MUQARNAS an architectural device unique from Islamic architecture

Muqarnas is the term given to an architectural device unique to Islamic architecture. Its purpose is to provide a transition between, for example, a square base and a dome. Muqarnas is also frequently used to create a concave semi-vault above an entrance to a building or to provide a decorative cornice along the perimeters of a ceiling or beneath a balcony. Different regions in the Islamic world have used different styles of construction techniques in their history. 

Muqarnas compositions are very suitable for contemporary interpretations. They can be designed as ornaments for modern interiors and can be given new functions, such lamps or display cabinets. It is possible to make a plaster muqarnas coving for an interior. They have a unique beauty quite distinct from traditional two-dimensional geometry.

The image on the right is a model that was made using the style that is typical for North Africa and Andalucia. It uses triangular elements of wood or plaster into which the downward curve of the element is carved out. The elements have different angles (for example 30° or 60°). There are two versions of each element: they will either have a flat surface of the section facing forward or facing backward.

If it faces forward, the curve will move down and recede and taper until it reaches the bottom of the element. If it faces backward, the curve will recede but will get wider as it goes down. These different elements can be seen in the cardboard model to the right and the two photos of a wooden model from Damascus, below.

By combining differently angled elements (e.g 30° or 60°) and having two versions of each, a great variety of designs can be made. The model shown on the right is a convex design but is equally possible to make a combination between convex and concave or to do a straight line, such as can be seen in wooden muqarnas covings along ceilings of buildings in North Africa and Andalucia.

This shows a muqarnas composition using a construction style that is typical for Iran and Central Asia. It does not use triangular sections but rather tiers that are connected by curved sections. This particular composition has three tiers. The first step is to cut the tiers, then to fix them to a vertical backboard and lastly to connect the tiers by sections that are all of the same length and have the same curve. 

There are different traditions when it comes to what the curve of the muqarnas composition appears like. Some muqarnas semidomes will have a greater angle than others, this is achieved by changing the vertical distance between the tiers. If the tiers are close together, the angle of the overall muqarnas composition will be smaller and the muqarnas composition will be less high. The greater the distance between the tiers, the longer the vertical connecting sections will have to be and the greater the angle can be to connect the tiers.

Small changes in design can have a larger than expected impact on the overall appearance.

All the models on this page are made from card or cardboard. They do not appear exactly the same as the traditional muqarnas that can be seen in Islamic architecture, because the curved sections of the muqarnas elements have not been filled in. Construction-wise, they are true to the traditional design methods.

Islamic Architecture Series:
5. Islamic geometric designs
6. Geeks Rule: Quasicrystalline Patterns in Mediaeval Islamic Architecture