• Friday , 6 December 2019

Designing Contemporary Mosques

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Throughout history, religion has shaped and defined many cultures globally, often generating new spaces for an architecture of ritualised activity. As cultures and faiths shift and change, so too do the structures in which they are housed. With that context in mind, the following text discusses how the mosque typology has developed in an increasingly globalised world?

The perplexity over what constitutes ‘Islamic’ architecture is ubiquitous among contemporary architects and planners, as well as the public. Too many mistakenly think of Islamic architecture, including the mosque, as merely a collection of architectural features or styles. Many have produced what they call ‘Islamic’ architecture by exploding the scale of squinches – muqarnas – and elevating arches to the top of buildings. Yet, it is not a collection of features that defines either Islamic architecture, or the mosque itself.

The various forms, such as domes, arches, wooden lattices, and mashrabiyas can also be found in the architecture of other civilisations. Moreover, Islam itself is not defined by space, form, or shape. It focuses on human character, behaviour, and activity, rather than just objects. The architecture of mosques also differs from region to region, from Andalusia, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Far East, to contemporary mosques in Western countries. Some follow more traditional appearances, specifically in the Middle East and Asia, where local identities are still preserved within the notion of appearance and aesthetics, leaving behind a sense of the actual values and functions of the mosque. Another trend is towards embedding Western architectural styles in mosques, a tendency which is unlikely to change due to certain global aspirations.

The question arises whether there are contemporary mosques that may serve as multi-institutional spaces under which people of common belief unite and interact. Throughout the history of Islam, mosques were constructed to serve the surrounding communities and played a significant role in their development. The mosque was located at the centre of life. It had a significant role beyond the religious function, serving as a social and administrative institution in many eras.

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While contemporary mosques in the Muslim world are not following this same path, contemporary mosques in Western cities are attempting to revive the notion of community-based mosques. Architecturally, these mosques are designed as Islamic centres that include multiple functions to unite the surrounding community and to establish constructive dialogues with others. This creates a robust relationship between the mosque and the local Muslim community. As a result, expectations towards mosques in Western cities are higher than towards mosques in the Muslim world because of the high density of visitors and fewer available mosques. The services provided in these centers focus on social sustainability and community development through religious education, welfare programmes, and extracurricular activities for children.

It is noteworthy that mosques in Western cities are governed either by established non-governmental organisations or by surrounding families. This aspect allows for a certain flexibility in providing communities with innovative and effective services. These services have contributed to reviving the Islamic principles imparted by the historical mosques — such as social responsibility, obligation toward others, promoting the common good — but not the architectural style or appearance practised in cities of the Muslim world.

While the mosque is a typology that has survived through centuries, its existence will only continue if it can provide an architecture which is designed to serve the contemporary needs of Muslim people, thereby preserving its role as a centre for faith, society, and culture.

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