Architect of Impact: Maryam Eskandari

By Deanna Kizis

In a world that might consider being a female architect and a practicing Muslim a handicap, Maryam Eskandari uses her point of view to act as a lightning rod for change. The founder of the architecture firm MIIM Designs and an adviser on the history of art and architecture at Harvard University, Eskandari creates architecture that isn't merely beautiful or functional, but gives communities an opportunity for transformation and cultural dialogue.

The results speak for themselves: Her firm is behind successful projects like the traveling "America to Zanzibar Muslim Cultures Near and Far" exhibit for the Children's Museum of Manhattan; three forward-thinking mosques that are currently in the works across the United States; and the Hub925 community center in Pleasanton, California, where people of different faiths are represented and Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors trains.

Here, Eskandari tells Hunker how she's responding to women's needs when it comes to American Mosque architecture, why including all faiths, races, genders and sexual orientations matters, and how she deals with those who try to discount her because she is a woman, a person of faith, or both.

So you grew up in Tucson, Arizona, but you ended up an architect with deep roots in Islamic architecture and history. How did you get your start?

My maternal grandfather was a textile designer and my paternal grandfather had an architecture firm. I was probably six when I asked my mom if I could spend time with them for the summer, and that was my very first exposure to architecture and design. I used to go into the architecture studio and I would just draw and watch all the other architects master their craft. As I got older, my paternal grandfather would take me to the construction site. I got to see one of my very first rammed-earth structures when I was seven or eight. I wanted to emulate that, so I dug up my mom's garden, created a cast and poured mud in there.

A mosque can be anything. The religion says the whole Earth can be a mosque. Are you looking for the dome and the minarets? Because we have a casino built by our current president — the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City — that has all that.

That's an unusual after-school activity. How'd it turn out?

The first couple were a disaster so I'd tweak my design. Meanwhile my maternal grandfather took me to the Shah's sister's house, Shams Palace [located in Mehrshahr, Iran], which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. I remember the moment I saw it and I was like, Oh my God, this is amazing. Being in that space was when I realized I wanted to be an architect.

And then you went to the Aga Khan Program in Islamic Architecture at Harvard and MIT.

Yeah, and I started questioning the term "Islamic Architecture." I put it in quotes because what is Islamic architecture? Is it defined by the region? By its relationship to religion? Is it defined by the country it's in? I was like, okay, I need to go find out.

And have you?

Not quite! But when we get a client and they say, "I want a mosque," I'm like, Okay, a mosque can be anything. The religion says the whole Earth can be a mosque. Are you looking for the dome and the minarets? Because we have a casino built by our current president — the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City — that has all that.

Which is absurd.

It's the "Oriental Lens." In Los Angeles, there's a strip club that has the domes and the minarets too. I see that and I'm like, Well, this is amazing. So the question becomes, what happens to my generation, born and raised here, when we didn't see [Islamic] architecture from a different perspective?

So how do you approach a mosque?

It comes down to what I call vernacular architecture. Architecture that is of its time, place, location and context. And is it sustainable? It doesn't have to have Elon Musk's solar panels, but the building is a learning tool that can be giving back to the Earth in the area it's residing on.

I know that in the U.S., there's some pushback from Muslim women who are tired of being funneled into a mosque through a side entrance and having to pray in subpar facilities.

What we should be using as precedent is Mecca. Men and women are in that space together and they're worshiping together. There's no segregation of gender. So that's one thing that I'm challenging here in the U.S. I'm asking, what aspect of the other Abrahamic faiths have infiltrated into the Muslim faith that has caused the division of gender? Mecca, the holiest of holy places, doesn't have that. It's written over and over and over again that in God's eyes, you're all one. You're a soul and it doesn't matter what gender you are, or what gender you identify with – male, female, transgender. That's something I've been trying to implement in the architecture, that we create a space for everyone.

And there's the question of how the client wants to use the facility…

Yeah. The mosque or the prayer space is just one aspect of the programming. Do you want a place where you guys can have a banquet? Where you can come together? How often are you going to use this Mosque? Is it going to be open every day? If so, what are you going to do with it? Because if it's not open every day, and it's just the Friday prayer, then, to me, you have six days left. If all you want is the Friday prayers, let me just create a pop up. You guys can pop it up like a tent and pray. That's what they used to do back in that day. So it's really questioning and challenging the client, too.

I don't want to give anybody an excuse not to hire me or to think of me as an equal...As a man, you're just going to put in 20 hours. As a woman, you've got to put in 60 hours. You don't have balls, but you gotta bust people's balls. And that's tough.

How to clients respond to this kind of push back?

When I first started our studio, it was hard because you know, we wanted projects coming in to build our portfolio. But I realized that I have a responsibility as an architect. If they're not onboard, I can say, "You need to go to another architect." But some of our clients were open to our vision.

It seems like the way you envision a Mosque can help different faiths in a community interact in a positive way.

That's the whole point. We're at a state in our American society where we can't be exclusive and we can't continue to be "other." My whole goal is to use design as a way to be inclusive and to actually open up the idea of bringing everyone in.

That makes me think of the America to "Zanzibar Muslim Cultures Near and Far" exhibit that you did for the Children's Museum of Manhattan, which is still on tour across the U.S.

My clientele had never been the ages of six months to 12 years old! And it was originally in the heart of New York City, with everything that has happened since 9/11 and onwards. When the Children's Museum approached me, I was like, well, I don't want it to be an Islamic gallery, or a "Muslim exhibition." So we decided to take more of an interactive approach, and the idea we went with came from watching Disney's Aladdin.

I love that's where your idea came from.

I know. We created this room with a "magic carpet," an iPad, and a 360-degree installation where the kids got to explore the different types of architecture through virtual reality. We also included markets and bazaars and even a home, like, "What will you find inside?" And we decided that to make it a Muslim American home above because there's so much happening in American society.

What was inside that surprised people?

We included all the different American Muslim singers — from Mos Def to Ice Cube, and even Snoop Dogg and Tupac. The funny thing is when we think American Muslims we often think, Oh, they're immigrants. But a lot of American Muslims are not immigrants. They're the people who built the United States due to slavery, people who couldn't practice or hid their Muslim identity or said, for the time being, let's be Christians. So that's the American Muslim identity we were exploring.

Tell me about Hub925, which is an inclusive Muslim community center you designed in Northern California.

It used to be an old, rundown hot dog factory, so we gutted it, renovated it, and now it has a basketball court, a total fitness gym in there, a rejuvenation spa and an Olympic pool. It's a place where startups come — like an incubator space. It's got two banquet halls. We're finishing up the concession, the art galleries. There's also what we call the Abrahamic prayer spaces which is shaped like a U with rooms for Jews, Muslims and Christians, so they all interact with each other. The most important thing was the client said to me, Look, this space is for everybody. So when we put these quotes up on the walls, I wanted them to reflect Asians, blacks, Muslims, all the girls from the Nike ads, people who are transgender — I want everybody in there. That's the way it's supposed to be.

As a practicing female Muslim who wears a headscarf, how do people respond when they meet you? I mean, in architecture, as with many other industries, being a woman is hard enough.

When I used to work in corporate, before I started MIIM designs, it was really interesting because when we would put the team together sometimes I wasn't included in the brochure or the pamphlets of the team, which was fine.

Was it really fine? It doesn't sound fine.

I mean, you never know what the other person is thinking. But it took me building trust and relationships in order for me to be able to then get my own set of clients. First of all, being a woman in this industry, like you said, is hard enough. No matter how I dress, whatever I look like, people will make comments that fall into the category of sexual harassment. Basically I had to learn to turn some things down, and tune some people out.

To me that sounds like you have to work harder than your male counterparts.

Well, I don't want to give anybody an excuse not to hire me or to think of me as an equal. You know this — as a man, you're just going to put in 20 hours. As a woman, you've got to put in 60 hours. You don't have balls, but you gotta bust people's balls. And that's tough. But I'm just like, okay, fine. Or then, of course, when they see my work, or if they see my portfolio, it might be like, This is great. And then when it comes to getting together face to face it's like, Oh. But here's the thing: It's always easy to give in. To be like, okay, I will dance to whatever tune you want me to dance to. But how much longer are we as women going to do that? And this is my body, it's my right to wear a headscarf or anything else I choose. And so I say, if you don't want me, you don't want me. It's okay.

It's a matter of not bending over backwards, and going where the light is shining.

There's seven billion people on this planet Earth. We're not going to please everybody. It's the matter of finding your voice. And also finding who you are and being around people who appreciate you and appreciate your design and appreciate your talent. Those are the people you work with.

Credits

Image: Stephen Paul

Words: Deanna Kizis

Thank you Lucia, for speaking with us and sharing your record collection and your musical influences.