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Formwerkz Architects’ Al-Islah mosque: ‘Changing with the world while keeping fundamental’

AR Faith 2016 Commended: In an age of extremism, this mosque strives to promote a welcoming openness

Masjid Al-Islah – Singapore’s 69th mosque –  serves the rapidly expanding community of Punggol in north-eastern Singapore. Open less than a year, it has quickly become the popular epicentre of Punggol’s growing and tightly-knit Malay Muslim community. The mosque, measuring 3,700 square metres, was designed for 4,500 worshippers – and is at times bursting at the seams. While regular Friday prayer attendance hovers below 3,000, on public holidays staff expect up  to 7,000 worshippers for the main prayer session. Likewise, the mosque’s 10 classrooms operate at maximum capacity, putting 1,120 Muslim students, aged from five to 20, through a rigorous 14-year programme. ‘This mosque is like a home,’ said Wahidah, a neighbourhood mother whose two children enjoy attending the three-hour Saturday classes. She is favourably disposed to having them  continue through to age 20.

Location is one reason for Al-Islah’s popularity. As the area’s only mosque (the old one was razed in 1995), it is wedged in among a dense cluster of public housing blocks and across the street from a state secondary school – walking distance for most worshippers and staff. A handful of others use accessible public transport; the underground stop and major bus interchange are just four minutes’ walk away. For the few who come by car, a major motorway exit is also nearby.

Punggol New Town, once a rural district of pig farms and old kampong dwellings,  has been rapidly building residential flats since 2000, mostly occupied by young families. Dubbed ‘a waterfront town of the 21st century’, it anticipates some 100,000 residents by 2025, including approximately 15,000 Muslims. Al-Islah was part of town planning from the start.  ‘This mosque has something for everyone,’ congregant Noorain Ahmed said while waiting for a daughter one Saturday. ‘Our neighbourhood youth even come and do their homework here.’

‘This mosque has something for everyone…our neighbourhood youth even come and do their homework here’

Ground and Second Floors

Ground and Second Floors

Floor plans - ground (left) and second (right). Click to expand

Step into Masjid Al-Islah on a late Friday afternoon and additional reasons for its popularity are evident. Enthusiastic staff as well as committed laymen are key. Leaders appear dedicated to provide ‘cradle to grave service’, not only meeting the needs of adult worshippers, but also systematically training younger generations in Muslim religious practices and philosophy. Leaders are adept, particularly in the use of social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – at fostering community cohesion. And they  are welcoming – both to their congregants and to the wider community, offering, for instance, frequent tours for non-Muslims and quickly addressing neighbours’ concerns about parking and noise levels.

Like other mosques in Singapore,  Al-Islah was built under the framework of the government’s Mosque Building Fund that coordinates mandatory contributions from all working Singaporean Muslims. A government committee, which included two Punggol members, set size limits for  the mosque, based on population, and earmarked S$2.5 million for project funding. It also initiated an architectural design competition. While the national committee initially operated as the architectural client, a Punggol management board was appointed to take over and fine-tune the plan with the architectural team. It raised an additional S$2.7 million for the mosque fund from  area residents. ‘Through contributions,  we more than doubled our financial target,’ said board chairman Wan Rizal. ‘We had more funds for operations and for certain material improvements.’

‘For the main prayer hall and outside areas, five characteristics spring to mind – open, majestic, spacious, contemporary and tranquil’

Staff and lay effectiveness goes hand in hand with the mosque’s impressive physical space. For the main prayer hall and outside areas, five descriptive words immediately spring to mind – open, majestic, spacious, contemporary and tranquil. The brainchild of Alan Tay and Seetoh Kum Loon of Formwerkz Architects, the design was largely driven by a client mandate: first,  to create an ‘open mosque’ – welcoming  to Muslims of all ages as well as to non-Muslims; and second, to create as much spillover prayer space as possible. ‘The design changed twice after we received feedback,’ recalled Tay. ‘It wasn’t easy,  but it had to be done.’

To fulfil his brief, Tay designed three bridge-linked blocks, which he believes ‘reflect a village cluster’. He devoted the largest footprint to the prayer hall while creating separate structures for administration and education as well as a magnificent rooftop dome, a car park and numerous outdoor spaces – beautifully landscaped –  for community activities or private reflection. Board vice chairman, Mohamed Faizul Othman, said the extra spaces ‘bring back the kampong spirit’ of sitting down with neighbours to talk or share a meal. Beyond the prayer hall, nearly all spaces are designed for prayer use with features such as folding panel doors that open up closed air-conditioned spaces, allowing for natural cross ventilation.  These spaces are complemented by subtle lines that direct worshippers to pray towards Mecca – either based on lighter or darker tile lines, or lines woven into the carpet, or the position of overhead lighting. The spaces also include a ubiquitous audiovisual system that unites the main worship leader to each satellite location.

Al Islah Singapore Formwerkz09

Al Islah Singapore Formwerkz09

Source: Kenji Kwok

Promoting religious understanding  was a prime objective for both the national committee and the local board. In Tay’s mind, the open aspect of the mosque, together with contemporary, monochromatic blocks and a slender minaret, exude a dignified and subliminal presence, which is not off-putting to non-Muslim neighbours. ‘As architects, we were thinking about Islamic extremism and the need for community support,’ Tay explained. ‘This openness is a step to conciliation and understanding.’ Rizal agrees, noting that neighbours regularly pass the mosque on their way to public transport. He believes the open mosque concept, together with friendly Muslim worshippers, effectively bridges the gap of potential suspicion about Islam created by media reports of extremist Islamists. ‘Non-Muslims feel happy when they visit this open mosque,’ he said, noting that during Ramadan Muslim youth offer passers-by bowls of free porridge. ‘They learn about what we are doing. We are  not just praying.’

As a non-Muslim, I found it easy to approach Masjid Al-Islah without trepidation. From the street, through its three large arches, I could see the open-sided prayer hall. Instead of typical boundary walls, there are pools of water  and laced geometric metalwork – called arabesque screens – that do not obscure the surrounding apartment blocks. I walked up two steps, placed my shoes in the shoe rack, and immediately found the smooth, cool stone a balm for my hot feet. I also noted the floor’s pristine condition, a harbinger for the quality materials extended throughout the mosque.

‘Instead of typical boundary walls, there are pools of water and laced geometric metalwork that do not obscure the surroundings’

Walking alone into the main-floor prayer hall – normally used exclusively for men – I was immediately struck by its wide expanse and high ceiling.  The area – open, quiet, cool and uncluttered – exuded tranquillity and majesty. My eye found the sand colour, in varied shades, beautiful and peaceful. I surmised at once that the rectangle design of the plush carpet delineated individual prayer spaces, though I later found each could be used for at least two worshippers when necessary. Only a few male worshippers were present, praying quietly alone as they faced an imposing, ceiling-high Qibla with a contemporary angular design. Later, I would discover the design was actually a passage from the Qur’an. I also noted carefully placed Qur’an stands that edged the hall, allowing readers to gaze  at their texts in front of the water pools  and landscaped greenery – and near the maximum amount of natural light.

Natural light actually plays a dominant role in the prayer hall, and in the late afternoon hits the front part of the hall, prompting beams of light to shoot across the carpet and onto the walls in the back part of the hall. While those beams did not fully light the back at that time of day, I found the partially shaded effect pleasing – a welcome reprieve from the hot Singapore sun. It was boosted by a gentle cross breeze that kept unpowered ceiling fans slowly turning. According to Tay, ‘The lighting is soft, relaxed and shifts five to six times a day.’

Section AA jpg

Section AA jpg

Section AA - click to expand

Committee members, staff and congregants express universal acclaim  for the main prayer hall, despite certain initial reservations. ‘We’ve been getting  good reviews,’ said Rizal, who initially  joined a chorus of others who thought  the colour scheme was too bland. ‘I think Al-Islah broke the historical mindset  of what a mosque should look like.  It probably will set a trend.’ Ustaz  Khairul Anwar, the Saudi-trained  dakwah executive (adult religious teacher), agrees. ‘Congregants like the design, the aesthetic value,’ he said. ‘It brings tranquillity.’ Among worshippers’ observations: ‘The pools are resort-like, therapeutic, calming’ … ‘It feels very peaceful. I like it.’

Community stakeholders also applaud the rooftop dome, which was added at a later stage. ‘Residents very much wanted a dome,’ explained Rizal, ‘even though today it is no longer relevant but only symbolic.’ A popular spot for wedding photos and student activities, Tay notes its thick trellis design – which makes the dome porous and cool, yet shady – looks solid at street level.

To the left side of the prayer hall, a well-marked staircase and lift lead to a  small women’s prayer room. Women may use  it exclusively, except during Friday prayer times when it’s reserved for men. Adjoining it is a small changing room, a lavatory, and  a small ablution area. To Western eyes, it  is jarring to juxtapose its low ceiling, dense shutters and tight space – accommodating up to 100 worshippers – with the main prayer hall. While the female allowance may seem meagre, it is deemed more expansive than other Singapore mosques. ‘One of the mandates was to create spatial provisions for the female congregation in a traditionally man-centric institution,’ Tay notes. ‘A lot more can be achieved, but I guess it is a step forward.’  On this Friday, one of two female worshippers using the space – a Muslim convert who works at the mosque as a customer service representative – expressed no concerns about its size, which she deems appropriate for current demand. ‘I feel surrounded by angels here,’ she said.

Al Islah Singapore Formwerkz10

Al Islah Singapore Formwerkz10

Source: Kenji Kwok

By contrast, Al-Islah’s two other structures pose looming space constraints. In the administration building, 26 full-time staff each have a desk, but they are jammed together in two unacceptably small rooms amid stacks of book boxes and makeshift cupboards that overflow with supplies and snacks. There are no individual desks for  27 part-time teachers. In the education building, 10 small classrooms – each accommodating a maximum of 25 students – cannot meet existing parental demand, not to mention anticipated future demand. ‘We need more space,’ said teaching coordinator Siti Qadariah Bte Samsudin, pointing to an overheated tutor teaching Arabic to his student in the hallway. She added, ‘These classrooms are actually too small for certain activities we want to do.’

Indeed, staff and congregants alike, while good-natured, find these space constraints challenging. ‘Could these be bigger? Did we get the balance right?’ asks Faizul rhetorically. ‘Yes, but over time, when we need more staff, we won’t have enough space.’ Rizal agrees, noting, ‘This is a  BTO – build to order – mosque with a land size that is fixed.’

‘This mosque is changing with the world while keeping fundamental’

Still, based on current population projections for Punggol, and the mosque’s strong popularity, Tay believes the government could eventually increase the plot ratio to give the mosque more space. If it does there is room for  vertical expansion. ‘There will be no need to move out of the mosque during any future construction,’ he added. ‘The work can be isolated.’

That’s welcome news for Masjid Al-Islah congregants. ‘This mosque is changing with the world while keeping fundamental,’ said Thaheera, a 21-year-old university student who lives across the street and attends classes each Saturday. ‘The flurry of activity is a promising start for a happening future.’ 

Al-Islah Mosque

Architect: Formwerkz Architects

Structural engineer: AECOM Singapore 

Landscape architect: Salad Dressing 

Lighting consultant: Peggy Tan

Photographs: Kenji Kwok

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