Islamic architecture within the Australian fabric: What is the the typical mosque?

 

No minarets? No domes? No arches? Unbeknownst to some, Australia’s most distinctive contribution to Islamic architecture exists as a humble outback construction – consisting of corrugated steel sheeting and timber posts.[1] Built in mid to late 19th century New South Wales by “Afghan” cameleers, the structure bares as a moral and physical manifestation of the Muslim community it once served in the regional spectacular. In this way, indeed, mosque architecture responds to a multitude of sources and ideals – but how may one define an Australian mosque?

We may start to define Australian mosque architecture by characterising it into three typologies: the Outback, the Suburban, and the Future.

 

 

The earliest known mosque in Australia that dates to the 1860’s situates in Maree, a rural municipality that locates eight hours north of Adelaide, South Australia. [2] In an era where European settlement spread further north beyond Adelaide, it was realised that horses would not facilitate as sustainable mode of transport. [3] The solution was to import camels, to where predominately Afghanistan and Pakistan men worked as camel drivers. [4] The introduction of cameleers proved to be a turning point in the exploration of the Australian interior, as it was during this time that the Maree Mosque came into existence as a way for migrants to establish a sense of their own in an unfamiliar and far-removed society. [5] Although the Maree mosque was accompanied only at certain times of the year, such as when the cameleers returned from expeditions or from supply trips to the mining camps, the Maree mosques offered a safe home place. [6] The Maree Mosque featured a thatched roof, earthen walls, an ablution, while its orientation directs to Mecca for prayer. [7] The robust and surviving-against-the-odds Maree Mosque projects narratives of the Australian bush land, especially in the age where characters of the bush were under the gaze of the nation’s greatness.

The camel era eventually phased out with the introduction of trucks and improved roads and most of the cameleers within Australia were forced to return to their original lands. [8] For a number of years thereafter, mosques within Australia had minimum reception, until a new wave of Islamic migrants arrived in Australian after 1950 to where the suburban mosque emerges. [9]

The early Australian suburban mosque often reflected its immediate site and the elements of Australian vernacular. An exemplar of this is Holland Park Mosque, known as Queensland’s oldest extant mosque, was purpose-built and provides a glimpse into twentieth century Queensland vernacular. [10] Reminiscent of the typical Queensland house, the Holland Park Mosque is constructed of timber structure and weatherboard cladding, with corrugated iron roofing. [11] By 1966, however, the original Holland Park Mosque were to be replaced by a larger building to host the community which had grown substantially in number. [12] The design of Holland Park was reinvented to assimilate to the popular modernist style of the time. [13] The construction once again echoed architectural elements that were emblematic Queensland, as it featured masonry construction that was community used in public and community buildings in the time.

The reclaimed mosque is another example of the Australian suburbia mosque, supported by suburbs of strong ethic demographic and fluctuations of diverse migrating generations. This type of suburban mosque is organised within the perimetres of a pre-established dwelling, often a house or shop. This low-profile and confined mosque presents a fascinating patchwork that adds to the canon of Australian mosque architecture and the urban fabric of Australia. Reclaimed mosques often represent specific ethnicities but despite this, they are mutual in co-existence, proving that there is a diverse range of cultural histories behind every building as Australian suburbia continues to develop and evolve.

Although mosques were formerly defined by specific ethnic communities, it is seen that the future mosque is transnational and shared by the diverse Muslim-Australian community. The future of Australian mosque architecture challenges the scopes of singularity – utilising design to promote an inclusive Islamic community.

A recent development in mosque architecture is the Australian Islamic Centre in Newport, Victoria designed by Australian architects Glenn Murcutt and Hakan Elevli. [14] This project is deemed especially intriguing in the realm of Australian architecture as some of Murcutt’s past works are regarded as imperative in representing the nation’s architectural identity.

In the release of the program and design, the Australian Islamic Centre was quickly heralded to be the “first contemporary mosque” as it intended to provide a centre for the Islamic community that integrated with the social and urban fabric of Melbourne. [15] In designing the Australian Islamic Centre mosque, Murcutt sought to respect the fundamental practices and principles of Islam while exhibiting an unmistakably Murcutt design – with architectural flourishes reminiscent of his many signatures, including minimalism, transparency of materials, and a surplus of natural light that filters through multi-coloured glass as a means of a light shaft, in lieu of the ubiquitous minaret or dome structure.

The Australian Islamic Centre responds to the site of central Melbourne and considers the needs of the local Islamic community. It provides a point of difference by transgressing beyond the perimetres of distant relics of Afghan cameleers and/or thematic motifs from the Ottoman Empire. In this way, the Australian Islamic Centre presents the possibility as a site for intercultural exchange as it extends the function and role of a mosque.

In understanding that mosque architecture is as diverse as the nation-wide communities it serves, the mosque can only be defined as a symbiotic building that envelopes Islamic values as well as local and regional particularities. Although, varying influences provide a locus of identity for the Australian mosque, such as the concept of a mosque as a community centre, the use of available technology and local architectural practice, the recreation of imagery from its users’ origins. Mosque architecture is the result of the Qur’anic tenet of communal prayer, the local architectural language, and imported values fused into a purposeful creation that serves the necessities of a hybrid Islamic community. [16]

Although mosques are a normal feature of our Australian cities, they are yet to be considered as typically Australian. The discourse on Islamic architecture in the Australian context is realised to be in a pertinent stage in its brief history, as Muslim migration continues to increase and as its impact on the Australian urban fabric becomes progressively apparent. The architectural opportunity of the future mosque should respect the value of tradition and cultural expression so that Mosque architecture can continue to progress and evolve in Australia’s rich and multicultural landscape.

With this, we learn that architects should, rather than pursue a specific style, be explorative of the underlying universality that unites mosques as places that engages one person to another and to nature itself. This connectivity is the key to an Australian architecture that is more outward looking, transparent and embracing.

[1] The Conversation “When Islamic Architecture Meets Australian Design” http://www.sbs.com.au/topics/life/culture/article/2016/09/23/when-islamic-architecture-meets-australian-design

[2] Mizanur Rashid, “Architecture of the Adelaide Mosque: Hybridity, Resilience and Assimilation” Field Report http://iaste.berkeley.edu/iaste/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/2014/08/25.2-TDSR-RASHID.pdf

[3] Ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jessica Harris, “Tradition, Identity and Adaptation: Mosque Architecture in South-East Queensland” in Proceedings of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand: 30, Open, edited by Alexandra Brown and Andrew Leach (Gold Coast, Qld: SAHANZ, 2013), vol. 1, p 341-353.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] The Sydney Morning Herald “Glenn Murcutt on Mosque” http://www.smh.com.au/national/glenn-murcutt-on-mosque-without-minarets-and-architecture-designed-to-transform-20161201-gt2dah.html Accessed October 30.

[15] Ibid.

[16] David Beynon. “Multicultural Built Environments” In Everyday Multiculturalism Conference Proceedings, ed. Selvaraj

Velayutham & Amanda Wise. (Macquarie Park, New South Wales: Centre for Research on Social Inclusion, Macquarie

University, 2006.) 5-6

 

Images:

  1. A ‘humble outback structure’: a former Afghan cameleer’s mosque in Bourke NSW. Iain Davidson/flickr
  2. The earliest mosque in Marree, State Library of South Australia B15341.
  3. Australian Islamic Centre, architecture sketch 2006–16 pen and ink. G. Murcutt on all mosque drawings and designs. Source: National Gallery of Victoria

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