Glenn Murcutt: ‘Architecture of Faith’

A review of the latest exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria and his new Australian Islamic Centre building.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s newest exhibition: ‘Architecture of Faith’ explores Glenn Murcutt’s latest collaborative project – the new Australian Islamic Centre in Newport, West of Melbourne.

Rooftop View of the new Australian Islamic Centre - Image courtesy of NGV

Rooftop View of the new Australian Islamic Centre. Image courtesy of NGV

Pritzker Prize winning architect, Murcutt, has worked with Hakan Elevli of Melbourne practice Elevli Plus, and the Newport Islamic Council for over 10 years to produce designs for this contemporary Australian mosque and Islamic Centre, due to open in late 2016.

The exhibition exposes the multi-layered and collaborative process behind the design, which has been directly funded by the local community.

Early concept sketch by Glenn Murcutt - Image courtesy of NGV

Early concept sketch by Glenn Murcutt.  Image courtesy of NGV

From the outset, Murcutt envisioned The Australian Islamic centre to be a place for the wider local community, not just the Muslim population. As a result, the ground floor of the building features a library, cafe, commercial kitchen, education centre, sporting facilities, a residence for the Immam and a mosque for prayer.

Murcutt told journalists at this year’s Pritzker Prize ceremony:

“I’m putting forward the idea that, in a society that is anti-Islam, we can produce some work that actually can bring Islam back into our community and becomes an addition to the culture.”

“Our country has the most wonderful culture that has been added to year after year by the migration of people. It is an amazing place and Islam can be another added aspect to our culture”

The design intentionally challenges the assumptions of historic islamic architecture, reimagining its geometry, colours, materiality and spatial organisation, whilst remaining respectful of its fundamental principles.

The result is an accessible and contemporary place of worship, learning and community, and a design which represents a new type of architectural language for Australian Islam.

Interior view showing the raw concrete staircase and coloured light flooding in from the skylights above Image courtesy of NGV

Interior view showing the raw concrete staircase and coloured light flooding in from the skylights above. Image courtesy of NGV

The building itself comprises a raw, solid, in-situ concrete wall that wraps and protects the north, south and west sides of the building from the elements. This concrete wall then extends outwards to the east, framing a space for community gatherings and serving as a symbolic, welcoming arm to visitors. As this wall extends it also slopes upward, forming an elevated triangle and reinterpreting the form of the traditional minaret – the tower from which the call to prayer is traditionally announced.

Further inspired by a long tradition in Islamic architecture, Murcutt and Elevli invoke a range of architectural strategies to harness light as a functional and decorative medium within the building.

In place of the traditional decorated domed ceiling – intended to draw worshippers eyes to the heavens – the roof of the building is instead covered in rows of dramatic, lantern like skylights. These gold-coloured, three sided lanterns (odd numbers are significant in Islam) are glazed in four symbolic colours (yellow, green, blue and red) and face the four points of the compass. In addition to illuminating the interior of the building with constantly shifting, coloured patterns of daylight, these lanterns also act as a beacon for for the mosque in lieu of the traditional minarets or dome.

CGI view of The Australian Islamic Centre - Image courtesy of NGV

CGI view of The Australian Islamic Centre. Image courtesy of NGV

The concept of openness and transparency, over privacy, segregation and enclosure is another strong theme of the design. The eastern facade, facing the broader community, is entirely glazed, ensuring an unobstructed view right through the building.

The male prayer room, traditionally a very private space, thus presents a very open, transparent face to the street. Similarly, the female prayer space sits on a mezzanine above, equally open but with a louvred screen to preserve modesty.

Murcutt again: ‘It is a mosque that is not exclusive, but inclusive. It’s a mosque that you can see into. It is a mosque that has water gardens but not entirely within walls. It is a mosque that contains light shafts, it contains light lanterns. The lanterns are coloured. These roof lanterns face north, south, east and west. The north [lanterns] are green. Green for Islam is nature and is beautiful. East is yellow. Yellow is for paradise. Red [to the west] is for blood, which gives strength. Blue is for the sky and this is to the south”

The exhibition focusses not only on the design of the building but also the many people involved in its creation - image courtesy of NGV

The exhibition focusses not only on the design of the building but also the many people involved in its creation. Image courtesy of NGV

The NGV exhibition details the complex history, design processes and numerous people involved in the centre’s 10 year design process.  The gallery hopes to highlight the various contributions the building will make to the surrounding community as well as its designers’ intentions to foster greater intercultural understanding.

On display are over 200 original sketches by Murcutt as well as Architectural drawings, photographs, scale models, life-size building elements and documentary footage.

Tony Ellwood, Director at NGV said of the exhibition:

“Architecture of Faith allows visitors to understand Murcutt’s unique and multilayered design approach through the lens of one project, from original inception sketches to photographs of the near-finished building.

“The Australian Islamic Centre is a significant building and one deserving of closer examination. This exhibition explores the project from multiple perspectives”

A life-size mock-up of one of the golden roof lanterns - image courtesy of NGV

A life-size mock-up of one of the golden roof lanterns – image courtesy of NGV

The new Australian Islamic Centre represents a progressive vision for architecture as a tool for cultural expression and as an enabler of intercultural dialogue in a tolerant multicultural society. While the building remains incomplete, this excellent exhibition provides a valuable insight into the workings of, arguably, one of Australia’s greatest ever architects.

Glenn Murcutt: Architecture of Faith is on display at NGV Australia now until  – 19 February 2017. Open daily, 10am-5pm. Entry is free

Words: Mark Gregory


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