Muqarnas – A Unique feature of Islamic Architecture

By Eric Broug

Muqarnas are a feature unique to Islamic architecture. They serve to create a smooth transitional zone between, for example a dome and the walls that support it. Muqarnas can be considered three-dimensional versions of the more familiar two dimensional Islamic geometric design.  The way they are designed is very similar; they use the same language.

Different regions of the Islamic world have different muqarnas design traditions. In North Africa, muqarnas are typically made in vertical triangular sections of wood or plaster, that are then placed together. In Iran, muqarnas are made by creating horizontal tiers that are connected with arched vertical sections.

At the recent degree show of the College of Arts and Creative Enterprise of Zayed University, students Alia Mazrooei and Salma Salem created a bench using a segment of an Iranian-style muqarnas construction. At its widest section, it features half an eightpointed star.

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The seating area is attached to this and shaped like the arched vertical sections, typical for the construction of Iranian-style muqarnas.

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As a muqarnas component, it would form the base of a semi circular composition that is attached to a wall. It would have tiers above it that grow in diameter, the further they reach upward.

A few years ago, I made a video tutorial that shows how to make such a muqarnas composition in cardboard, using only a pair of compasses, a ruler, a pencil and a hobby knife. This photo shows a small cardboard version of the bench the Zayed University students made.

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The only difference between my cardboard version and the muqarnas bench is that the Zayed University students had to alter the position of the arched vertical sections so that you actually had a surface to sit on. Sitting on top of this base segment are two more tiers that, when combined, create a small muqarnas composition.

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When muqarnas compositions are observed in Islamic architecture, they typically seem mind-bogglingly complex. They are very hard to understand, hard to analyse and hard to deconstruct. Nevertheless, for centuries craftsmen designed and constructed these three-dimensional compositions. Without computers.  Making a mini cardboard muqarnas with your hands is a very good way to begin to understand their nature. Have a look at my YouTube video and give it a try!

Muqarnas are just waiting to be skilfully innovated and used in contemporary architecture. For more information about muqarnas: http://www.sigd.org/resources/muqarnas/

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