Photos: 1-2 Al-Irsyad Mosque, Indonesia; 3 Faisal Mosque, Pakistan; 4 Kinaliada Mosque, Turkey; 5-6 Assyafaah Mosque, Singapore; 7-8 Dubai Mosque, UAE; 9 Floating Mosque, Dubai, UAE; 10 Ibn Bunnieh Mosque, Baghdad (a more ‘traditional’ mosque for comparison)
When you think mosque, you think domes and minarets, right? (Minarets are the tall thin cylindrical towers usually on the corners of mosques.) But checking out the above slideshow of mosques designed within the last twenty years or so, you’ll find that contemporary mosque architecture is playing creatively with those traditional forms – or scrapping them altogether.
According to the very core, early message of Islam, mosques are not strictly necessary. The whole world is God’s creation, after all, so a Muslim may fulfil their obligations by praying anywhere – under a tree, in their office, on the side of the road, etc – as long as they face Mecca (and yes, there’s an app for that). But people like to do these things together, so the first mosques were built to be places for Muslims to pray together; remembering that priests/imams/leaders are not strictly necessary in Islam either, any person may approach God and achieve paradise on their own. These early Arab-style mosques were fairly plain, square-shaped affairs, and it wasn’t until the Muslim conquest of Persia in the mid-7th Century that designs began to change. Under the influence of the opulent Persian architectural heritage, mosques began to incorporate domes and large archways. Minarets were introduced at about the same time – the muezzin would sit at the top and call the Muslims of the town to prayer. These days speakers aid him in the task; although in some European countries it has been banned as a kind of noise pollution.
Squares, domes, archways and minarets are the building blocks, then, of traditional mosque architecture, and have dominated mosque design for centuries. In the past 50 years, however, there has been a renaissance of creativity in mosque architecture, producing various interesting designs like those in the above slideshow. I have only included designs from predominantly Muslim countries, however there is also a lot of creative and sympathetic mosque design going on in Europe.
Al-Irsyad Mosque was built in 2010 in Indonesia, and its principal architect was M. Ridwan Kamil. He rejected the dome-and-archway model as irrelevant in the Indonesian context, instead opting for a solid-looking, stacked stone square. The mosque is designed, apparently, to blend in with nature, with the stones allowing natural ventilation. Those patterns you can see on the sides of the building are (very) stylised Arabic calligraphy – a traditional element of mosque architecture, radically re-imagined. Check out the designs here.
The Faisal Mosque from Pakistan is one of the largest in the world. It’s design, from Vedat Dalokay, fuses the look of an Arab Bedouin’s tent with elegant Turkish minarets and an overall contemporary feel. At the same time it sharply abandons traditional forms while remaining ‘recognisably’ a mosque. It was constructed in the late 1980s. Kinaliada Mosque in Turkey was built in the 1960s and has a similar feel.
Assyafaah Mosque in Singapore, designed by Tan Kok Hiang and completed in 2004, proves that even places of worship can be made to look like office blocks. Apparently this was an attempt to create an “aesthetically neutral space,” allowing for both Chinese and Malay Muslims to feel at home. Once again the domes and archways have been jettisoned in favour of a very ‘modern’ look, reminiscent of those skyscrapers that try to get beyond bauhaus by chucking in some crazy angles and lots of glass. The interior continues the theme, with lots of concrete and sloped walls. It’s got a certain elegance, but it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling at home here.
As usual in the Muslim world, however, the craziest stuff is happening in Dubai. Fari Hatam was born in Iran and raised in Australia, and made the designs for the Dubai Mosque in an attempt to bring a completely contemporary aesthetic to mosque design. He still uses the traditional elements – curved domes and minarets – but pushes them to their limits. Even the calligraphy is uniquely stylised. Unfortunately it is yet to be built; instead of prior investment and a strict brief, Hatam says, “This mosque came from the heart.”
There have been mosques before that are metaphorically referred to as ‘floating.’ In Dubai, however, metaphors are made real. Instead of building new islands, there are plans now to construct actually floating buildings, set on foam and concrete platforms. Two Dutchmen are behind the idea, Paul van de Kamp and Koen Olthuis, and one of their suggestions is for floating mosques, the designs of which look like something out of a Star Trek set. Mosque architecture has been slowly evolving for centuries – surely tethered prayer rooms that go up and down with the tide is the next step in a natural progression? Surely?
If you’re interested in the interplay between these designs and cultural/religious concerns, check out this Time article focusing on mosques in Europe. This article by Hasan-Uddin Khan talks about the importance of traditional design for carrying forward collective meanings over time. The tension between traditional concerns and contemporary whims is felt by all artists, but perhaps especially so by architects, whose work is both more visible during their lifetimes and more likely to remain so into the future. Add a religious function and the pressure must be immense.
“What are we going to leave behind?” Fari Hatam asks about the majority of contemporary design, “Glass boxes? Let’s be realistic, they’ll be gone in 100 years.” It’s creative designs like these that will help our generation to leave a legacy worth keeping.