Architect of the Year

DesignerChin Wah Wong, Rachel Ng, Herbert Salim and Cheen Cheen Lim
PrizeHonorable Mention
Entry Description

The Assyafaah Mosque was completed in Singapore in 2004. Singapore is a multi-racial island state with a population of three million in South East Asia. Located in the north, the mosque comprises a prayer hall, ablution areas, classrooms, administration areas, a multi-purpose hall , prayer galleries and extended prayer spaces and a basement carpark . At full capacity, the 3350 sqm mosque can host up to 4000 people for major prayer events. Forum Architects from Singapore won the project through a four-way competition organized by the MUIS (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore). Up till then, almost all the past competition winners paid homage to the dome or a version of the dome and adorned their designs with traditional Middle-Eastern motifs. One exception was the Darul Alam Mosque, designed by the Housing Board, which is the Singapore government agency for public housing. It was an enlightened example of a locally-inspired mosque design. It alluded to traditional Malay architecture. (Most Muslims in Singapore are of Malay origins). The Assyafaah Mosque went beyond the racial reference, broadening its appeal to non-Malay Muslims as well as trying to establish a contemporary, forward-looking community oriented place of worship. The mosque was exhibited at the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2004 in Venice. Time and Place “I had many ideas of what a mosque should be about. We took the view that the architecture should provide as few barriers as possible to the community at large. A ‘Malay’ design would not make a Chinese convert feel at home. A Middle-Eastern imagery would be too alien to our culture. Its design had to sit comfortably in a multi-racial, multi-religious country. And it also had to signal to the Muslim community that it is a mosque,” explained TAN Kok Hiang, the principal partner of Forum Architects and the designer of the mosque. Tan’s interest in Islamic architecture began with his research into the subject as a student at the National University of Singapore. At that time, his thesis focused on utilitarian buildings in Islamic cultures and how the ubiquitous arabesque patterns could be applied appropriately. It was to be thirteen years later before he would finally put to practice what he learnt on the subject. “I also wanted the mosque to be a place of community, for the mosque to have places for people to congregate, not necessarily for religious reasons. I wanted art and sculpture to be a part of goings-on in the mosque. And most of all, I wanted the mosque to touch the people who congregated there at a deep spiritual level that would transcend differences.” People Involved Many of my colleagues worked on the mosque and contributed in no small measure to its final outcome. The associate in charge, Mr Wong Chin Wah, is a Malaysian. Herbert Salim, an Indonesian, worked on the aluminium and glass works. The architect on the arch was Hugue Poirier, a French of Canadian citizenship. The architect on the minaret was Lakshmi, an architect from India. The Structural Engineer, who played a crucial role is Dr Rezai Hossein, an Iranian. The lighting designer is Andre Tammes who is an English national living in Sydney. The Arabic Calligrapher is Mr Yahiya from Xian, China. The wide-ranging backgrounds of the team members ensured that the designed benefited from different perspectives. The Kiblat The first crucial strokes came on the heels of the Kiblat. Askew from the orthogonal orientation of the site, we created long and narrow separate blocks parallel to the prayer hall in the leftover spaces which would house the ancillary spaces. This in turn created ‘air and light wells’ between the prayer hall and the ancillary uses and would contribute much to the feeling of openness interiorly. The airwells are covered with skylights which run the entire length and are four storeys high. “Several weeks ago, we sent some pictures of the project to a magazine editor and she replied that she would like to see interior shots. I wrote back and told her that they were interior shots. So in a building like this, it is a little hard to distinguish between inside and outside. And really, there is no need.” Ground Plane The second important aspect of the design is the ground plane. We always remember the other planes: the walls and the roof but we tend to forget the ground as a plane. So in the mosque, the forecourt was lifted off the ground. This served many functions: It created a sense of elevation for an important community building; it created more headroom for the spaces below; and it allowed us to naturally ventilate and light the basement. The forecourt also created allowed contrasting spaces to be distinguished: Sacred and Secular; Private and Public; Outside and Inside. Undercover Ablution The intended route of circulation for a person coming to the mosque to pray is for him to perform ablution rites first before ‘entering’ the mosque. Typically, the ablution area in most mosques in Singapore is more akin to a place for cleaning rather than a place for cleansing. We use water as a cleansing and life giving element. Also, we created two reflective pools, lit by airwells, cladded in granite and raised to eye level, around which the users perform their ablution rites under cover. We also designed a large shoe area for shoes to be removed under cover. Wet Feet One issue which we did not have the opportunity to resolve is the problem of the ‘wet’ feet after ablution. In many mosques, the mosque would line towels along the path from the ablution to the prayer hall and by the time you get there, your feet would be dry. If not, you could still dry it on the carpet. In a new mosque extension that we are designing right now, we are introducing low level blowers to dry the feet. The Forecourt After ablution, the prayer emerges through a central staircase into the forecourt. The forecourt is neither inside nor outside. It is the space before the prayer hall. It is a pause space, a space where one gathers one’s composure before entering a sanctuary. As you emerge up the stairs, you are greeted by three-dimensional arches which curve upwards as well as towards the centre of the mihrab wall to the front. The Arch The arches touch the ground at only eight points, thereby providing the prayer hall with a 20-metre column free space. They act to transfer the load of the upper three storeys above. They were cast in fairface concrete using new ply forms, v-shaped plastic grooves and steel tie-rods. The groves on the insides of the arches follow the curve of the arch but taper gradually towards the ceiling. It was incredibly difficult to build and took many rounds of design, engineering as well as mock-ups to get it an acceptable level of finish, which admittedly is still far from being perfect. The amount of work put in by the architect and the contractor demonstrates a labour of love, which, for those familiar with Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture, is the Lamp of Sacrifice. The Prayer Hall The prayer hall is surrounded by arabesque screens to allow the fleeting shadows to move across the hall and at the same time allow natural air ventilation. The prayer hall was designed to be completely naturally ventilated. The strategy here is to use the slit voids to generate air movement. The slit voids also had giant glass louvers to keep out the rain while allowing winds to penetrate. Wherever possible, the ground level enclosure of the prayer hall is kept open and always cross-ventilated. The Mihrab The space in the prayer hall suddenly opens up into a four-storey atrium to reveal a canted marble-cladded wall, washed with natural light from a slit skylight. The tilt of the wall is intended to give a sense of a compressive space to put one in one’s place, so to speak. The Mihrab is located in the centre with the Arabic Inscription, And Verily, Mosque is For Allah. Worship No Other Except Him. The raised Mimbar sits to the right of the Mihrab, balanced by a tall 100-square engraving comprising the Name of Allah and the 99 Attributes of Allah. The calligraphy was created by Imam Yahiya from Xian, China and arranged and scaled on the computer. The placements of the key elements on the mihrab wall were deliberately left unsymmetrical for a feel of dynamic equlilbrium. Arabesque Everywhere Many mosques in Singapore use Muslim traditional symbols, such as the dome, arch, and the minaret, which stem from Mughal, Ottoman, Mamluk or Safavid cultures which have little relevance to the cultural context of Muslims and Malays in Singapore. In my early studies on Islamic architecture, I discovered that the arabesque, invented by Islamic scholars looking for an abstraction to reflect the Quranic attributes, was the most versatile and could be easily adapted to most cultures. The arabesque exhibits multiplicity as expressions of unity, is a tribute to god and considered divine in Islamic origin. The arabesque patterns symbolize the five important attributes of the Quran. It is complete, infinite, clear, multi-centered and awe-inspiring. In arid climate architecture, the buildings have massive thick walls. The arabesque patterns were used to ‘dematerialize’ the walls and in visual terms, helped ameliorate their scale. In the Assyafaah Mosque, we used the arabesque on aluminium screens to shield, screen and create shadows. The arabesque we designed stemmed from a somewhat recognizable pattern. Many regard it as Peranakan, some say it is Thai, others insist it is Chinese. Yet others insist on its contemporariness. Suffice to say, everyone agrees it sits comfortably in this region. Made of aluminium hollow sections and twisted to a 45 degree angle, the screens are constructed in modules and hung on steel frames. They are finished in fluorocarbon. The 45 degree orientation of the hollow sections allows the screens to take on different shades depending on which side you are looking from. We also developed a ‘negative’ arabesque pattern. This is where the geometrical patterns are not created by the solid pieces but by void spaces left by the solids members. The arabesque design is also used on on the carpets, which were customed designed and manufactured in Europe. on the boundary fence design and on the gates. The patterns on the tiles and carpets are based on 1.2metre grid and help to align the users during prayer. The Minaret We also applied the same principle to the Minaret. Originally, I convinced the client to engage a budding young Malay artist to design the minaret with us. It so happened that my original design of the minaret for the competition entry was based on the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, Alif. When I met the artist, he showed me an entire thesis which he was working on at the University of Tasmania, based on the alif. He had been working on a collection of sculptures. I thought, oh, this must be divine intervention so insisted to the client that he be appointed. The client took my word for it and did. We worked tirelessly on several options but six months later, the artist walked out of the project. It did not work out and so I was left to design the sculpture. It was to be a 33metre tall structure. About 10 storeys. I wanted to keep the structure very slender with a height to base ratio of no more than 16:1. This would be the last of the tall minarets in Singapore because a new regulation has been put in place to disallow any religious structure taller than 5m from the roof level of the building. Given that it would be extremely costly to clad and maintain, I decided that the structure, the cladding and the finish had to be one material. The brief from the client was that the top of the minaret must be embellished with a Crescent Moon and a Star. This was the symbol of all mosques in Singapore. Wanting to abstract the notion of this symbol, we used the crescent as a plan for the tower structure and hope that we could get away without the Crescent and the Star. You can see the result. We lost. The minaret is made of 10 tiers of two concentric arcs, telescoping upwards towards a point. Each tier is made using a fixed module of 300mm wide by a fixed height. As the radii of the tiers get smaller and smaller as they move upwards, the fixed length (300mm) of the arch results in gaps or what we termed residue openings in the structure. These gaps vary in an almost random manner although the organization of the elements is strict and highly regulated. In the night, light can be seen through the gaps, but more importantly, the gaps allow some wind to pass through thereby reducing the lateral load. The height to base ratio is 16.5, so there is some visible sway in high winds. The structure is entirely composed from the 128 pieces of steel plates, lapping one another for strength. The whole structure was constructed on the ground. The gaps were adjusted where necessary to allow at least a man to reach his arm to the inside of the structure should maintenance be necessary in the future. The whole structure was then hoisted up. The vertical struts on the inside which you see are necessary only because of the stresses induced when moving the structure from the horizontal to the vertical. The finish is basically rusted steel and coated with a colourless polyeurethane. We discovered that the colour varies according to when you apply the polyeurethane paint. So we did four samples. The steel plate samples were sanded using a high grade sandpaper. The first sample was immediately applied with the polyeurethane. Second sample, two hours later. Third sample, four hours later and the last sample, eight hours later. The final colour is the sample that was painted four hours after sanding. Light Much importance is placed on natural light and the manner in which the harsh tropical light is ameliorated. The prayer hall, with practically no visible enclosure is, to begin with, well lit on a normal day. The low ceiling space at the fore of the prayer hall serves to highlight the wash of light on the canted Mihrab wall in the four-volume space. Quran Rack and Chogma In the design, we gave ourselves a challenge to try to design as much for the mosque as possible so that little is left to chance. So we designed the shoe racks, the quran racks and even the Chogma used by the Iman. In the design of the Quran rack, glass horizontal shelves are used. The vertical separators for the Qurans are made of stainless steel plates which do not touch the horizontal shelves. They are suspended from the wall. The rack is placed below one of the 4-storey high sklylit slit voids so that the glint of the spines of the Qurans can be seen from afar. Response to the outcome TAN feels buoyed by a comment from the Manager of the Mosque that volunteers who work at Assyafaah feel inspired to be progressive in their thinking because “their new physical surroundings are so out of the usual mould”. TAN also feels happy that the contemporary and modern outlook of the mosque has created an openness and a new perception of mosques. It has encouraged many, including non-Muslims from the region to visit the mosque. “Previously, it is very odd for a non-Muslim to enter a mosque, even in multi-racial Singapore. I am told that at Assyafaah, non-Muslims feel very comfortable walking in and out, of course at all times, respecting the culture and practices.” TAN believes that good architecture needs good clients as much as good designers. In the Assyafaah Mosque, the client was very supportive, always trying to understand the Architect’s intentions and taking steps to ensure conditions are right for the intentions to be played out.