Arabic patterning


Cordoba Mezquita, Spain. Circa late-700s.

What is it?

Due to its proscription against artistic representations of people and animals, Islam has long turned to calligraphy, botany and abstract patterns for architectural ornamentation. Over the centuries, this narrow artistic field has seen the development of great variety and depth. Arabic calligraphy flows across walls in myriad scripts; vines, flowers and fruit reflect regional variation; and patterning is rarely replicated in either structure or detail. All exhibit a fascinating combination of the simple and the complex: simple letters, species and geometries are enriched by complexly interwoven linework to create forms that are simultaneously organic and austere.

What do we think?

The intricate detail contained within an Arabic pattern provides an evocative insight into the intentions of its makers. Taken as a whole, it is infinitely complex, referring to nature and the Divine – it is breathtaking and unknowable. At the same time, it is possible to discern repetition within the pattern, rendering it understandable, if only at some deep level, and humane. That it is derived from pure mathematical shapes yet crafted from familiar materials further accentuates this fascinating duality.

Applied to the surfaces of buildings, the patterning satisfies a key requirement for great architecture we recall from our early studies. According to Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s great 20th Century modernist architect, architecture must capture the eye from a distance with its massing, but must then reveal further detail upon approach: from 100m away, we see the volume and planes of the building; from 20m we see materials and openings; from 5m away we see texture and patterning. Like a blooming flower (or an onion), great architecture unfolds as we draw closer, revealing more of its nature with every step. It is a process of storytelling, permitting a haptic appreciation of space and surface.

The patterns we have seen in ancient mosques, palaces and museums alongside contemporary office towers and airports are magnificently conceived and delicately crafted. The following photos are an exhibition of patterns discovered during our recent travels through Malaysia, Syria, Spain and Morocco.


Masjid Negara (National Mosque) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Circa 1963.


Post Office tower in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Circa 1980s.


Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria. Circa late-600s.


Ancient citadel in Palmyra, Syria. Circa 300s.


Palace La Bahia in Marrakech, Morocco. Circa late-1800s.


Marrakech-Menara Airport, Morocco. Circa 2008.


La Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Circa mid-1300s.

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