A Spectrum of Meaning
In Newport, Mohamad El Hawli, the local president of the Newport Islamic Society, was seeking to build a contemporary mosque for their expanding, predominantly Lebanese immigrant community in the early 2000s. El Hawli was convinced by Michael Zaar, a very supportive non-Muslim local resident and invited member of their building committee, that they should engage the then recently Pritzker-awarded Murcutt. Murcutt had chaired the Aga Khan Award for Islamic Architecture and was, therefore, clearly appreciative of Islamic culture. He agreed to the commission in 2004, but to ensure that the mosque was rooted in respect for Islam’s cultural traditions, Murcutt asked that a younger architect from the Muslim community be found. He was partnered with Hakan Elevli, a local architect of Turkish immigrant background, who was fully committed to the local community’s brief, “to design the first true Australian mosque for non-Muslims, for new Australian Muslims – that’s inclusive – that’s going to be transparent”.
Murcutt’s concept for the mosque was that a wall should extend from the street all the way around the building, giving it its strength and that, like outstretched arms, “invited the community to come out and see the mosque” and to realise, since the entire width of the entrance level is all glazed and transparent, “that it is not exclusive, but inclusive.” To further this understanding, the mosque is combined with a community centre, a library for Islamic studies, a café and restaurant that are designed to attract the wider community. For Murcutt this has been an opportunity, within a society where there is anti-Islamic sentiment, to “bring Islam back into our community” and for it to become “an addition to the culture” in a more truly multicultural Australia.
In Australia, Murcutt felt that a mosque did “not have to replicate the mosques of the Arab world” and should not specifically have a minaret any more, as this was archaic and redundant in this context. This met with some resistance from the older traditionalists within the community, but was embraced by the younger members who, as the coming generation, were given the final say. Murcutt was able to persuade them of the need to create an Australian mosque, just as the Ottoman, Middle Eastern and Malaysian mosques have their own character. Rather than a minaret, the surrounding wall rises at angle to greet the visitor, with a crescent moon at its apex.
Inside the mosque, Murcutt wanted a subdued quality of light that would serve to connect the architecture and people together; as evocation of the Islamic understanding of standing shoulder to shoulder. Within the great hall, men gather on the ground floor, while women are within the same volume of space and beneath similar lanterns on the quieter mezzanine floor above. The entire ceiling comprises 96 triangular lanterns, 2.8 metres high, contained within a diagonal grid of structural beams. The lanterns are painted gold on the exterior, not a colour Murcutt has ever used previously and unlikely to find appropriate again. However, having eliminated a conventional minaret and dome from his design, he wanted to make reference to Islamic culture and more directly to the gold-plated Dome of the Rock, Islamic shrine in Jerusalem. Murcutt is delighted by the resulting golden reflectivity of the lanterns, which joyously suggests paradise.
On one side, the lanterns have coloured glazing and an insectmeshed, ventilation opening. They alternately face the cardinal points of North, East, South and West, with each orientation having a particular hue and symbolic articulation. Towards the East, the glazing is yellow in the morning, representing the future or paradise to come. To the North, during the day is green which represents an oasis and thus nature. In the afternoon, from the West the colour is blood red, symbolising strength, and to the South is the blue of the sky and the sea, that is infinity.
The lanterns not only serve as a solar clock throughout the southern hemisphere day, but also reveal the time of the year. During the hot summer months, with the sun coming up in the South-East, before arcing to the North and setting in the South-West; the day will begin and end with a cool blue tone. While during the cold winter, when the sun first rises low in the East and sets in the West, there will not be any blue tones, only the warmer colours of yellow, through green to red. It was from an understanding of the work of Luis Barragan, who Murcutt visited in Mexico, that he came to appreciate that colours should be orientated to the appropriate direction of the sun, in order to achieve the greatest colour saturation.
Murcutt is best known for an elegantly lightweight architecture that, like the Aboriginal people, touches the earth lightly, but in the Newport Mosque the architecture is enduringly rooted in the ground and rather it is about the light touching the earth. Murcutt allows the greatest intensity of daylighting in the building to fall upon the three reflecting ponds with water lilies and water poppies, at the rear of the mosque, towards Mecca in the north-west. As Murcutt says, the beautiful flowers that open and close with the sun, and brighter, shimmering light will draw people, like moths, in that direction.