Australia tends to be overlooked in historic and contemporary surveys of Islamic architecture. Our mosques are not statements of empire, nor are they lavish monuments or national icons. They are manifestations of the local communities they serve. They are comparatively understated, cosmopolitan and suburban.
Because of these characteristics, we never hear arguments for a “golden age” in Australian mosque design. This is excellent because “golden ages” are nostalgic reconstructions that encourage pastiche at best and fundamentalism at worst. Instead, Australian mosques can showcase the plurality that supports our open, multicultural, inclusive future.
Mosques are part of the Australian suburban landscape. They have crucial roles to play in overcoming fears about Islam and supporting progressive values within Islam. The situation of Islam in Australia has been regularly and critically reviewed and will continue to be the subject of public conversations.
Whenever we move through the history of architecture, we find distinctive local forms. Mosques are no exception. This is a response not only to communities’ needs but the prevailing systems of construction and accessible material resources.
To define an Australian mosque, we start by making a choice. Should we look for case studies from the regional spectacular or the suburban vernacular to showcase our national heritage? This is essentially a qualitative/quantitative decision. The rare and surviving-against-the-odds mosques of the cameleers support “bush” narratives of outback hardship, isolation, resilience, masculinity and bare-boned purposefulness.
Our much more popular suburban mosques, of which there are currently more than 340 in Australia (including around 170 in NSW), were mostly built after the late 1970s. They offer quite different narratives. Some provide striking additions to urban skylines but most are modest buildings, which make no claim to architectural fame.
Adelaide’s “Afghan Chapel”
Australia’s oldest extant mosque, once described as “the Afghan chapel”, was built in Adelaide in 1888-1889. It is an important contribution to the history of Adelaide, consisting of a bluestone structure once accompanied by a floral garden and caretaker’s cottage.
Four white minarets set it apart from its neighbours. It is used by a cosmopolitan congregation and its presence has not led to a drop in house prices! When I last visited, a real estate poster claimed you could “own a piece of Australian history” by living on this attractive little street. This mosque has served as the basis for important studies in architectural hybridity and assimilation.
A Medley of Buildings
Australia does not have a national mosque. However, many nations do. The Negara Masjid in Kuala Lumpur is a useful example. It’s a postmodern and self-consciously contemporary mosque with invented characteristics unique to Malaysia. The structure draws upon the shape of a traditional Malay umbrella, opened to form a blue angular dome and closed to form a minaret. The mosque’s white heroes’ mausoleum evokes the historic practice of placing distinguished burial chambers within mosques but, in this case, it’s adapted to Malaysian ideas about statehood. Prime ministers are buried under the dome – whereas national heroes (scientists and humanitarians, male and female) are buried just outside it. It’s rather like an alternative form of the National Portrait Gallery.
The opposite of a national mosque is a reclaimed room. In Australia, the most low-key mosques are appropriated apartments or discrete spaces over shops, scarcely more than nondescript “prayer spaces”. The Cabramatta mosque, for example, used to be a Vinnies. The Redfern mosque mingles harmoniously with its neighbours. And several mosques around Australia used to be churches.
There is a long and complex history of churches in use as mosques, including the majestic Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Umayyad mosque in Damascus and the mosque-cathedral of Cordoba. But recycled spaces can be indicative of marginalisation and minority disempowerment.
Australian suburban mosques have been supported by many migrating generations from around the world, resonating with migration (hijrah) as a formative narrative within Islam.
Two new Australian mosques are notably prominent in the Australian media, though the response to each has been very different.
The development of a mosque in Bendigo has been contested and defended in a series of ongoing headlines. Discussion of the actual design of this mosque has been overshadowed by commentary around its right to simply exist.
By contrast, the Australian Islamic Centre in Newport has been celebrated as a “progressive vision and enabler of intercultural dialogue in a multicultural society”.
The Islamic Studies Centre of Charles Sturt University is an Australian mosque; both contemporary and vernacular, without claims for a past or future “golden age”. Designed by Marci Webster-Mannison in 1995, it is a safe space that reflects the buildings nearby, subtly oriented towards Mecca, set in a beautiful, discrete location with a sublime view.
Like most Australian architecture it does not punctuate the skyline. Like every other building on campus, it serves students and academics from Australia and around the world.
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