The ten-story minaret tapers skywards and is built from rusted steel plates coated with colorless polyurethane. Originally, Tan worked with a young Malay artist to create an abstract design based on alif, the first letter in the Arabic alphabet. That working relationship folded without arriving at a suitable design.
Tan then went on to use the crescent as a plan for the tower structure. Wishing to draw attention to the sculptural aspect of the minaret, Tan says he tried "to get away without the crescent and the star." Their traditional symbolic significance is derived from cultures that "have little relevance to the cultural context of Muslims and Malays in Singapore."
Unable to convince the client to abandon the idea of using the two symbols — which would influence older and more conservative members to accept the building as a mosque — a compromise was found and they were placed below the summit of the tower, rather than at the top.
Before entering the first-floor men's prayer room (dewan solat utama), men and boys rinse their hands and feet in the basement ablution room, finished in black granite and daylit by two skylights. The minaret is visible from this level, its base standing within a niche.
Steps up from the ablution room take male worshippers into what Tan calls "a pause space." The concrete-arched carpeted forecourt "is a space where one gathers one's composure before entering a sanctuary," he says.
The concrete arches support three stories of prayer rooms, including the women's prayer room (dewan solat wanita), classrooms, administration areas, and a multipurpose hall. Spanning 66 feet (20 meters), the arches "were cast in fair-faced concrete using new ply forms, V-shaped plastic grooves, and steel tie-rods," says Tan.
He adds: "The groves on the insides of the arches follow the curve of the arch but taper gradually towards the ceiling. It was incredibly difficult to build and took many rounds of design, engineering, as well as mock-ups to get it to an acceptable level of finish." While the fair-faced concrete was chosen because of its good aging characteristics, it still had to be painted white, at the client's request.
Entering the dewan solat utama, my eyes quickly ascended the smooth marble surface of the 56-foot- (17-meter-) high canted qibla wall (the wall facing Mecca), toward the skylight overhead. Suddenly surrounded by so much space and light, I felt like making some joyously expansive physical gesture.
The qibla wall is "inclined to create an imposing and domineering space for the user. This is meant to humble the worshipper in the presence of God," says Tan. "It creates "a sense of a compressive space, to put one in one's place, so to speak." After a few moments of imagined arm waving I did indeed begin to experience the feeling of a restrained but crushing weight, albeit more architectural than spiritual.
Symbols of Islam
On the Assyafaah Mosque's second floor is the dewan solat wanita, sandwiched between two sloping aluminum screens. The design of the screens is based on the arabesque, the divine origins of which prompted Tan to use it throughout the interior, including on the carpets. "The arabesque exhibits multiplicity as expressions of unity and is a tribute to God and is considered divine in Islamic origin," says Tan.
"The arabesque patterns symbolize the five important attributes of the Koran," he continues. It is complete, infinite, clear, multicentered, and awe-inspiring. In arid-climate architecture, the buildings have massive thick walls. The arabesque patterns were used to 'dematerialize' the walls and in visual terms, helped ameliorate their scale."
The aluminum screens — built from modules hung on steel frames — permit cross ventilation, create shadows inside the building, and obscure from view the world outside.
On the opposite side of the prayer room, and through another metal screen, female worshippers are able to look down into the men's prayer room and to face the mihrab (the alcove that points to Mecca) in the qibla wall.
As a result of the mosque's openness, breezes and even stormy winds are able to enter the mosque's interior. On the afternoon of my visit, a storm did in fact sweep in. The minaret in front of the building became slick with rain.
The trees outside looked like pale gray silkscreen prints on curtains of water. Winds forcing their way through the halls caused indoor drapes to billow. When the weather brightened an hour later, I departed with a better appreciation of contemporary Islamic architecture.
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Robert Such writes about and photographs architecture and interior design for publications around the world.