Architecture of Faith

There is currently an exhibition called, ‘Glenn Murcutt: Architecture of Faith’ at the NGV, Federation Square, which is an exhibition about the Australian Islamic Centre in Newport, western Melbourne, which is perhaps the first truly contemporary Australian Mosque. By respectfully recalibrating historical Islamic design conventions for Australian cultural and climatic conditions, this project heralds a new community-led interpretation of the mosque as a place of worship, education and recreation.

Funded by the Newport Islamic Community, they approached Australia’s most decorated Architect, Glenn Murcutt to design the mosque. Among the many architectural awards that Glenn Murcutt has received, is the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2002, which is the architectural equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize.

From the outset, Murcutt understood that the Australian Islamic Centre should embrace the architectural traditions of Islamic orders while simultaneously addressing the spirit of both the local and broader Australian communities: it needed to be inclusive and respectful of people of all faiths.

The building draws from the functions and symbolic language of traditional mosque architecture. The home of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and the additions to it, are considered to be the first mosque (after the mosque established by the Prophet at Quba). The house had a large courtyard surrounded by long rooms supported by multiple columns. Drawing on this architectural precedent, many early mosques followed a hypostyle (many columned) plan, utilizing columns to create large, open spaces.

The architecture of the Australian Islamic Centre references this precedent by using twenty four steel columns, that have funnels at the top, collecting rainwater from the roof and carrying it to underground storage. The columns are arranged in bays of three, reflecting the odd numbers favoured in Islamic geometry.

Murcutt then questioned the need for a minaret, initially to the consternation of the community. He pointed out that the earliest mosques, including the Prophet’s mosque, didn’t have a minaret and that nobody was actually going to make a public call to prayer. He provided an interpretation of a minaret with a triangular wall, with a crescent on top, that is higher than the rest of the mosque.

The Centre has also been created as a centre for the broader Newport community, which departs from the introspective nature of some mosques. It contains a library, café, commercial kitchen, education centre sporting facilities and a large room for prayer. The entrance is through a landscaped garden, large shaded verandah and tiled courtyard, that has one wall missing, so that it presents an open, accessible face to the broader community.

Murcutt used a range of architectural strategies to harness light as a functional and decorative medium within the building. A water courtyard at the foot of the prayer niche wall allows concrete blades to be suspended above a reflective pool, that reflect sunlight into the building’s interior.

The design also negated the need for a dome on the roof by offering a glass façade that favours transparency over enclosure, and by the inclusion of ninety six, three metre high lanterns on the roof. These gold painted lanterns illuminate the interior with coloured daylight. Glazed in four colours, the lanterns face the four points of the compass, according to a complex geometric pattern. Murcutt studied the symbolic meaning of colour in Islamic culture, explaining as follows, “gold is the colour of paradise. Green symbolizes life and nature, spring and rebirth, compassion and goodness, moderation, peace and hope. Red is the colour of our blood, representing strength, vigour, vitality, emotion and a sense of joy and beauty. Yellow is the colour of the sun, warmth and vitality, unity, the collective, and intellectual serenity. Blue is the protective colour representing goodness and hope. In the sea it represents calmness. Navy blue is the colour of the systems of the universe and a symbol of survival. White is the colour of snow, cotton and milk and clouds, representing innocence, purity, cleanliness, clarity and stability.”


The exhibition ‘Glenn Murcutt: Architecture of Faith’ is on until 19th February, 2017 in the Ground Level NGV Design Studio, Federation Square. Entry is free.