Roger K. Lewis, Architect
Professor Emeritus of architecture
University of Maryland
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Imagine outlawing in America the construction of a particular architectural element because some citizens perceive it to be culturally undesirable or symbolically threatening. Presumably offensive structures, design motifs and ornamental art could be prohibited. Bans could apply to architectural features associated with certain political, social or religious groups, or with specific building types and materials. Rowhouses with flat roofs, exposed concrete block, synthetic siding or chain-link fencing could be prohibited.
Impossible in a modern Western democracy? Apparently not.
The Washington Post’s Edward Cody reported that in a referendum last month, 57.5 percent of Switzerland’s voting citizens endorsed adoption of a law banning minarets, and only minarets, the often elegant towers attached to mosques throughout the Islamic world.
A majority of the Swiss electorate seems to believe that minarets are visually intrusive power symbols of a religious minority composing less than 6 percent of Switzerland’s 7.6 million population. Evidently voters fear that minarets represent an architectural challenge to church steeples punctuating Switzerland’s traditional town and city skylines. Yet Switzerland, like the United States, guarantees religious freedom. Something’s wrong with this picture.