Lanterns light up Newport Mosque

As the sun moves, different coloured lights reflect against the walls. Photo by Fatima Halloum.
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Months after the opening of the Australian Islamic Centre, community members in Newport talk to Fatima Halloum about their struggles and accomplishments.

Ninety-six triangular lanterns sit atop the roof. Each one is hand painted a luminescent gold and fitted with a piece of glass shaded yellow, blue, green or red. As sun light passes through the panels they’re projected onto concrete walls, deliberately left bare for the very purpose of enhancing the coloured rays as they bathe the dull grey and illuminate the space in warmth and life.

The Imam raises his hands to cover his ears and begins a melodic recitation. His voice is soothing and serene, reverberating off the high walls and filling the air with gentle echoes. To all who hear him, the message he is relaying is clear. It’s time for prayer.

Over the course of his career, architect Glenn Murcutt has received notable attention for his works.

The first and only Australian to win the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, his long list of projects vary from houses and wineries to information offices and education centres. But never a mosque. Until now.

Nearly six months after the long-awaited opening of the Australian Islamic Centre in Newport, the community is sharing how it feels to be winding down from a 10-year project and what their new mosque means to them.

“We’re really proud after all these years of working,” said Bakr Hawwari. “It’s very special to everyone.”

The 16 year-old said the new centre “looks nicer, fits better and is more comfortable”.

Services at the previous mosque, also located in Hobsons Bay, were often forced to filter outside and onto the concrete due to a holding capacity of just 150 worshippers.

This is a small number when contrasted against 2016 Census findings that reported 4,408 Muslims reside in the area.

The Australian Islamic Centre can accommodate an estimated 2000 worshippers.

Houda Khodr said he believed the larger area and simpler design makes her feel more relaxed. “Humans by nature like things to be spacious and clean. It’s simple. There are no decorations and that helps me stay focused spiritually.”

“There’s a word for it in Arabic called Sherih,” said Khodr. “When you’re in a tight area, you feel confined. When there’s a large space and there’s room around you, that’s Sherih. I feel like the mosque gives me that.”

However, the development came with its complications, particularly when Murcutt shared his decision to forgo the use of minarets, towers that are customary in Islamic architecture.

The idea was to promote the concept of an Australian mosque that was inclusive of Muslims and non-Muslims alike by redefining what a traditional mosque looked like.

Murcutt also revealed plans to adorn the roof with lanterns that would reflect different colours throughout the day, depending on the position of the sun.

The idea was initially met with hesitance.

“The lanterns didn’t come until the end; people were really anxious as they just saw concrete walls,” said Hawwari. “Glenn was very graphic about the way he described them and their colours. Everyone tried to imagine it and how the lights would be coming in. We all had different expectations.”

Hawwari said that once the lanterns were up, the wariness died down. “People stopped complaining. Some preferred a traditional mosque but they’re still happy with it.”

Khodr, a graphic designer, says the lanterns give her a “sense of joy”.

“By nature I love colours. Going to the mosque and seeing the lights, looking up into them just makes me happy,” said Khodr. “I know they’re symbolic, but I love the design of it and how they work.”

The lanterns are made using a combination of aluminium, glass and wood. Photo by Fatima Halloum.

The community also faced complications during planning and construction.

A permit was issued in 2009 and building work was set to begin in July 2010 but was often delayed due to poor weather and lack of funds, leaving community members feeling helpless.

An information evening held prior to construction disclosed the concerns of residents who were worried the crowds would bring excessive commotion.

Matthew Gray, who lives opposite the Australian Islamic Centre, says he’s had no problems with noise or traffic.

“It’s been great; we’ve had no issues whatsoever. If there’s big crowds they have parking attendants,” said Gray. “We can’t even tell when there are people there.”

Alongside the mosque is an education centre, a library and an indoor recreational and functions centre that are yet to be completed.

The multi-million dollar project was primarily community funded and relied on financial and labour contributions. Muslim plumbers, electricians and painters volunteered their time, tools and expertise to assist with the construction of the mosque.

“People of all ages would come in to see if they could do anything to help out,” said Hawwari.

Khodr, a mother of two young boys, is happy her children have somewhere to go where they feel accepted.

“The thing that really really mattered to me was that my kids and the kids of the community have a safe haven to resort back to,” said Khodr. “Especially in a time where minorities feel dreaded, not even just Muslims. Our identity is sometimes targeted and we need somewhere to come back to where we feel like we belong.”

Public awareness peaked in the last year of construction after an exhibit was displayed in the National Gallery of Victoria and the mosque was featured alongside Murcutt’s other works in an ABC documentary titled Glenn Murcutt: Spirit Of Place.

The publicity brought donations from Muslims and non-Muslims across Australia.

“We are very grateful for all of the donations that came in,” said Hawwari. “Everyone is very grateful.”

Hawwari said visitors are always welcome to visit the new mosque. “Until now we have architects coming in from all around the world. We have tens of non-Muslims coming in every week and Muslims from across the nation coming to see it.”

“Everyone is welcome to come and explore. If they’re non-Muslims, they can learn what Islam is about. If they’re Muslims, they can see that we can have an Australian mosque,” said Hawwari. “People can come and see how all the cultures combined to build a mosque.”