Arfakshad Shujauddin Munaim was born in Kolkata, India, and resides in Los Angeles, USA. He trained as an architect and urban planner with degrees from the United Kingdom and the U.S. Arfakshad is a Special Projects Manager at Schmitz & Associates, Inc., and focuses on urban development projects throughout Southern California. He recently co-authored “Streets For All,” which examines the social and economic dimensions of streets and how they can be redesigned to foster sustainable living. In this blog, he shares his experiences and learnings from his participation in the designing of a community masjid in Los Angeles.
I owe a debt to the design of the Dawoodi Bohra masjid complex in Los Angeles. The masjid has had an eminent and rigorous history of community-building efforts—from site acquisition, selection of Fatimi design features, and democratic strategies—that has led to what we see today. The masjid complex is an exemplary model of history inspired from 11th-century town planning in al-Qahira amid an expansive grid of an urban American landscape.
The masjid was inaugurated by the leader of the Dawoodi Bohras, His Holiness Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, in 2015, making it the fourth Bohra masjid in California. While sitting inside the masjid listening to His Holiness’ inaugural address, I harkened back to the sunny morning of 11th March 2005 when I attended its ‘Groundbreaking Ceremony’. I felt a sense of fulfilment and gratitude for getting to play a part in its decade-long journey. My involvement in the masjid complex was twofold. First was the application of Fatimi architecture. Second, I studied the role of the masjid as a design artefact that engages with the city and serves as part of a larger cultural canvas.
As a young architect who had recently graduated from college, I was tasked to work on an educational centre within the complex, exploring the spatial arrangements for its multi-purpose use and helping design the building’s façade.
In 1997, the Los Angeles community acquired a property with a derelict Lutheran Church of Atonement, which we used as a community centre. For years, the community intended to beautify the property, while preserving its location. Then, in 2000, the community filed an application to the city to reconstruct the church into a masjid. When I became involved in the development of the masjid complex, it became clear that it was a collaborative effort, involving the area’s residents, civic leaders, and design experts. Typically, in American cityscapes, the building and design process is not only imposed by the city itself, but by the people who reside in the area. Stakeholder engagement and town hall meetings are essential for reaching consensus on a design. Bohra community members held numerous meetings with city staff and residents to showcase our design and philosophy.
Consequently, it was through that group vision, with innovative strategies involving residents, civic leaders, and design experts, that the beauty of our masjid complex was revealed. At the outset, we had to propose a design concept that met municipal codes in order to reach a consensus with the city. It was a moment that put research into practice with meticulous attention to the detailing of the elements—the fenestration, the duality of spaces, an interplay of light and shade, place-making, wayfinding, and the ‘element of surprise’.
My journey has led me to believe that architecture can be best achieved through multidisciplinary interventions and awareness-based strategies. We worked closely with neighbours and representatives from the city to establish a shared vision for a local design that was appealing to all. In doing so, we learnt how buildings relate to their spaces and how people respond to them, how they celebrate the architecture, and how we contribute to our city at large.
On the whole, the experience was enlightening as I got exposed to my Dawoodi Bohra heritage and had a chance to review the architectural traditions of our leaders. The landscape design presented another opportunity to learn how we, as Dawoodi Bohras, assign special meaning to its spaces. When I began working on the landscape plan, I found that these spaces are symbolically charged—highlighted by the beauty of our fountains, greenery, gardens, and courtyards—which epitomises our living traditions in the physical form. These spaces elevate and engage with my spiritual well-being to remind me that life is more precious and wonderful than we can ever imagine. These spaces foster collective and individual participation, not only among my fellow Bohras but all surrounding faith groups together, enabling all of us to appreciate the diversity of our city. But the truth is that the design process gave me a ‘sense of place,’—a belonging of who I am and what I stand for.