Earlier this week, we had the pleasure of touring the Metropolitan Museum of Art ‘New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia’ with Achva Stein on its opening day. Stein, a principal of an ASLA award-winning landscape architecture and design firm Benzinberg Stein Associates and the founding Director of the Graduate program in Landscape Architecture at the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York, was asked to join the MET’s endeavors after her noted publication, Morocco: Courtyards and Gardens, showcased her passion for and understanding of the country’s varied garden types found in regions such as Marrakech and Fez. For the new wing, Stein has created a fantastic 14th century Maghrebi-Andalusian-style courtyard that goes beyond a mere representation, and truly infuses the spirit and essence of a Moroccan court into a small interior space of the MET.
More about our trip to the MET after the break.
When we first entered the galleries, Stein shared a brief history of the rapid spread of Islam across the Arab Lands, explaining that although these regions shared an Islamic heritage, their artistic expression was more individual. Throughout the years, the regions’ aesthetics began to overlap and, soon, influence each other. In this sense, the 14th century interior courtyard, for which Stein designed and supervised the construction, is designed using classical Moroccan elements which show the region’s unique expression and hints at the influences of the Spanish.
The Moroccan court which occupies the area of, what used to be, a concrete volume (the space measures just over 20 by 20), creates a sense of serenity within the galleries. After walking through several galleries of individual objects, the court offers a contrast from interacting with a singular item by providing the visitor with the experience of a total space. Complete with a small marble fountain and beautiful handcrafted detailing, the court is filled with layers of colors, materials and geometries. It takes a bit of time to process the layers of the court, as the eye is tracing the intricacies of the plaster, scanning the mathematical lines of the tiles walls, and the gentle curves of the fountain which reference a Renaissance influence; however, Stein has pulled these elements together so they read as a whole rather than a collection of parts.
With a restrictive floor area, the challenge of designing the court became how to create the same geometry found in Morocco at a completely different scale. Stein explained the difficulty, yet utter importance, of truly understanding the proportions of the Moroccan modules as she stated that she needed to work at the “scale of the detail, not just the scale of the space…but the scale of the detail in the space.”
The small fountain, which rests in the middle of the court, is crafted from marble of the same quarry favored by Michelangelo. When we were visiting, pink rose petals danced in the water as a way to provide a hint of color. A large wood door sits on one wall, and on the opposite wall, a window covered in a hand carved screen. Stein informed me that historically, the Romans would sit on a hill in Morocco to enjoy the view over the countryside, and now, in the MET, the window will operate to give visitors a glimpse at the Roman sculpture gallery below.
The court also features two elaborate benches based on a modified wedding chair design. Stein pointed out that the motif on the bench is the same size as one of the 70+ pieces used in the tiled wall “as a way to reduce the scale at the same time.”
The construction of the court was quite a feat as the museum staff flew Moroccan workers to the MET for 6 months to construct Stein’s designs. The beauty of the design of the court is emphasized by the craftsmanship as the hand “Gives the materials warmth…and gives it something extra,” explained Stein.
Prior to their arrival, Stein had designed the tile compositions by way of sketches. She explained, “I had to design ‘the old-fashioned style’…I sat on the floor, cutting and pasting to try to figure out what I saw in my mind.” The result was a complex geometry where more than 70 tiles create a motif that is copied, rotated and arranged into a layered pattern. The tiles’ colorful composition is an “illusion of the concept of nature, without actually having nature.” With her sketches complete, Stein could transfer her visions to CAD and, eventually overseas with artisans. It is interesting to note that the artisans sometimes felt the designs too simple, yet Stein, backed by a knowledgeable Islamic art historian, felt strongly that a more streamlined traditional design captures the inherent beauty of the geometries. ”Over elaboration may loose a little of the history, so the design is simplified to express itself,” explained Stein.
The other galleries that comprise the New Galleries feature one of the most complete collections of Islamic art in the world. The galleries are filled with amazing tapestries and prayer rugs, sparkling jewels, and ornate manuscripts and tilework. The ceiling, or mudejar, in the Koç Family Gallery from 16th century Spain is simply breathtaking and sits diagonally from a reception room of a wealthy Syrian Damascus residence dating back to the Ottoman period.
Before we parted, Stein explained her hope that the galleries would shed a new light of these areas of the world to show the positive qualities of their culture, and the goodness and beauty of their heritage.
Movie via the MET; Produced by Christopher Noey
Photographs credited © The Metropolitan Museum of Art via the MET’s homepage.
Photographs credited © Ruth Fremson for The New York Times via The New York Times.
Photographs credited © Achva Stein via Achva Benzinberg Stein’s website.