Architects in West Asia usually make headlines when their skyscrapers of glass and steel alter the dusty Arabian skyline. Not so with Lucie Touma, a Swedish architect and landscape artist, who is bucking the trend by designing two educational Quranic gardens based on the principles of Islamic design and teachings, and flora conservation. “The aim of these gardens is to link cultural heritage with biodiversity,” she says.
Full circle: An illustration of the proposed Quranic Botanic Gardens in Sharjah.
In 2006, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) announced its intention to help preserve the indigenous plant species of the Arab region by launching an Interdisciplinary Quranic Botanic Gardens Project, which would “facilitate cultures inspired by the Holy Book of Islam, to protect the environment and encourage biological diversity in the Persian Gulf and Arab countries”. Unesco selected Touma for this project when she put forward her concepts for a Quranic garden, backed by the research of Benno Boer, a German botanist who works with Unesco.
Listening to her speak of Arabic culture, one wonders how the Swede developed such a passion for it. “I grew up in Stockholm, but I have Lebanese blood,” she says. And Touma’s childhood was filled with tales from the Arabian Nights, of travelling Bedouin and mysteries of other worlds nestled among dunes and date palms. “The Arabic language, and the Quran itself, is written with such poetry and majesty, it is a perfect example of the beauty in Arab tradition and culture.”
Touma’s gardens for Sharjah and Doha (work on this project started in March) are both linked by aspects of botanical conservation and Arabian heritage, but are based on separate facets of the Quran. “The Sharjah design is based on the Islamic concept of heaven or paradise and the Doha project is based on symbolism, geometric form, numbers and their significance in the Holy Quran,” she explains.
The conceptual designs present a cornucopia of botanical attractions and recreational features that are couched in sprawling flora. In the Sharjah garden, light and airy archways lead on to lush green lawns and sandstone pathways. The encircling wall and interior structures are designed in the classical Islamic style with Quranic verses and the 99 names of Allah undulating in relief works.
Running water is a prominent feature of the garden with springs issuing from walls and weaving through the complex in ordered streams that finally burst into fountains at the centre. An amphitheatre and open-air poetry café lie just beyond a walkway bridge and dotting the vast stretch of spaces are a cafeteria, a conservatory, a library, a photo gallery and a medicine house. “I wanted everyone to be able to take something away from the gardens—from young people to old and that too from any religion,” explains Touma. “The garden in Sharjah is circular with eight axes and four entrances. A 15m-high spiral tower in the centre (with a sign on top which will indicate) the direction of Mecca, and will allow people to get aerial views of the entire garden, as well as a hedge maze designed like a verse from the Quran.”
In the 1990s, Touma travelled between the UAE and London doing projects for private clients. “Architecture for me has always been about people, nature and art all together, so I moved to Dubai in 2005 and set up my practice.” Touma believes that there’s no sense in designing anything that just looks nice without a deeper meaning to its construction. “The medicine house will allow people to learn about natural flora that provide home remedies for common ailments. The poetry corner will let people express themselves using texts or their own poetry. We are also trying to revive the old tradition of storytelling where performers will be invited to tell tales with lessons or insights into life and the Quran.”
The gardens use natural or recyclable materials where possible—walls made from reinforced timber, seats and benches made of mud, rock and wood, reed and straw mats on the café floors and renewable energy. “The gardens will aim to feature all 52 plant species mentioned in the Quran and the Hadith,” Touma says.
Your Islamic garden
• Think symmetry: Historically, Islamic gardens and their features are symmetrical in their layout, with designs based on nature and cosmology such as the stars, the moon, plant life and animals.
• Water is a must: Water features are important to Islamic gardens, usually included as rectangular bodies of water in the main area of a garden, and as fountains and springs. Often, four rivulets meet in a central space. The rivulets symbolize the rivers of paradise, which represent water, milk, honey and wine.
• Classic motifs: Built-up structures in such gardens are for the provision of shade and usually bear intricate, complex and fine relief work, such as calligraphic verses from the Quran, arabesque designs and stylized classical motifs based on flowers, trees, birds and stars.
• Incorporate perfume: The importance of scent in Islamic gardens is substantial, with fragrant plants, trees and bushes included in the landscape.
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