God is in the Details, Especially in Microarchitecture

What is a mosque?

A question can serve as the starting point of a serendipitous and rewarding journey. The sacred month of Ramadan was just a few weeks away, and Hyderabad was preparing for the time when it really comes into its own. We were asked to design a small prayer space for elderly residents of an old apartment building, who would find it difficult to walk to the nearby mosque this year to offer the supplemental nightly taraweeh prayers in Ramadan. The taraweeh is prayed in congregation and can last up to two hours or more. The local tradition is to attempt a complete reading of the Quran during the prayer over the course of the month. The taraweeh is one prayer that women and men pray in congregation, which is rare in India. The prayer space was to be designed specifically for the month of Ramadan.

We were faced with three major challenges in this project: time, space and money. The space donated for the prayer was two parking garages on the stilt level of the apartment building, roughly 240 sft in area. Since it was a pro bono project, the budget was also tight. The client approached us just two weeks before Ramadan, and the project was to be designed and executed before the holy month began.

These constraints forced us to try and understand the bare minimum definition of a space that would qualify as a mosque.

The Nonconformist Mosque

A search for precedents of similar proportion and purpose resulted in identifying two prayer spaces. The first was a musallah (small prayer space) that Aurangzeb built for himself when he succeeded in infiltrating Golconda circa 1687, known as the Fateh Masjid (Victory Mosque to commemorate the Mughal victory), located inside the Qutb Shahi Tombs complex. It was built, not for want of mosques in the complex, but because the austere emperor did not prefer the heavily-ornamented mosques already existing there. Being a staunch puritan and follower of what we would now consider minimalism, Aurangzeb’s musalla is sparingly decorated, and a place free of distraction with a focus on connecting with the Almighty, as was his intention.

Above: Fateh Masjid, Qutb Shahi Tombs

The other mosque we studied was slightly larger in area but similarly proportioned: the mosque in Chiran Palace, constructed by Prince Mukarram Jah Bahadur, the grandson of the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, about 70 years ago. The mosque is free of the customary domes, minarets and embellishments. The waffle roof rests entirely on two concrete columns in the front and back, giving the illusion of a floating structure, resembling twin wings in flight, stark white against the green backdrop of KBR National Park.

It is an attempt towards a vocabulary for contemporary mosque architecture in India.

Above: Chiran Palace Mosque, KBR National Park

The Modular Mosque

The next question was,

What should a contemporary urban mosque look like?

This was not my first foray into exploring what a contemporary mosque could be. Over a decade ago, I had thrown caution to the wind and dared to utter the controversial phrase, contemporary mosque. There is no established vocabulary to understand what a contemporary mosque is, especially not in the Indian context, which is set in its ways, to put it mildly. Muslims in India may disagree on everything from prayer timings to whether the moon has been sighted to mark the beginning or end of Ramadan. But they all agree on one thing: A mosque is a prayer space with a dome, minarets, arches, a water tank and carved screens, preferably painted green, which may or may not include a tomb. Any attempt to potentially do away with any of these elements is immediately met with vehement opposition and disapproval. A mosque must look like a mosque. Which means it must look like every other mosque in the urban context of Indian cities: a ferrocement dome, disproportionate arches, Plaster of Paris screens, and solid, function-less minarets. It is not uncommon to find a gallery of segmental arches topped with an onion dome, or a corbel arch paired with a rotational dome. It’s as if there is a kit of parts with domes, arches, minarets and screens, and you DIY a mosque by mixing and matching any of the essential elements with complete disregard to their origin, reasoning, proportion, construction technique, or use.

Let me allay a few myths about the architectural and cultural value of these “essential” modular-mosque elements:

The Dome was more than a sculptural element that raised the mosque and created a spire. The hollow nature of the dome allows sound to echo and reverberate through the void, creating a spiritual mood by amplifying and multiplying the recitation of the Imam and the collective “Ameen” of the congregation. The echo chamber gave an illusion of many voices bouncing off each other in harmony.

Why It’s Obsolete: Domes have been reduced to decorative elements, and their acoustic qualities are no longer required or used. Sound systems amplify the recitation and make it audible equally throughout the mosque. The dome was constructed by fractionally subdividing the square based of a structure until it became a polygon as close to a circle as possible. Today, domes are made of steel frames cast in concrete. Further advances in the structural and acoustical applications of domes is lacking, and some mosques even have domes that are inaccessible from below or completely solid.

The Minar was originally not an identifier of a mosque, but a tall tower from which to administer the azaan, or call for prayer. It had the required height from which the muezzin could be seen and heard.

Why It’s Obsolete: The introduction of microphones meant the physical presence of a muezzin on the minar was replaced by loudspeakers with the muezzin calling the azaan from inside the mosque. These loudspeakers are unsightly and have not evolved to become incorporated in contemporary mosque design. Today, the minar, or, more commonly, a pair of slender minarets, serve as loudspeaker-holders and are more decorative than anything else. They are not accessible to the top and usually solid and disproportionate to the mass of the structure.

The Arch was a structurally-required opening in stone and brick buildings. Over time, it transformed into a distinct aesthetic feature of mosque architecture. Immense structural and aesthetic development has been done with arches, as can be seen in different styles of architecture.

Why It’s Obsolete: Openings can now be created without the mandatory need for arches, and yet sometimes arches are added on solely for aesthetic purposed. These arches are created artificially over rectangular openings by added curves below the lintel.

The Screen had many uses: for privacy, protection from natural elements and lastly, aesthetics. Screens were also made in many different forms and materials, from criss-crossed bamboo or cane to intricately-carved marble.

Why It’s Obsolete: Since many mosques are artificially cooled, the screen as a protection device from sun, heat and rain no longer applies.

Below: Madina Masjid, Shillong, India, 2013 AD

Is there a necessity for these elements today? No.

Should they be completely banished from mosque architecture today? No. However, any element that is used must have reasoning, and be faithful to its purpose. Structural integrity relevance of design elements is as important, and with every new design, thoughtful application of elements must take precedence over their application for the sake of preserving a familiar aesthetic.

Can we develop a new vocabulary, one that is derived from meaning and purpose, that can serve to indicate a mosque of today? We can try.

There is no doubt that a sense of familiarity and comfort lies in the appearance of these elements that make it easy to identify a mosque in the distance. They have become a universal language of mosques, much like the STOP sign and other traffic symbols. However, this was not always the case.

In the early days of Islam, when communication and frequent travel were limited, mosques were developing independently distinct styles all over the world.

Here are a few examples of historic mosques that do not ascribe to the aesthetic we have come to associate with mosque architecture today.

Cheraman Jumma Mosque, Thrissur, Kerala, India, 629 AD

Great Mosque of Xi’an, China, 742 AD

The Great Mosque, Samarra, Iraq, 851 AD

Great Mosque of Djenne, Mopti, Mali, ca 1300 AD

La Mezquita, Cordoba, Spain, 987 AD

Ketchimalai Mosque, Beruwala, Sri Lanka, 1420

Ismi Khan Jami Mosque, Crimea, Ukraine, ca 1700 AD

Demak Great Mosque, Central Java, Indonesia, 1479 AD

Reduced to its bare essentials, programmatically, a mosque is any space where the faithful can gather to pray in congregation. Formally, a mosque is nothing but two perpendicular planes: a horizontal surface on which to pray and a vertical barrier (called the mihrab) to orient toward the Kaaba in Mecca.

All other spaces, elements and ornamentation are superfluous, added over time, resultant of need, local climate, aesthetics, craftsmanship, cultural influences and evolving traditions.

A mosque, in its purest form, is just a ground plane and a directional wall.

Shorn of all embellishment, a mosque can become singularly-purposed: not necessarily a contemplative space to spend time in, cut-off from the chaos of the materialistic life, but instead a pitstop to take pause from a busy day and quickly join the congregation to nourish the spiritual self before dissolving back into routine. Only then does putting life and work on hold for prayer five times a day become easier and more practical.

 

The Micro-mosque

Turning away from tradition for the sake of originality was not the aim, but creating a design that has time relevance certainly was.

The intent was to create a bare, serene prayer space devoid of color, with soft surfaces and minimal ornamentation.

Restrained ornamentation turned out to be much more difficult that decoration for the sake of decoration. Islamic geometry is derived from complex mathematical patterns. Using computational tools to simplify and translate geometry into a three-dimensional non-Sinusoidal waveform, we designed the mihrab, the only embellished element of the micro-mosque. Softness was introduced by lycra stretched over a 3D geometric metal frame. This formed a tufted surface, like the back of a sofa. In fact, we took the help of upholsterers to stitch the fabric onto the frame, creating dips, tucks, and pleats, applying techniques from tailoring to architecture.

Light plays a pivotal role in the project, be it natural or artificial. The periodic undulations and fractional variations create an interesting play of light and shadow over the surface. On the other side of the directional wall, a blank white plane is punctuated by a custom-designed black metal wall sconce reminiscent of the Kaaba: a glowing isometric cube in two-and-a-half dimensions.

The micro-mosque was completed from conception to execution in two weeks, just in time for the first taraweeh prayer of Ramadan 2017. It can accommodate 24 men and 12 women.

 

 

Sacred Space, aka Musalla Haseen Pasha, was designed by DesignAware, as a part of Design Access, an initiative to make design accessible for pro bono, community-building projects. The project was made possible by the generous efforts of Excel Builders and Developers and their CSR arm, the SJA Foundation.