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Symbolism modernised

Glenn Murcutt has created a daringly contemporary mosque with rooflights designed to the traditions of shape, dimension and symbolic Islamic colours

The main concrete wall, orientated to Mecca, with a calming reflective pool creating more subtle reflections on the dramatic ceiling.
The main concrete wall, orientated to Mecca, with a calming reflective pool creating more subtle reflections on the dramatic ceiling. Credit: Haman Elevli

Ninety-six golden lanterns adorn the roof of the extraordinary prayer room of the Australian Islamic Centre, designed by Glenn Murcutt in collaboration with Hakan Elevli of Melbourne practice Elevli Plus.

The prayer room, which opened this summer at Hobsons Bay in Melbourne, is the first part of the centre to complete. Initiated by the Newport Islamic Society, the centre will include a congregational hall, education room, imam’s quarters, restaurant, and water garden. A key ambition is inclusiveness, with the centre open to all members of the public.

Murcutt and Elevli began working on the project more than a decade ago. It was an unusual commission in terms of both scale and nature for Murcutt, who is renowned for his individual house designs. He had however already chaired the jury of The Aga Khan Award for Architecture – which celebrates the design of Islamic buildings – and was keen to work with an architect from an Islamic background on the project. Elevli had already designed a traditional mosque in Keysborough, also in Melbourne. 

Murcutt was particularly drawn to the brief for a contemporary, Australian and inclusive mosque and was clear that the building should ‘belong to today and to modern architecture’. This resulted in his early decision to avoid the traditional golden dome and minaret approach, and instead replace the single dome with the multitude of golden roof lanterns with different coloured glass. These create a striking, contemporary form from afar as well as providing lighting effects in colours and shapes that resonate with Islamic symbolism.  Instead of a traditional tower, the minaret has become a massive concrete wall that forms one arm of the mosque’s entrance zone.                                        

Initially controversial with some of the elders, the lantern roof design was swiftly embraced by the younger members of the community. According to Elevli, although domes were traditional, there was no specific Islamic design requirement for a mosque to have a dome. What did matter was an orientation facing Mecca.

The lantern-topped prayer hall roof stretches 42m by 28m with in-situ poured concrete walls and an independent steel roof structure supported by 24 steel columns.  The initial design had proposed lanterns rising 2.2m high, but when it became clear from models later in the process that their effect was being lost, the height was raised to 3m above the parapet line. 

The lanterns are triangular in plan with one glazed vertical panel, and are topped by a golden canopy. There are two widths of lantern – 3330mm and 3170mm – with both sizes weighing more than one tonne.

  • 96 golden lanterns face the four corners of the compass, their colours representing nature, the sky, blood and paradise.
    96 golden lanterns face the four corners of the compass, their colours representing nature, the sky, blood and paradise. Credit: Haman Elevli
  • The result: lighting mood changes according to the time of day as individual colours become more dominant.
    The result: lighting mood changes according to the time of day as individual colours become more dominant. Credit: Haman Elevli
  • Steel studs and marine ply form the body of the lantern; it all sits on steel C-sections.
    Steel studs and marine ply form the body of the lantern; it all sits on steel C-sections. Credit: Haman Elevli
  • 24 steel columns are seamlessly integrated into the design.
    24 steel columns are seamlessly integrated into the design. Credit: Haman Elevli
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The rows of lanterns are carefully oriented so that the glazed panels catch the light at different times of day and funnel it down into the prayer hall. The triangular shape was chosen in sympathy with Islamic geometry.

‘When Glenn started processing Islamic architectural theory he discovered that everything was built on the geometry of odd numbers. He realised there were triangles everywhere within mosques. Our grid was based on 3s and 5s and we used triangles for the lanterns,’ says Elevli. 

Murcutt researched Islamic symbolism and this informed the choice and positioning of the coloured glass. Green, which represents nature, was used on south-facing lanterns with blue for the sky on those facing north. Red, which represents blood/strength, is on the west with yellow (paradise) for the east. There are 27 each of blue and green, and 21 each of red and yellow.

Each lantern was formed using a metal stud frame with marine plywood, which was clad with interlocking Zincalume sheets fabricated specifically for the lanterns. This metal sheeting was then hand painted with two layers of undercoat topped with a metallic gold top-coat, a colour chosen to give a traditional Islamic feel to the contemporary roof form. 

For the lanterns’ glazed panels, the architects chose 11.52mm thick, Landson laminated safety glass with Vanceva tinted PVB interlayers. Pane sizes vary depending on their location on the roof, rising to a maximum of 2809mm by 1997mm. Each lantern has a canopy over the glass that comes down 600-650mm from the top of the lantern at a 75˚ angle, finishing 230mm-250mm from the pane. 

The lanterns also have a vent that opens automatically when the temperature reaches a certain level. The inside of the lantern is plastered and lit with LEDs. 

Each lantern was handmade on the floor of the prayer hall before installation. Off-site prefabrication had been considered, but the community was happy to build them on-site, says Elevli, in the spirit of the donations of both time and money that have enabled the construction of the centre.

 
One minaret replaced by many lanterns.
One minaret replaced by many lanterns. Credit: Haman Elevli

After construction, the lanterns were craned up through the centre of the roof before being lowered into place on steel angles within the roof beam structure, and fixed from the underside. They were then further secured by a welded, 5mm thick Cosmofin waterproof PVC-P membrane on top of 20mm marine grade ply. 

While the lantern roof gives the prayer hall its distinctive form, it’s the lighting effects inside that make the biggest impact. These change throughout the day from, for example, a show of gold light in the morning, greens by midday, and as the sun comes round in the afternoon, red.  

‘A beautiful soft light comes through, but not to the point where it is distracting,’ says Elevli.

When approaching the centre during the day, he says, the first thing you notice is the gold of the lanterns, while at night, when it’s internally lit, you see the colours. Inside, however, the effect at night is a white light, symbolising purity.

As for the elders who had initially wanted a traditional dome, they’re now the lanterns’  biggest advocates, says Elevli. 

‘They absolutely love it. They talk about it more than the youngsters. They’re very proud of their mosque,’ he says, adding that he’s already been contacted by other communities interested in contemporary, and inclusive, mosques.

Crowdfunding is being sought to help complete the ambitious project. At an event to mark a recent exhibition about the project at the National Gallery of Victoria, Murcutt expressed his hope that the design of the centre will promote greater links with the wider community.

‘Through its planning strategy, the building itself reaches out and the community will follow – that would be my great hope,’ he says.