Moira Gemmill shortlist: a university in Doha fluidly wraps around the campus mosque minarets – a beacon of knowledge and prayer
Shortlisted for the 2017 Moira Gemmill Prize
As entrancing as it is visually, the new Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies becomes even more captivating as you discover it through a process of continuous learning and enlightenment, encoded in every physical and spatial aspect of it. A recent project of lead designer Ada Yvars, the co-founder of Mangera Yvars, the building – opened in 2015 – could easily be regarded as one of the most socially eloquent, culturally erudite and design innovative structures in Qatar.
Part of the Qatar Foundation’s Education City, a landmark co-educational assembly of international leading universities, the brief called for a university and the campus mosque, which would also be open to the public. Implicit was the importance of achieving the proper platform for enriching the dialogue between Islamic education and faith, set against both the complexities and the opportunities of our modernity.
‘The QFIS conveys an unmistakably urban quality, manifested in the synergetic alternation of massing and landscape’
The QFIS building occupies the north-east corner of Education City, which opens in towards the rest of the campus, but is challenged by an opaque and impermeable motorway on the opposite side. Immediately noticeable is the response to site. Instead of turning its body and attention towards the tranquil interior of the campus, the building takes complete ownership of its semi-constrained location by opening, extending, reaching out in all directions, in a fluid motion that merges beginning and end, and carries the city energy inside. In contrast to the other more introverted, edge-defining buildings of the Qatar Foundation, the QFIS conveys an unmistakably urban quality, manifested in the synergetic alternation of massing and landscape, solids and voids, sun and shade, and in the clear acknowledgement and close relationship with the adjacent Northwestern University building and Oxygen Park.
In response to the brief, that called for a co-educational faculty and a mosque, Mangera Yvars looks into the relationship between knowledge and faith, rooted deeply in Islamic practice, where only through seeking knowledge do you reach enlightenment. ‘The scriptural relevance of knowledge and faith underpinned the many advances of Islamic civilisation where faith supported scholarly endeavours in areas such as mathematics, philosophy, astronomy and the arts. The brief led to developing the scheme where faith and knowledge are wrapped around one another, physically, formally and programmatically.’
The design for the QFIS is not without profound historical reference. It is based on the Islamic ‘Kulliyya’ – a place of education and prayer, built on the belief that all knowledge comes from faith. Contrary to the more rigid template of the Kulliyya, however, Mangera Yvars’ design wraps the academic programme around prayer spaces and creates a notion of fluid movement and interaction, both outdoors and in. That approach also explains why and how the building embraces its site and opens to the wider context through elaborate landscape and alternation of in- and outdoor space. Because of the role of the mosque as a community space in Islam, and not only as a place of worship like the Christian church, the QFIS becomes a collective communal agency, a ‘beacon of knowledge and light’, as described by its tenants, that simultaneously gathers and disperses in a series of spaces that seem indispensable to one another and in a complete synergy.
‘The holistic interplay of pure surfaces, morphed patterns and natural elements achieve a condition of spirituality and contemplation, rather than formalism’
That attention to the essence of space, rather than form, is what makes this building successful as sociocultural and educational infrastructure. ‘We wanted to capture the ethereal qualities of Islamic space, rather than its depiction through overt symbolism. The building is predominantly white because white has great resonance in Islam – it is the colour of the Ihram worn on the pilgrimage to Mecca emphasising that all Muslims are equal.’ The holistic interplay of pure surfaces, morphed patterns of Arabic origin, calligraphy, texture and natural elements, such as water and green surfaces, achieve a condition of spirituality and contemplation, rather than formalism.
Spatialising faith is a formidable challenge, especially in Islam, where praying space does not need a physical embodiment, as Allah is omnipresent in both sacred and secular spaces so the believer does not need to reach sacred ground to pray. Moreover, there is no Islamic architectural design dogma and, in fact, many variations are found between the Arab, Asian and Indian typologies and throughout the ages. Nevertheless, they all hold a certain commonality in the order, hierarchy of spaces and rationality of design.
Such notions are absent in Mangera Yvars’ design. There is no sense of procession or formality, nor even one main entry to the building. Nevertheless, in the sequence of spatial experiences, very endearing cultural and historical legibility is uncovered. The Kulliyya layout is present, but dissolved; the learning and praying spaces unwrapped and reconfigured in two oscillating ribbons of programme – knowledge and faith – that form an irregular courtyard in the middle. Wrapped by a wave of Arabic calligraphy on a fully glazed facade, reciting verses from the Quran, the courtyard space becomes the theocentric external counterpart of the mosque space to its side. It is a space of enlightenment, relief, reflection and repose. It also acts as a connector between the mosque and the lower level programme, mostly comprising classroom spaces, so enforcing the relationship between faith and knowledge and creating a social condenser.
Even the mosque space itself, as the courtyard space, is not formalised, rather it becomes part of the experience of discovery, which explains its lack of processional entrance, its multiple entry points and levels. Its volume is lifted off the ground and supported by five formidable size pillars, representing the five pillars of Islam – Shahada (knowledge), Salat (prayer), Zakat (charity), Siyam (fasting) and Hajj (pilgrimage); also wrapped in calligraphy. The lift creates a deeply shaded vast ground-level undercroft space – enlivened by large pools of spilling water from inside out – while the entry is on the upper level, off axis with the courtyard space. Two more entries are inside the building, coming off the ablution stair and split on two levels – for female and male visitors.
The ablution stair is one of the most memorable experiences in the building. Here, the notions of knowledge and light spiral down a white stair, wrapped in a thin metal mesh that cascades water from the very top level into the ‘four rivers of paradise’ on ground level, that then continue throughout the building and spill into the ‘four gardens of paradise’ surrounding the entire site of the building. Both a lightwell and a waterfall, the stair transcends the sensory experience into the shimmering dome of the mosque, where layers of curved white surfaces, sprinkled with miniature starry lighting fixtures and adorned with more subtle calligraphy, scoop the worshipper into the realm of the divine. At any given Jum’ah (Friday prayer), when the mosque is at full capacity, it opens its doors to the courtyard, where the praying lines on the ground continue on the exterior pavement, bringing the large crowds to the outdoors. Water, sound, light, calligraphy, pattern, purity of colour, inside and out – all are experienced simultaneously, making the visitors linger long after prayer on Friday.
The forms of the knowledge and light ‘ribbons’ take the wonderer through the entire building on a journey of curiosity and discovery, and culminate in two minarets covered in Quran verse raised 71 and 81m into the city’s skyline. ‘The minarets are cantilevered and symbolically tilted to point towards Mecca. They are the visible markers for QFIS in the context of the campus and they frame the entrance to both the university and the mosque acting as gateway and guardian. In that sense, QFIS is quite different to other faculties because it responds very directly to the wider campus, drawing in visitors from the landscaped area of Oxygen Park.’
‘As a practice we are motivated by the idea of architecture as “urban landscape” and in this sense we see landscape as physical, political, social and cultural space’
In the building, ample corridors washed in indirect daylight are decorated with subtle carvings that tell stories of historical Islamic monuments around the world. Along the way, classroom and office spaces – infiltrated by miniature courtyards – count like beads on a string, intimately together and non-hierarchical. Along the way, you might discover the library, or access to the habitable roof level, the auditorium or exhibition space; you might spill outside along the ‘rivers’ and come back in through another entrance. The building’s urban look and feel and how it manages in- and outdoor spaces, is something that no other building in Qatar has achieved with such success. The building works as a ‘social condenser’, where visitors share academic space, where parity between men and women is part of a core principle, where women can pray on the same level as men. That sense of integration, equality and proprietorship of the building is also the general response of the tenants when asked how they perceive the building.
Undoubtedly, the unique synergy between the spatial and the physical configuration achieves that landscape-like, mini-city feel which has become the imprint of a new design template in Doha’s built fabric. That concept of architecture as urban landscape is core to the design ethos of Mangera Yvars. ‘As a practice we are motivated by the idea of architecture as “urban landscape” and in this sense we see landscape as physical, political, social and cultural space. QFIS is therefore both an architectonic response and a response to social and cultural forces in opposition to the nihilistic view of the Islamic world perpetuated in the West.’
Indeed, a true innovator in terms of acknowledgement of context, programme configuration and architectural design, the QFIS’s impact is even greater as an ideological statement. In times of heated theological discourse and divisiveness in the discourse of Islamic teachings, it offers a platform for social re-construct and re-calibration, based on a shared appreciation of the processes of learning, of progress and of capacity for reinvention, of sharing knowledge and most importantly, of self-growth and critical thought.
Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies
Architect: Mangera Yvars Architects
Principals: Ada Yvars Bravo and Ali Mangera
Photographs: Oscar Rialubin and Courtesy of the Qatar Foundation