This research provides a study of traditional muqarnas – three-dimensional patterns that usually occupy domes, half-domes and vaults – and re-envisions these Islamic architectural forms in a contemporary setting in Damascus. The thesis endeavours to revive an old craft using new technologies and techniques.
The thesis first examines the origins of muqarnas, their geometrical and architectural definitions, their various styles, the reasons why they were created, how they were inclusive of different religions, sects, and ethnicities, and how they became functional in the way that they responded to the local environment, the culture, and the social setting.
It then documents the development and decline of muqarnas in Damascus during different epochs. An enquiry into the total disregard of the Islamic heritage in architecture and urban spaces in Damascus in the early twentieth century reveals how muqarnas, together with other traditional features of the Old City, were abandoned. Building the nation-state in the 1960s and 1970s meant extending Damascus to new neighbourhoods outside the gates of the Old City. People living there preferred to settle in modern, affordable, state-house apartments and concrete buildings that appeared to be economically easier to sustain than the old Damascene houses. The Old City was left to decay, and it was not until the 1990s that its previously abandoned vernacular dwellings again became popular when they were remodelled to function as restaurants and boutique hotels. The renovation of Old Damascene houses highlighted the aesthetic features of those historical spaces.
My project attempts to revive muqarnas and re-interpret them within existing vaults and domes in hammams (public bathhouses). Focusing on digital computational tools and techniques, I discuss the possibilities provided by advanced technologies to imagine them within a contemporary discourse. Inspired by the skills of Damascene craftsmen and ancient manuscripts devoted to the craft, I have attempted to design and fabricate contemporary muqarnas that differ from traditional forms in that they form self-standing double-curvature vaults with larger spans that respond to the environment and allow light to enter. These contemporary muqarnas might serve architecture in the Old City both aesthetically and functionally.