Rima Alsammarae, editor of Middle East Architect
Rima Alsammarae, editor of Middle East Architect

Comment: Mosques are now expanding horizontally, offering renewed public spaces for their communities

The design of spiritual spaces is among the most difficult for architects. While presenting the usual restraints, like tight budgets, short time frames and client demands, such projects, when approached in unconventional ways, can be inundated with religious opposition and public disagreement. And in countries where religious conservatism overpowers creative solutions, designing a spiritual space can often fall short of being an exploratory opportunity for architects.

Our cover story this month looks at Valiasr Mosque, a new building in Iran by Fluid Motion Architects, which challenges traditional mosque architecture. Largely considered a controversial design due to its transformation of the building’s roof into a public plaza, which also serves as seating for a nearby theatre, as well as for its lack of classical elements, like the minaret, the mosque is one of the latest manifestations from architects in the Middle East looking for ways to break away from the usual mosque typology.

Other recent examples include Amir Shakib Arslan by L.E.FT Architects in Lebanon, Al Dana Mosque by X Architects in the UAE, and Sancaklar Mosque by Emre Arolat Architecture in Turkey. Iranian architect Arash G. Tehrani also revealed a new concept proposal for a mosque in Golshahr, Alborz, which integrates a plaza into its site, intending to offer a place for social gathering. It proposes an interesting reinterpretation of the sacred space, and reconnects the mosque to its urban context.

Such examples reflect the changing architectural language of mosques simultaneously happening in different Muslim countries, illustrating their horizontal expansion rather than vertical, as reflected in their incorporation of plazas and landscaped areas. Rather than keeping engagement with visitors an indoor activity, mosques are beginning to offer a hospitable non-denominational space for respite to local community members.

Catherine Spiridonoff, CEO of Fluid Motion Architects, the firm behind our cover story, discussed the reforming approach to mosque design, and drew Valiasr’s design inspiration from Prophet Muhammad’s time. According to her, the first mosques ever built refrained from vertical dominance, which she said developed later over the centuries.

“After Prophet Muhammad, elements like the dome and minarets were added to the architecture of the mosque,” she said. “The mosque’s peaceful horizontal form transformed into a vertical shape as a symbol of authority.”

“Valiasr is a criticism of the vertical authoritarian structures of classical mosques and proposes peace and equality,” she added.

While mosques have always been a private place of tranquillity for believers, their changing typology is a reflection of the desire to further integrate mosques into their contexts and rethink their visual dialogue with their communities.