Fluid Motion Architects designs controversial mosque in Tehran that challenges traditional Islamic design

Sitting in the cultural heart of Tehran, where bookstores, educational institutions, a 1970s theatre and a park encourage the revolving presence of the city’s intellectuals, Valiasr Mosque, a recently completed building by Iranian architecture practice Fluid Motion Architects, sets a new tone.

Challenging traditional Islamic design through its transformation of the mosque’s roof as a plaza, the building has long spurred national conversation – even before it was built.

“About 17 years ago, the former mayor of Tehran decided to boast the dominance of religion on art, politics and culture by building a huge mosque,” reads a statement released by the practice. “[It was designed as] a classic mosque with a few minarets and a 52m high dome, which was about three times bigger than the City Theatre.

“Following public opposition, especially from artists, against the huge scale of the mosque and its negative impact on the cultural atmosphere of the area, the mosque’s construction was suspended for two years. Afterwards, in 2007, while parts of its excavation, foundation and basement structure were being executed, the city’s new mayor called on us to find a solution, and design a new mosque.”

While adhering to the religious function of the building’s programme, Fluid Motion Architects’ solution had to reduce the mass of the previous design and, moreover, respect the cultural atmosphere of the area – the inhabitants of which are mostly within the 15 to 40-year age range. The mosque, said the architects, should be an inviting space.

The architects further intended to enhance the spiritual aspect of the crowded city, while also meeting global sustainability standards and a restrictive budget.

“We studied the history of mosque architecture,” said Reza Daneshmir, managing director at Fluid Motion Architects. “And we found our solution in the first mosque built in Islam – the Quba Mosque in Medina. It is a horizontal structure that is very simple, modest and without any extensions.”

Daneshmir added, “We eliminated the stereotypical tall elements, such as the dome and minarets, and in order to harmonise with the context, we designed the roof of the new mosque in the form of a sloping surface that rises gradually from the ground along the park to the height of the City Theatre. It’s a three-dimensional surface that’s partly concave and partly convex. Besides maintaining the interconnection between the park and the project, the mosque’s roof changes its function into a public space that can work with its neighbouring theatre at certain times and serve as a seating platform.”

Covering a total floor area of 25,000m2, the mosque consists of four basements and three above-ground floors, which house libraries, classrooms, service areas, parking, a meeting hall, reception hall and a prayer hall.

A new typology for mosque architecture in Iran, Valiasr emphasises the horizontal expansion of a mosque – a revived idea from early Islamic era, Daneshmir said.

“After Prophet Mohammed, elements like the dome and minarets were added to the architecture of the mosque,” Catherine Spiridonoff, CEO at Fluid Motion Architects, added. “And over the centuries, the mosque’s peaceful horizontal form transformed into a vertical shape as a symbol of authority, boasting the dominance of religion.

“Valiasr is a criticism of the idea of vertical authoritarian structures of classical mosques and proposes peace and equality. It is the first contemporary mosque with a horizontal-structure-based spatial organisation and has the potential to open the doors to our perception of mosques and even other designs in a new era.”

Due to the client’s low budget, the architects chose simple finishings and materials including inexpensive cream marble for flooring and walls, white plaster for ceilings and columns, and washed concrete for the façade and roof.

The building maintains two entrances: one on the west side and the other on the north. The western entrance features an Islamic archway, which leads to the entrance hall with a subtle rotation. The second entrance is created with a diagonal split on the northern side of the mosque and evokes the feeling of walking through a tent.

The different floors are connected via gently sloped ramps that provide ease of movement for children, elders, pregnant women and those of different abilities.

The mosque’s most notable feature – its roof – maintains the interconnection between itself and the park. Stretching over the reception hall, the roof serves different functions, from being an open space that complements the nearby theatre to being the mosque’s courtyard.

“We used a traditional Persian method to create splits in the sloped roof,” said Daneshmir. “This provides the entrance of sunlight, air flow and natural ventilation into the building, and finally, it saves large amounts of energy. The splits enhance the connection between the exterior environment and the interior spaces.”

Valiasr Mosque was the 2018 winner of Middle East Architect Awards’ Cultural Project of the Year. The jury commended the project’s unconventional approach to Islamic architecture.

“The design of spiritual spaces is among the most challenging, but in recent times, the Middle East has seen a number of brilliant contemporary projects that redefine their typological vocabulary,” the jury said. “This building offers an interesting reinterpretation of the traditional sacred space while addressing contextual issues.”

Spiridonoff added, “Valiasr Mosque is an attempt to bring the peaceful, modest structure of the early mosques to the contemporary era. Our typology revives the forgotten idea of the Prophet.”

This article was originally published on Middle East Architect in February 2019.

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