Rowan Moore talks to Park51’s young architect, Michel Abboud, about his controversial project to build a ‘Muslim YMCA’ near Ground Zero in New York

It’s easier to say what the “mosque at Ground Zero” is not, than what it is. It’s not a mosque, and it’s not at Ground Zero – only nearby. It’s not a “clubhouse for terrorists”, as some objectors have called it, nor a work of “triumphalist stealth jihad”. It does not “loom” over the “hallowed ground” of the 9/11 attacks, which cannot be seen from its site.

As to what it is, the explanation is not at first very enlightening. Park51, to use the project’s proper name, is “a friendly and accessible platform” that “enriches lower Manhattan in body and spirit, with ecologically conscious design and operation”. However, its architect, Michel Abboud, makes things clearer: it is a Muslim version of the YMCA, or the many Jewish community centres in New York. That is, it will have a swimming pool, basketball court, childcare and exhibition facilities, a library, auditorium, restaurant and catering school. As with the Christian and Jewish versions, you won’t have to be a believer to use these facilities.

When built, it will be 16 storeys high, and 10% of its floor area will be a “prayer space”. It will be large – big enough for 1,500 people – but there will be no minaret, or room for ablutions, or other essential features of a mosque. Its religious elements would be “a matter of interior design”, as Abboud puts it, and faiths and groups other than Muslims will be able to pray there. The project now has planning permission and, subject to fundraising, will be completed, at the earliest, in three years’ time.

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