Architecture that captures the spirit of Islam

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 June, 2009, 12:00am

Through astounding feats of structural engineering, artistry rooted in ancient civilisations and a quest to capture the spirit of one of the world's great religions, Islamic architecture is a visual expression of the faith of hundreds of millions of Muslims across the globe. And, with a Muslim population surpassing 10 million, Malaysia presents some of the most remarkable examples of Islamic architecture in Southeast Asia.

In the heart of Kuala Lumpur stands one of country's 'oldest-modern' buildings, the Dayabumi Complex. It is one of the city's key landmarks and wears this society's Islamic heritage conspicuously. It was designed in the 'modern Islamic' style, which is in evidence today across the country.

Construction took place from 1982 to 1984, and elicited some controversy at the time because of the complex's seemingly extravagant expense at a time when Malaysia was still viewed as a developing country. Indeed, on completion, the Dayabumi Complex was the most expensive building to have been built in the country.

This 35-storey tower was also the first building in Kuala Lumpur to blend the modern lines physically required by high-rise engineering, and Islamic motifs and arabesques. The building is criss-crossed with a latticed grillwork of Moorish Islamic origin, and, as a whole, the architectural style is a hybrid of Moorish and Byzantine artistic traditions, but with a palpably Malay character.

The exterior of the Dayabumi Complex allows the building to fit in well with neighbouring buildings that are also inspired by Moorish and Byzantine artistic traditions, notably the nearby Sultan Abdul Samad Building.

Today, the complex houses an office tower block, a shopping arcade and the Kuala Lumpur General Post Office. The office block used to be the headquarters for Petronas before the building of the Petronas Twin Towers, the Islamic art-influenced landmark that succeeded the Dayabumi Complex in becoming the city's most recognisable building.

The buildings of the Dayabumi Complex enjoy close proximity to distinctively Islamic Kuala Lumpur landmarks such as the Federal House, the Moorish-influenced old Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, and the National Mosque.

About 500km northeast of Kuala Lumpur stands one of the world's youngest mosques of imposing size. In February last year, the Sultan of the Malaysian state of Terengganu, opened - amid considerable fanfare and media coverage - the Crystal Mosque, or Masjid Kristal, as it is called in Malay.

This new mosque is the flagship attraction of the new Islamic Heritage Park, located in the nation's Islamic heartland, in the city of Kuala Terengganu. The mosque itself juts out into the Terengganu River and, when weather conditions are obliging, casts magnificent reflections on this body of water.

A strikingly unusual mosque, it was constructed over two years, with a framework of steel girders between which enormous sheets of gold, bronze, and amber-tinted crystal glass were fitted.

During the day, the sun glints off the angular building in spectacular fashion and, at night, the mosque is lit up from within, creating an unforgettable spectacle.

With its four soaring minarets and a huge bulbous onion dome covering the main prayer hall, and many other smaller domes, this mosque is more faithful to tradition than its pioneering reputation might suggest, even down to the five crescent moons atop the minarets and the main dome - one for each pillar of the faith.

Another recent addition to Malaysia's Islamic cityscape juts out into a man-made lake and beautifies the skyline.

Located in the new purpose-built ultramodern 'intelligent city' of Putrajaya, the Putra Mosque appears to be the most traditional landmark in this futuristic corner of Malaysia. Like every other building here, it's not very old - construction of the mosque was completed in 1999 - but it does honour enduring Islamic architectural forms.

The mosque's most conspicuous feature, its main dome, presents a profile that lies halfway between the traditional onion shape of Arabian Peninsula mosques and the perfect semi-sphere of modern mosque domes favoured in Southeast Asia.

Carved from pink granite and featuring a floral-like arabesque in a sandy beige that uniformly covers the dome's entire surface, this is an evocative piece of engineering that is echoed by the eight 'minidomes' atop the mosques 'turrets'.

There is a gold apex spike on the main top which glints with the sun's rays at dusk when the rest of the dome takes on a crimson hue.

The mosque reveals influences from many parts of the Islamic world. Its eight-sided minaret appears to be inspired by designs commonly found in the Euphrates Valley and is, at 116 metres, one of the tallest minarets in Asia-Pacific.

The basement wall of the Putra Mosque draws some inspiration from the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco. And its overhanging arches just beneath the dome recall the cursive artistry of the Ottoman Empire.

As with the Crystal Mosque, the juxtaposition of water and house of worship, reflection and sky, heaven and Earth, is a wonder to behold. The best-known construction in all of Malaysia, the iconic Petronas Towers, is also a modern interpretation of Islamic architectural tradition.

These twin towers of elegant proportions swiftly captured the public imagination, and the title of the world's highest building - albeit only briefly - when the 88-storey Petronas Towers complex topped out in 1998.

Argentinean-American architect Cesar Pelli's design answered the developer's brief to structurally articulate 'the culture and heritage of Malaysia', and he did this through evoking Islamic patterns through repetitive geometries characteristic of Islamic architecture - arabesques whose roots lie far to Malaysia's west, but have always been a feature inspired by Moorish and Byzantine artistic traditions of the nation's mosques.

The fundamental floor plan, an eight-point star formed by intersecting squares, provides an obvious reference to Islamic architectural tradition, and curved and pointed bays of the towers' scalloped facades have a distinctively Muslim appearance. Moreover, the soaring edifices of the capital of Malaysia dramatically imitate the proportions of a pair of minarets.

The identical towers are linked by a bridge on the 41st floor, creating a massive archway - another Islamic motif - soaring above the capital.