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Historical Best Practice

When we look at 1,200 years of Islamic geometric design in art and architecture, it is possible to  identify certain principles that have guaranteed consistent design excellence. Regardless of whether it was a Marinid madrasa in Fez, a Mamluk minbar in Cairo or a Seljuk caravanserai in Anatolia, certain rules were always adhered to. It is one of the miracles of Islamic geometric design.

The old structures that sustained this design excellence mostly disappeared in  the 20th century and, as a consequence, knowledge is not transferred.

The challenge for architects and designers is to use this design heritage creatively and with the same sophistication as previous generations have done.  Awareness of historical best practice offers more creative freedom and opportunities to work with the same innovative ethos that is such an integral part of this tradition. This is what will reinvigorate this heritage and make it ready for the 21st century.

The Seven Principles of Best Practice

1) Made to Measure (framing)
2) Continuous Lines
3) Embellishment
4) Juxtaposition
5) Using a grid to structure a composition
6) Innovation/Creativity
7) Engaging with your audience

Spa in Royal Mansour Hotel in Marrakech uses geometric pattern typically used in Iran (see right) but not in Morocco.


Anar Restaurant, Dubai. A typically Moroccan pattern in a Persian restaurant.

Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan, Egypt. Incorrectly proportioned star designs. Assymetric in parts. Incorrectly tessellated.

Street tile in Casablanca. Tile has not been designed with tessellation in mind. Lines don’t flow, T-intersections are created. Random lines have been added.

Marriott Hotel Jabal Omar, Mecca. A few recognisable elements but mostly full of errors: unrecognisable shapes, lines don’t flow, bad framing, lines don’t change direction where they should. 

The Current Situation

Nowadays, Islamic geometric design in architecture does typically not demonstrate awareness or application of these principles of best practice. The most common mistakes are:
1) limited use of patterns
2) reliance on copy ‘n paste
3) incorrect tessellation
4) incorrect framing
5) lack of historical or regional specificity
6) partial knowledge

It’s educational to see what current Islamic geometric design looks like when these errors are made. You can see more examples under #cpigd  on instagram (Common Problems in Islamic Geometric Design)

Emaar Square, Dubai. Lines don’t flow, lack of symmetry, bad framing, ad hoc lines add to connect elements.

German University of Technology in Oman. Left: a pattern haphazardly framed, and haphazardly wrapped around a corner. Right: Bou Inania madrasa in Morocco. A pattern perfectly framed, scaled and wrapped to go around corners.

Custommade screens from Morocco. Made for a client in the US. Stars don’t connect, lines don’t flow. Star designs are incorrectly proportioned.

At DXB Airport.Made in Egypt, these vases can also be seen along the Golden Mile in Jumeirah, Dubai. Some of the errors have been highlighted.

The Spa at the Downtown Palace Hotel, Dubai. Left: The designer has tried to recreate the pattern. Right: the original pattern from the Mustansariya madrasa in Baghdad.

Şehzade Mosque, Istanbul.Incorrectly tessellated. Lines stop where they should continue.

Main Entrance, Topkapi Palace, Turkey. A recent door panel. The corners of the composition should have quarter stars, like all the original Ottoman doors at the palace.

Zabeel Saray hotel, Dubai.Incorrect offsetting of lines.

Msheireb Mosque, Doha. On the right is pattern as it should be. On the left, some of the errors are highlighted. Lines don’t flow, T-intersections are created, problems caused by incorrect offsetting.