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Sun 14 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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The man behind the mosque

Aedas' Fariborz Hatam goes on record about building the mosque that has everyone talking.

Aedas' Fariborz Hatam goes on record about the mosque that has everyone talking.

Born in Iran and raised in Australia, Fari Hatam is an embodiment of that which is both traditional and contemporary.

His education was a blend of Western theory but his focus was on how the main components of Islamic architecture could be transformed into a contemporary context. It was only after he sought in vain to find successful examples of the latter did Hatam find his calling.

A mosque being oriented towards the Holy Ka'ba in Makkah, for example, can change the whole orientation of the grid of the city.

"I started looking around the Middle East and I realised that no one is doing anything that is both contemporary and Islamic-at least not at this level," explains Hatam.

"Islamabad [Pakistan] has had an attempt at it; Hagia Sophia and some of the other examples in Istanbul are also very intriguing. But that was it. It was then that I became fascinated with how to properly design a mosque."

Drawing inspiration from the myriad bridges, mosques and plazas of his birthplace, Esfahan, Iran, Hatam's Dubai Mosque captures the essence of the dualist language of what can be called a Contemporary Islamic style.

More than an architectural showcase, even today, Esfahan can provide important tutelage to newer cities-namely Dubai and Abu Dhabi-trying to preserve their indigenous history and culture amidst rapid modernisation and an amalgam of architectural styles.The unfortunate reality, explains Hatam, is that cities like these tend to incorporate three categories of ‘Islamic' architecture: ‘stick-on architecture', where superficial patterns and calligraphy are arbitrarily incorporated into a design; international architecture, where the designer forgets he/she is designing for a Middle Eastern context; and hybrid architecture, where culture and history are truly and successfully translated into a contemporary form.

The latter is the most challenging category, but it also provides the most valuable examples.

"A mosque being oriented towards the Holy Ka'ba in Makkah, for example, can change the whole orientation of the grid of the city," says Hatam. "The mosque has such a major influence in city planning. If you look closely at some examples in the oldest parts of Dubai, you might see something similar."

This mosque came from the heart. There was no brief for this; there was no client; that’s what makes it so unique.

More than an attempt to do something unique or iconic, Dubai Mosque was a response to what Hatam saw as a city that was misguided and misdirected. "When I first came to Dubai, everyone was doing the ‘World's Biggest This' and the ‘World's Tallest That'," says Hatam.

"That was the standard. Only a few people were really looking at truly Islamic architecture and no one was concentrating on the mosque."

Designing a mosque

Broken down into components, the form of a mosque is quite simple. Externally, it consists of three elements: a dome, a cube and a minaret.Considering these rather straightforward precepts, Hatam still used Dubai Mosque as an opportunity to push the limits of how these elements can be connected in one form.

In Islamic architecture, the dome represents heaven. "Metaphorically speaking, everyone wants to go to heaven," says Hatam.

"So we applied vertical force to the dome, which extended it downward and made it flush with the ground, thus making it accessible to everyone."

I also interpreted [the minaret] as an opportunity for learning, which is why I designed it to include the 99 names of God.

By making such a dominant statement with the dome, Hatam was left with the difficult conundrum of how to incorporate the cube. "[Extending the dome to the ground] forced the cube section underground, which then created an enormous space, which would ultimately become the Islamic museum."

The mosque's calligraphy-clad glass minaret captures the five pillars of Islam as it begins with darkly shaded glass near the bottom, which becomes progressively lighter as it moves toward the top-a gesture meant to symbolise the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Makkah.

"The closer it gets to Hajj, the more transparent it becomes-almost as though it dissolves into the sky."

After extensive research into minarets, Hatam determined that his minaret needed to be a focal point."After the first adhan [person who summons followers to prayer] used to do it from the streets, people soon realised they needed a high point to project the sound further. Adhans needed something from which to project their calling. That's how the palm tree became the first minaret," explains Hatam.

From the inception of the project he also realised a second role for the minaret. "I interpreted [the minaret] as an opportunity for learning, which is why I designed it to include the 99 names of God."

Incorporating Islam

Owing to the fact that the Holy Quran is the most important element in Islam and that it contains 30 chapters, Hatam divided the building envelope into 30 distinct segments, which capture the writing of the Quran on the glass between the structural elements.

Despite being an unparalleled way of incorporating the Quran into the building, like anything that blazes a trail, it came with a separate set of challenges.

"We had to be extremely careful so that the shadow wouldn't be cast on the ground where people would walk on it," explains Hatam. "We conducted an enormous amount of research into how the sun would enter the building."In an effort to pay homage once again to the five pillars of Islam, Hatam divided his dome in five distinct sections. "We've got the male prayer area; the female prayer area; a centre of learning which, again, is divided into male and female sections; the ceremonial access you use to enter and exit; and then there's the minaret, which is more like a sculpture," he says.

Hatam also used the ceremonial access to incorporate the learning metaphor into his structural façades. The calligraphy adorning both entrances and exits of the mosque says, Bisim Allah el rahman ir rahim, or ‘In the name of God', which also functions to filter natural light into the building.

"In a very metaphoric way, it's like when you're holding a book in your hand. Both sides are the covers and inside you find the knowledge," says Hatam.

But, the style of the calligraphy only came about after a 3-month course on the subject.

"When writing [calligraphy], your hand becomes weightless and is no longer controlled by your head; it's controlled by your heart," says Hatam. "To understand the way light would filter through the Arabic words, I had to understand calligraphy and how it could be interpreted."

Much like the calligraphy itself, Hatam's mosque is the product of something more than client specifications and site planning. "This mosque came from the heart. There was no brief for this; there was no client; that's what makes it so unique." Correct context

Despite significant interest from would-be clients, Hatam hasn't found the right context in which to build his signature project; the one that has been 20 years in the making. He likens his mosque to some of nature's other fragile organisms, all of which need time to grow and mature.

"A mosque is like a flower that's growing in a field. You want to sit by it, have a picnic next to it and enjoy it...it's like a small child, it wants to grow to an adult," he explains.

Despite its name, the thought of ultimately building it in Dubai is something about which Hatam still has misgivings.

"I'm almost afraid to put it in Dubai. I think there's a chance that it could become a symbolic thing rather than being respected for what it is."

In a departure from the traditional process that often sees architects design projects for the highest profile location and the highest bidder, Hatam prefers to use a different approach with this project.

"If this [mosque] were in a third world country, I think it would be much more respected and appreciated than if it were built in the middle of Dubai, for example," he says.If I had my preference, I'd put it somewhere it would get used, and be appreciated; not abused.

Hatam insists he designed the mosque to be built somewhere on Earth, but other than that, it's not a context-specific piece of architecture. He designed the elements in modules, which will allow the eventual client to grow it or shrink it according to site specifications.

When broaching the subject of timelessness and whether he'd like his mosque to become the Parthenon or Pyramids of this generation, Hatam refers to one of his favourite projects in the world.

"Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is an amazing building. When you enter, you're overwhelmed by it... That is something previous generations left behind for us to experience and appreciate," says Hatam.

"What are we going to leave behind? Glass boxes?" asks a sceptic Hatam.

"Let's be realistic, they'll be gone in 100 years. But I believe something like this can last and be remembered in 400-500 years."

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ENDER 10 years ago

IT'S VERY REFRESHING and CHEERFUL TO SEE A REVOLUTINARY BUT FITTING DESIGN FOR OUR AGE OLD ARCHETYPE MOSQUE. IF DUBAI WANTS TO BE THE CENTER OF THE WORLD IT SHOULD NOT LET THE PROJECT ESCAPE ANYWHERE ELSE. CONGRATULATIONS FROM MY HEART TO MY COLLEAGUE. ENDER OZISIK,architect

A OSMAN 10 years ago

A mosque is a place of worship and prayer and calling to the creator. I see no point in endless design efforts on a place that the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) encouraged to be simple. A mosque should not be turned into a tourist destination.

shiraz 10 years ago

Whilst I do not take away the beauty of the design, I feel that this is not fitting for a Mosque in my humble opinion. A Mosque should be simple and traditional and where any individual should be able to distinguish. I hope this is a one off. I think the design would serve an art museum better.

H Bukhari 10 years ago

The mosque has and always will be the symbol of civilization, through out history is has been the heart of urban development, a place where people interact, educate and socialize. In modern days, I have seen that it has become a beautiful art sculpture that is admired by people, it does not contain people rather, the people contain it. I wish to see some interactive systems that bring back that feeling.