Your Friendly Neighborhood Mosque

Posted inID Mag

THE ALL-WHITE ROOM, with its podium, stackable chairs, and coffee and cookies, might be a Rotary or Chamber meeting place in Orange County, California. Except no one is wearing shoes.

Also missing are the usual prayers and patriotic pledges to God and Jesus offered at biz breakfasts where everyone assumes everyone else is on the same page: Judeo-Christian Republican.

“We want to be your friendly neighborhood mosque!” says a roving man with a mic before showing visitors a corporate-style video promising “quality customer service…dynamic vision…full transparency.”

This mosque is in Southeast Asia, of all places. And to understand why an Islamic house of worship would want to befriend its community with Western marketing jargon and modern architecture, you have to take a closer look at this neighborhood near the South China Sea.

Last year, the Assyafaah Mosque emerged on the site of an empty field lined with a huge stand of high-rise dwellings. The advancing towers are part of a growing sector of Singapore, a city that is also a country that is also a very small island that sees itself as a global player. (On a map, it’s the dot between Malaysia and Indonesia.)

Tiny as it is, Singapore holds an amazing number of people who belong to many religions and ethnicities in a state of complex harmony difficult for Westerners to comprehend. Imagine 4.35 million ethnic Malay, Indonesian, Chinese, and Indian people who are Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians worshipping in mutual tolerance within the confines of 270 square miles.

Basically, Singapore, the city-state, is an experiment, launched in 1965, that promised to make a prosperous, law-abiding, independent democracy from a wildly diverse population living in a very hot jungle near the equator. Call it social engineering, but Singapore’s founders actually pulled it off, using plenty of careful design strategies—legal, diplomatic, urban, and architectural. (In 2005, Singapore had a 94.6 percent literacy rate and a 93 percent home-ownership rate.)

What about Singapore’s famously pushy laws regarding civic behavior and civil rights? After all, the country bans porn, executes drug dealers, and occasionally adds rattan caning to jail terms, as it did in 1994 when it punished an American teen, Michael Fay, for car vandalism. “To understand Singapore, you have to think of it as a corporation,” offered a local industrial designer. Singapore’s gung-ho team spirit, visible everywhere, suggests its citizens are motivated by the same mission: Success! Sign on, and you agree to gain certain privileges (public safety, excellent government-subsidized housing, transit, education, health care) as you sign away others (affordable car ownership, certain liberties of public expression such as gum chewing).

In fact, the more visitors explore, the more they see a corporate spirit expressed in design, whether design is shaping the new neighborhood mosque, the new national library, or the sleek mass transit system and underground shopping malls.

Singapore’s unofficial official design style is modern, born of the clean, earnest, dutiful modernism from the heyday of Western corporate headquarters (1960s-1980s). Modern design has offered Singapore a way to brand an identity for the sake of locals and foreigners alike. In the nation’s early years, the fast rise of American-style office buildings gave Singapore a prosperous and familiar look that appealed to Western investors wary of Asian inscrutability. Now that Singapore really is prosperous, with a 2004 growth rate of 8.4 percent and an Asian standard of living second only to Japan’s, modernism provides a nondenominational building style—a vocabulary unattached to any Asian region, race, or religion. One could argue that modernism maintains prosperity by keeping the ethno-religious peace. It may not always be pretty, but it never takes sides by looking too Chinese or Malay, too Buddhist or Muslim.

In other words, there are many reasons why the Assyafaah Mosque—the stunning but unreadable structure on Singapore’s north shore—does not look like a typical house of worship.

Its local architect, Tan Kok Hiang, a principal of Forum Architects, has explained that contemporary design is more strategic than traditional Islamic architecture, at least in this place, at this moment. First of all, the Middle Eastern mosque archetype is not only foreign to Singapore, but it is also imposing, even off-putting: The Malays are not Arab. On the other hand, a more modest mosque in the Malay vernacular might repel ethnically Chinese converts to Islam.

Because Singapore is flanked by Indonesian islands harboring active Islamic extremists, any mosque can attract misunderstanding. Nevertheless, the more modern the mosque, the more easily its members can distance themselves from Islamic terrorism, since modernity is the enemy of those fundamentalist Muslims who are doing the most harm. By building a stellar example of modern design, published in international journals of architecture, the clients created an invitation to the wider community: Come in, visit our new building, we’re just like you.

Forum Architects reinterpreted the prototypical mosque by making it feel like a spiritual place on the inside but look like a concert hall, a city hall, or an art museum on the outside.

The building’s most Islamic feature is one that has been widely borrowed by modern architects unaware of its associations: open screens with intricate geometric patterns called arabesques. Aluminum grillework covers the entrance facade with a large canted plane and also veils the prayer halls and corridors. Because this mosque, like most, is open to the air (no A/C), the screens are important. They filter the hot tropical sunlight, allow cross-ventilation, and create privacy without secrecy.

Forum Architects used the arabesque patterns with the same intentions as Islam’s earliest builders: to symbolize attributes illustrated by the Koran’s distinctive calligraphy—a show of precise, infinite, multicentered, awe-inspiring design.

But apart from these patterns, the mosque veers from convention. There’s no skyline of minarets, no exotic domed roofs or arched entries, no bright colors. The Assyafaah is an abstract complex of many volumes in contrasting materials: dark glass, light masonry, and aluminum.

At the entrance, a sculpture stands in for the usual minaret; it’s a column of overlapping curved steel plates, 10 stories high. The requisite dome is an interior one, supporting three levels of structure above while spanning the prayer forecourt below with eight carefully engineered exposed concrete arches shaped with plywood. As for color, it’s absent; just about everything is white. (The raw, Louis Kahn-like concrete arches were later painted at the clients’ request.)

White represents purity of spirit, and cleanliness is important to the Muslim prayer ritual, which begins with bodily washing. It is in the men’s basement ablution area that the architects offered the most intriguing interpretation of traditional elements. The space is humbling, located below ground, open to the sky, with the minaret-sculpture looming overhead.

Because water is important to Muslims not only as a purifying agent, but also as the symbolic source of all life, this ablution area expresses both the earthy and ethereal aspects of water. The roofless room is a fusion of a ritual bath, a fancy spa, and the no-nonsense, sit-down washing zone of a traditional Japanese bathing area. But it’s more dynamic than any of its counterparts. The flow of water becomes increasingly dramatic as the room fills with people. Black granite canals circulate water along the tops of low walls holding banks of faucets and soap dispensers. At the base of the walls, floor “moats” lead the running water to drains. Low pools surrounding the bathing area are
alive with the movements of large carp.

After ablution, the male worshipper walks barefoot toward the light, up a wide staircase, and into the forecourt. This area, which is spanned by the concrete arches, is designed to inspire composure before the worshipper heads into the main sanctuary, the men’s prayer room. (Women pray above, on an arabesque-screened mezzanine.)

Because Islam bans all portraiture of Allah or his creations, the architects had to rely on natural light and spatial proportions to suggest a divine presence. Facing Mecca, worshippers are dwarfed by a 56-foot-high wall, or qibla, canted toward them. From above, sunlight illuminates a niche in the wall, called the mihrab, a symbolic doorway to Mecca. From each side, the arabesque screens create moving shadows on the prayer floor and filter tropical breezes to create a meditative ambience.

But there’s another kind of humility at work in the Assyafaah mosque, and it’s very terrestrial. Any visitor can see it in the introductory video, the website, or the tour guided by patient mosque members. Certainly, the worshippers must feel it when they look beyond the open screens of the prayer halls and see the high-rise apartments multiplying on the horizon: It’s crowded out there. How do you keep your own beliefs and pass them on to new generations while practicing friendly tolerance toward such a high density of neighbors?

The experiment goes on in Singapore, one design at a time.

I.D. contributing editor Barbara Flanagan last wrote for this magazine about her experience paddling a collapsible kayak along the Amalfi coast (November 2005).