What is a mosque?
This question was the starting point of our journey into this design. The aim was to define what a mosque is in general, and in the contemporary context of India today. The sacred month of Ramadan was just a few weeks away, and Hyderabad was preparing for the time when it really comes into its own. We were asked to design a small prayer space for elderly residents of an old urban apartment building, who would find it difficult to walk to the nearby mosque this year to offer the supplemental nightly taraweeh prayers in Ramadan. The taraweeh is prayed in congregation and can last up to two hours or more. The local tradition is to attempt a complete reading of the Quran during the prayer over the course of the month. The taraweeh is one prayer that women and men pray in congregation, which is rare in India. The prayer space was to be designed specifically for the month of Ramadan.
We faced three major challenges in this project: time, space and money. The space donated for the prayer was two parking garages on the stilt level of the apartment building, roughly 240 sft in area. Since it was a pro bono project, the budget was also tight. The client approached us just two weeks before Ramadan, and the project was to be designed and executed before it began.
These constraints led us to try and understand the bare minimum definition of a space that would qualify as a mosque. A search for precedents of similar proportion and purpose resulted in identifying two prayer spaces. The first was a musallah (small prayer space) that Aurangzeb built for himself when he succeeded in infiltrating Golconda circa 1687, known as the Fateh Masjid (Victory Mosque to commemorate the Mughal victory), located inside the Qutb Shahi Tombs complex. It was built, not for want of mosques in the complex, but because the austere emperor did not prefer the heavily-ornamented mosques already existing there. Being a staunch puritan and follower of what we would now consider minimalism, Aurangzeb’s musalla is sparingly decorated, and a place free of distraction with a focus on connecting with the Almighty, as was his intention. The other mosque we studied was slightly larger in area but similarly proportioned: the mosque in Chiran Palace, constructed by Prince Mukarram Jah Bahadur, the grandson of the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, about 70 years ago. The mosque is free of the customary domes, minarets and embellishments. The waffle roof rests entirely on two concrete columns in the front and back, giving the illusion of a floating structure, resembling twin wings in flight, stark white against the green backdrop of KBR National Park. It is an attempt towards a vocabulary for contemporary mosque architecture in India.
We concluded that, programmatically, a mosque is any space where the faithful can gather to pray in congregation. Formally, a mosque is nothing but two perpendicular planes: a horizontal surface on which to pray and a vertical barrier (called the mihrab) to orient toward the Kaaba in Mecca. All other spaces, elements and ornamentation are superfluous, added over time, resultant of need, local climate, aesthetics, craftsmanship, cultural influences and evolving traditions. A mosque, in its purest form, is just a ground plane and a directional wall. Shorn of all embellishment, a mosque can become singularly-purposed: not necessarily a contemplative space to spend time in, cut-off from the chaos of the materialistic life, but instead a pitstop to take pause from a busy day and quickly join the congregation to nourish the spiritual self before dissolving back into routine.
Our next question was, What should a contemporary urban mosque look like? Turning our back on tradition was not the focus, but creating a design that is time-relevant certainly was. The intent was to create a bare, serene prayer space devoid of color, with soft surfaces and minimal ornamentation.
Islamic geometry is derived from complex mathematical patterns. Using computational tools to simplify and translate geometry into a three-dimensional non-Sinusoidal waveform, we designed the mihrab, the only embellished element of the micro-mosque. Softness was introduced by lycra stretched over a geometric metal frame. This formed a tufted surface, like the back of a sofa. In fact, we took the help of upholsterers to stitch the fabric onto the frame, creating dips, tucks, and pleats, applying techniques from tailoring to architecture.
Light plays a pivotal role in the project, be it natural or artificial. The periodic undulations and fractional variations create an interesting play of light and shadow over the surface. On the other side of the directional wall, a blank white plane is punctuated by a custom-designed black metal wall sconce reminiscent of the Kaaba: a glowing isometric cube in two-and-a-half dimensions.
The micro-mosque was completed from conception to execution in two weeks, just in time for the first taraweeh prayer. It is able to comfortably accommodate 24 men and 12 women.
Musalla Haseen Pasha was made possible by the generous efforts of our client, Excel Builders and Developers and their CSR arm, the SJA Foundation.
1. UPVC Windows and Doors
2. Lycra sports fabric