The Australian Islamic Centre is notable for what it isn’t as much as for what it is
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The Australian Islamic Centre is this country’s most anticipated architectural project of the year, if not the decade. More than ten years in the making, it will be the first completed building in several years by Glenn Murcutt, Australia’s best known and most awarded architect.
The Centre, initiated by the Newport Islamic Society and located about 10 kilometres west of Melbourne’s city centre, will be both public and accessible – a big change for Murcutt, whose past projects are mostly private houses in rural and remote areas. The octogenarian architect is in his autumn years, which makes the commission especially significant. With no secretary, staff or even email address, Murcutt is famously selective in choosing his clients. The decision to undertake the design of the Newport Islamic Society’s mosque and community facility was explicitly motivated by his concern for the increasing stigmatisation of Australia’s Muslim population. Arriving at a time when Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party has called for a ban on all new mosques and Islamic schools, the project has the potential to alter the political landscape and rewrite the legacy of our greatest living architect.
Buoyed by so much symbolism and history, the Australian Islamic Centre is already being celebrated as a transformative project. An exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV, until 19 February) is dedicated to the Centre’s architects, engineers, builders, clients and community, and demonstrates the shared belief in the project.
Any description of the Australian Islamic Centre, however, must account at least as much for what it is not. First and foremost, the building is incomplete. Since construction commenced four years ago, the project has been funded month to month by its local community, and its completion date is uncertain. Scaffolding still fringes the building, while façades and interiors remain unfinished. There is no water in its pools and its gardens are bare. A park planned adjacent to the site is yet to be realised. It could be months or years before we are able to properly appreciate the finished building in its intended setting. Furthermore, the Australian Islamic Centre is not exclusively a Glenn Murcutt design. The project is a collaboration between Murcutt and Turkish-born Melbourne architect Hakan Elevli. Murcutt was appointed first, having come to the attention of the Newport Islamic Society through his 2001 role as jury chair of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, which honours projects across the Muslim world. Elevli, who had overseen the construction of south-east Melbourne’s Keysborough mosque in replica Ottoman style, was subsequently brought on board. Elevli’s projects are typically more commercial than Murcutt’s, and hence employ cheaper and more standardised details. Though the design of the Australian Islamic Centre has clearly been led by Murcutt, it is not his singular masterpiece. In the misaligned placement of ceiling panels and floor tiles, in the roughness of finishes or the use of standardised glass fixings, we see evidence of crudity and compromise uncommon in his work. While some of these flaws might be righted in time, the overall impression is that Murcutt has been willing to relax his exacting standards, and his famous predilection for working alone, in order to undertake a project of particular prominence, scale and complexity.
Arriving at its suburban address, what is immediately apparent is the building’s absence. Set well back from Blenheim Road and surrounded by parks, reserves, a miniature railway, a golf course and a car park, the two-storey edifice only registers from a distance when sun glances off the clustered gold-painted lanterns on its roof. A rectilinear composition of concrete, steel and glass, the mosque and community facility is barely recognisable as a place of Muslim worship. Most strikingly, there are no minarets or domes. In place of a minaret, an angular concrete wall rises to a 10-metre crest, upon which a gold crescent will eventually be mounted. Rather than a single cavity beneath a large dome, the mosque features a horizontal ceiling punctured by triangular voids. Each void corresponds to a lantern above. Alternating in colour and direction, the voids are at once skylights and thermal chimneys, drawing in tinted daylight and expelling hot air. In the interstices between voids, structural steel columns double as fluted drainpipes.
Murcutt’s reasoning for the replacement of traditional motifs with new architectural elements is twofold. “Unless you’re going to do something that belongs to today and belongs to the tenets of modern architecture, I’m the wrong architect,” said Murcutt in a public talk that coincided with the NGV exhibition opening in August. According to both architects, minarets and domes are not essential components of mosque design, providing them an opportunity to reinvent the image of the religious institution. While Murcutt and Elevli had to convince the community’s elders to forgo historical symbolism, the younger generation embraced their intent. But the invention of a contemporary religious idiom wasn’t solely focused on the building’s Muslim occupants. “I think the Arab building is threatening to many within the Australian community,” Murcutt said in a recent interview. “I was very conscious of that side of things. That’s why I said, ‘no minaret, no domes’.”
It’s not just minarets and domes, or arcades and arches, that are absent. The Australian Islamic Centre has no enclosing wall. While Murcutt did not wish to alarm outsiders by creating an overtly “Arab” building, he also did not wish to hide anything from view. “In the traditional mosque, you very often come to a big wall, and in it there’s one gate, through which one enters into – most often – a beautiful courtyard,” said Murcutt in his NGV talk. “That’s all fine in the Islamic world, when the community are of the faith of Islam, and of course there’s no threat to you going into that wall. But if you are not part of the Islamic world, if you are from another faith or no faith, you feel as if you are imposing … or offending by coming in through that wall. It’s very exclusive, in a way. The immediate thought was: why do we need a wall to the park, to the main major prayer area, why can’t we have a big verandah under which you enter?” Facing onto a stepped courtyard, the building’s south-eastern façade is entirely glazed, with the internal spaces of the mosque in full view. “It was Glenn’s vision to create a transparent building,” explained Elevli during a tour of the site.
It is perhaps a consequence of this desired transparency that the building appears to lack a key moment or focal point. Whereas the Arab world is composed of closed, internalised spaces, Murcutt explains, this resolutely Australian design embraces openness and horizontality. A uniformly tall volume bounded by parallel walls, the mosque lacks the nested spaces and gradations of intimacy and light found in the most precious and memorable religious buildings. However, the Australian Islamic Centre’s central building contains one truly spectacular aspect: its roof is divided into narrow pathways, hemmed in by row upon row of the gold lanterns, terminating in vistas over the surrounding neighbourhood. Sadly, this gleaming roofscape is inaccessible, destined to be traversed by only the occasional maintenance worker.
In 2009, the people of Switzerland voted in a referendum on whether to ban the construction of minarets. During the lead-up to the vote, a widely distributed campaign poster produced by the right-wing Egerkingen Committee depicted Switzerland’s minarets as ominous black missiles, poised to launch. A clear majority approved the ban, despite the fact that only four of Switzerland’s 150 mosques and prayer halls sported minarets and just two new minarets were planned.
In her maiden speech to the Senate in September, Pauline Hanson called on Australians to ban new mosques altogether. “Islam cannot have a significant presence in Australia if we are to live in an open, secular and cohesive society,” claimed Hanson. In addition to wanting a halt to Muslim immigration and restrictions on how Muslim women could dress, she declared that “no more mosques or schools should be built … until the present crisis is over”. Hanson’s rhetoric suggested that the apparent crisis concerning Islamic practice in Australia was not just a crisis of policy but also one of visibility and representation, of symbolism and architecture.
The regional Victorian city of Bendigo is set to build its first mosque after some highly publicised protests and a heavily scrutinised planning-approval process. The Bendigo Islamic Centre project had faced a series of appeals over two years from a local resident group who cited fears such as “Islam’s integration with Western culture”, the prospect of “more people dressed in Islamic dress”, and the “Islamification of Bendigo”. However, as architect Asher Greenwood of GKA Architects explained to the Bendigo Advertiser in September, the new centre was not intended solely for the Muslim community. “The idea is to create a central community space for people to meet, not just a prayer space, whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim,” said Greenwood. “The brief was not to create a mosque. The brief was to create a community centre with a mosque inside it.”
According to the NGV’s exhibition description, “the Australian Islamic Centre sets out to define a new architectural language for contemporary Australian Islam, challenging our assumptions of historical architectural typologies and aesthetics”. The intent behind this challenge to historical Islamic architecture is a noble one. Yet I cannot help but reflect on the building’s defensive and reductive strategies. At a time when the symbols and spaces of Islamic faith are under threat, it is questionable whether the best approach is to eradicate these charged elements in favour of a more agreeably contemporary architecture. It speaks volumes about our society, and of our tolerance towards others, that a mosque built today must be determined so significantly by what it cannot represent, or how it should not appear. I can only imagine the uncompromised beauty of a Glenn Murcutt minaret.