architectural style, bind tradition with the future and with the construction technologies of today.
We have dwelt on every detail. Neither at the designing nor at the manufacturing stages, was the production left in the sole hands of the craftsmen and artists. Following the cultural break we have experienced for 250 years in our history of architecture, we notice we have lost the taste for unity in our structures – from the foundations to the chimney, from the carpets to the door knobs – and this especially for the last 50 years. In this building, we worked in order to restore such forgotten style and taste.
Where does this mosque stand among the history of Turkish architecture? Could you talk about its artistic features?
Following the statement of the Chinese philosopher Tao-Te “ The purpose of architecture is the emptiness within the walls of the building”, that is the interior space. Besides the ontological principle regarding the mortal and the eternal, the presence and the absence, the effects of space on man provide the pleasure of the eye accompanied by a psychic balance. In our history of architecture and art, almost all interpretations give an impression of non-authenticity, of alienation from its own culture and, unfortunately, bring us to examine the fact that this architecture does not consist in an art of reconciliation and synthesis but is simply a form of imitation and repetition. For example, the Şehzade Mosque, the Sultan Ahmet mosque, the New Mosque and, together with its errors, even the Kocatepe Mosque possess all a square plan and a centre consisting of four semi-domes, that is they have all the same sketch plan. However, the effect given by their interior and exterior spaces make them totally different from each other. Every human being possesses the same organs, but none is exactly similar to another. Even if so, the characters and souls differ.
After bringing this necessary explanation in order to avoid falling into the errors of simple logic, we may now pass on to the place the Tokyo Mosque holds among Turkish architecture:
The Tokyo Mosque represents unity in its space, has a hexagonal sketch plan, six semi-domes surrounding the central dome, the equivalent of which has not been realised in our classical architecture. While developing the idea of a central plan – such as in the Beşiktaş Sinan Paşa before the Süleymaniye, in the Kadırga Sokullu, Kazasker İvaz Efendi, Babaeski Semiz Ali, Fındıklı Molla Çelebi, Topkapı Kara Ahmet Paşa in between the constructions of the Süleymaniye and Selimiye mosques, in the Üsküdar Atik Valide after the Selimiye mosque in Edirne – the architect Sinan applied the hexagonal plan type with 4-5 semi-domes according to varying measures and understandings. Meanwhile, he tried a lot of octagonal plan works. After his death, his students worked at developing this type of plan as in the Cerrahpaşa and Hekimoğlu Ali Paşa Mosques.
Concerning the interior space effect, without any doubt, the intervals between the angles of a hexagon and an octagon drawn within a same circle will be greater in the hexagon than in the octagon. In fact, the central plan is more strongly felt in the hexagon than in the octagon. Indeed, whether in between the constructions of the Süleymaniye and Selimiye Mosques or whether after Sinan’s death, the fact that the hexagonal plan was constantly executed shows how strong Sinan and his students felt this characteristic. Nevertheless, the transition from a square plan to a six-columned base required by the hexagon’s geometric character brought difficulties in matters of construction and decoration. We tried to surpass these difficulties by taking benefit of recent technology. In my opinion, if Sinan had lived long enough after the Selimiye Mosque to make a monumental work of that degree, he would surely have insisted on applying this type of plan in order to develop it. This is the link of the chain we endeavoured to render when designing the Tokyo mosque.
Keeping in mind the construction of the Mescid-i Nebevi (the first mosque) by the Prophet Muhammad, we tried to execute an original composed work of art according to the tradition of Islamic mosque architecture, in Ottoman Turkish style, using technology without losing tradition, as a continuation of the central plan idea and staying bound in the design and details to the criteria of traditional architectural principles. In order to ensure proportion, harmony and appropriateness in the project, we did not use the metric system for the design and measuring, but the old architectural measure unit called “arşın”. Moreover, the reinforced top structures, including all the domes, were cast without a mould. Regarding the manufacturing techniques, we brought a new interpretation to Japan to the concept of concrete outer covering structures.
Could you give us some explanations concerning the mosque’s interior and exterior decorative features as well as the examples of calligraphy?
In the mosque, we tried to give important examples of every form of art belonging to the Turkish-Islamic civilisation, each of which remaining an independent work of art in itself. With the illuminator Semih İrteş, we followed a synthesis of proportionate decoration. We gave importance to Turkish calligraphy which enhances the architecture and which could be described as a non-figurative “abstract” form of art. We worked at uniting the material and the intellectual together. In the calligrapher Hüseyin Kutlu’s masterpieces, we chose the Islamic creed of uniqueness with verses of the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet concerning the subject of faith.
For the first time, we used the concept of abstract sculpture on the chandelier, by giving the inscriptions a three-dimensional character. On this chandelier is sculpted the inscription “Kun feyekun”: “He says ‘BE’ and it is”. “Hu” which corresponds to the pronoun “Him” was written in a repetition motive six times, adding thus a new spatial effect. According to the ‘ebced’ numeral ruling in Arabic literature (in which every letter corresponds to a number), the pronoun “Hu” (Him) is equivalent to the number 11. Two reflected “Hu”s makes 22, which corresponds to the numeral equivalent of the word “Habib”: “Close Friend”. In this aspect, the chandelier bears inscriptions which relate the Lord from whose light was created our Prophet and, by turn, from whose light was created the universe, reminding thus the Holy Saying of the Lord to the Prophet: “If you had not been, I would not have created the worlds.” For example, over the windows is the inscription of the angel Gabriel’s answer to the questions concerning the truths of faith “What is faith, what is purity, what is bestowal?” On the main dome’s girdle lay the 99 Beautiful Names of the Lord worked on tiles. The main dome bears the İhlas Surah (The Declaration of God’s Perfection), principle expression of the creed of oneness. On the preacher’s chair, we carved the saying “Death is sufficient as a reminder”, the engraving standing here as a recaller even in the absence of the preacher. Furthermore, we tried to create a parallel with the Japanese notion of work by writing the sayings “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave” and “The one who lives two days in a similar way is at a lost.” On the exterior spaces we also used “kufeki” stone (made of limestone) on which we engraved some calligraphies. Of course, that is not all. Our endeavour was to create a very rich spiritual surrounding.
You are also the architect of the Ashgabat Ertuğrul Gazi Mosque and Cultural Centre in Turkmenistan built for the Ministry of Religious Affairs and you are now going to build a mosque next to the Ahmet Yesevi Mausoleum in Kazakhstan. What inspired you when designing the special features of these three mosques?
Objectively speaking, the Turkish culture is an original culture holding very strong characteristics. We are a nation whose culture is deeply rooted, whose architecture is refined, whose literature and music are rich in expression and significance, whose calligraphy and decorative arts represent patience and nobleness. In short, each form of art shows examples of magnificence within simplicity. You cannot perform modern art without having studied classical art. Just the same, it is impossible to bring new interpretations and stylisations without properly conceiving one’s own culture and art and the codes that go with it. We must reproduce the cultural heritage of which we are the heirs without falling into degeneration or imitation but by creating new interpretations adapted to the conditions of the present world.
We built the Ashgabat and Tokyo mosques in a classical style accompanied by original interpretations. We are actually building the Berlin Martyrs Mosque in this manner. In the Ashgabat cultural centre, we created a stylisation of classical Seljuk and Ottoman concepts. We thus brought a purist Turkish Islamic architecture to the duality between tradition and modernity. In this aspect, we chose classical Ottoman style architecture for the mosque whereas the cultural centre was built in a stylised form. The project of the Ahmet Yesevi Mosque was realised with a different interpretation of the concept of simplified architecture in a stylised form. Of course, when designing a structure, we take into account the climatic conditions for the choice of the materials. In addition, we created a real “baş oda” (room of honour for important meetings and guests) in the Tokyo cultural centre, giving thus a small example of traditional Turkish civil architecture along religious architecture.
Turkistan is where our civilisation was leavened, the source of our culture. The Seljuk and Ottoman civilisations were born in Minor Asia to later come to Anatolia and develop their architectural concepts with cultural notions that had been strained for centuries. Bringing something to life on our soil of origin is a very different experience. The same thoughts were felt for the Ahmet Yesevi Mosque
What results did you notice concerning the Tokyo mosque? Could you give us some anecdotes experienced during the construction?
With the Tokyo Turkish Mosque, for the first time Japan came in contact with a totally different culture. The Kajima Corporation with which we did the rough construction is the builder of the Sony Centre on Berlin Postdamer Platz and is a gigantic construction firm with a yearly income of over 30 billion dollars. It proudly states the Tokyo Mosque among its other worldwide constructions on its web site. At the opening of the mosque, the Japanese television channel NHK carried out a live report of one and a half hour. On the same channel, programs concerning Turkey and Islam were diffused for two weeks. The Japanese press and architecture magazines showed great interest. The mosque was also selected in 2002 by a jury of the Japanese Architecture Institute among 40 elite buildings such as the Sapporo Media Park and the Jr. Central Towers in Nagoya, for the new vision and colour it brought to Japanese architecture. Equally, the mosque won a lighting prize by the firm National.
Besides Muslims, there is a great number of Japanese visiting the mosque. This figure varies from 50 to 350 every day. As Japanese people are curious by nature, they show a sincere interest in the building. This is something that pleases us in respect with the presentation of Turkey abroad. After taking down the first scaffolding, the staff and in particular the Kajima workers admitted that they weren’t expecting such a structure. I will never forget the reaction of the Japanese visitors when entering the mosque upon their exclamation “subarashiii” meaning magnificent and reflecting the impression of astonishment in front of the work.
Muharrem Hilmi Şenalp