In a suburb on a Malaysian island, a mosque designed by an emerging female architect, Eleena Jamil, challenges traditional Islamic design in Southeast Asia.
Positioned near a busy intersection in Tanjung Tokong, a suburb of George Town in Penang, Malaysia, sits a mosque of a sort seldom found in the Southeast Asian country. Dome-less, chalk-white and fronted by vertical lines, the Masjid Karwa, or Karwa Mosque, challenges locally held perceptions of how a Muslim prayer space should look.
“Mosque architecture in Malaysia did not originally have domes,” said Eleena Jamil, Karwa Mosque architect and founder of her namesake practice based in Cyberjaya, a town 40 kilometres southwest of Kuala Lumpur. “Domes are a Middle Eastern and Indian architectural feature. They’re more cultural than religious, while mosques in Malaysia, or in Southeast Asia in general, were originally very different, and this was due to climate, available materials and culture.”
Yet, the dome has pride of place today, and many of Malaysia’s biggest mosques feature at least one, if not several, from the recently built, but otherwise traditionally styled Crystal Mosque in the state of Terengganu, to the Green Building Index-credited and modern Raja Fisabilillah Mosque in Cyberjaya with its futuristic glass dome. Nonetheless, Jamil’s client for the Karwa Mosque was very clear: “I was approached by someone who wanted to donate to build the mosque,” she explained. “This person, who’d rather remain anonymous, is also a Penangite (like Jamil). His brief was simply and firmly, ‘no dome’.”
Jamil was given a small budget to work with, and she was tasked with designing the project to assume as much built-up space as possible within the given site, and raising it slightly from the road to separate it from the vehicular congestion so close to its border.
“We also had many meetings with the mosque committee, the squatters on the land, the Penang state government authorities and the mayor,” she said. Other than that, though, she “had a free hand.”
The project involved removing the original mosque that was on the site. Built in 1897, it was timber and looked like the elevated houses common among village homes in Malaysia. But it was “run-down and messy,” said Jamil, who also noted the many structural issues and spaces that were added haphazardly over time. “So many things were done to it that it had become unrecognisable,” she added. “There had been natural light in the inner sanctum and good wind orientation, but with the additions, those elements were lost. There were several levels of it, stalls outside, and zinc roofs on the additional buildings.”
To design the new mosque, Jamil went back to basics – the rectangular site itself – and decided to keep some key elements while discarding what she believed did not serve the community.
“The site doesn’t face Mecca, so we had to skew the building,” she said. “We also needed an intermediate space between the mosque and the road, so we put in the terrace between the prayer area and the road.”
Providing a buffer, Jamil designed the patterned exterior screen, which also offers shade to the intermediate seating area.
“It’s a simple geometric pattern, but it’s not common to have that repeated pattern in Islamic architecture. Usually, it’s one pattern with a central focus…It’s more interesting this way,” she said.
The result, she added, is akin to having a serambi, the Malay word for ‘porch’. “We wanted a receiving area, like in the old houses. The idea was to be welcoming, so it’s very porous,” she said.
The terrace is popular with the local community, which hosts its functions there. Every time Jamil visits the Karwa Mosque, she finds locals lepaking, a colloquial Malay word for ‘loitering’. “I’m really happy to see people using the space. It’s like an outdoor room for the community,” she said.
Another important requirement was for the new mosque to be elevated, as the original one was. According to Jamil, the sea once reached the site, hence the need for the original mosque to be on higher ground. Now, however, with the booming popularity of the larger Tanjong Tokong area among property buyers, there’s almost one kilometer of high-rise condominiums sitting on reclaimed land between the project site and the coast.
“The current mosque is still elevated but it’s not immediately apparent. Mosques can be quite inaccessible to the public as they’re almost always gated in Malaysia, so here was an opportunity to make it as welcoming as possible to the public, with steps along the front.”
For Jamil, getting the community to embrace her clean-lined design inside the mosque would prove more challenging. “We had a tough time trying to convince people about the mihrab. We wanted to keep it simple, but some said the design was not decorative enough. It was not a hard protest, though. The client is quite easy, so it was just a matter of convincing the others,” she said.
Overall, Jamil said, the challenge was in the design stage, not the build. It was in trying to convince the people who live there and who would use the mosque that it would improve the area, a largely lower-income neighbourhood of families living in kampung (or ‘village’ in Malay) homes.
“They’re used to timbered mosques,” Jamil said. “They don’t own the land they live on. The English owned the land and set this area aside for them, and it now belongs to the government. So, there’s a certain [tension] – there’s a feeling of impermanence.”
The kampung house vernacular is somewhat echoed in the Karwa Mosque, which reflects a modesty that’s rooted in the land it sits on and the village it serves. It was important for Jamil to instil a Malaysian sense of place. “When I came back from my studies overseas, it was a struggle to find a recognisable impact in buildings, that they belong.”
Jamil’s background, which roots her in Penang, a historic island-state 360 kilometres north of the Malaysian capital, had a hand in her heightened situational awareness.
“I come from a family in the construction business, so it’s always been a part of my life, and I would say I was encouraged to enter the field. But it worked out very well for me,” she said.
“I’ve always loved watching things getting built, and then my designs getting built. I’m aware of how projects are put together, and I’m interested in detailing and finding new ways to [create].”
At the end of the four-year design and build process, which came in December 2019, the mosque issued some resolution, providing a sense of permanence, despite its ever-changing urban surroundings.
And although Jamil is aware that the Karwa Mosque is not for everyone, (“people say it doesn’t look like a mosque”), she’s a firm believer that mosque architecture doesn’t purely signify certain design and architectural elements; rather, mosques and otherwise sacred Islamic spaces can come in many forms, which evolve over time and respond to cultural and social development.
And Jamil is happy to see mosque design evolve in her home country, and she cited two other Malaysian mosques – the modern TNB An-Nur Balai Islamic Mosque in the suburb of Bangsar, and the climatically-informed Cyber 10 Mosque in Cyberjaya – as evidence.
“I’m happy to see things like that – modern, a bit better in context, and not all curvy,” she said. “Curvy can be anywhere. Karwa has many tall windows, offering cross ventilation and natural light. The terrace is also naturally ventilated. I feel that this mosque is quite suited to the area.”
It’s also quite suited to the increasing diversity in mosque design in the country, Jamil pointed out. However, she’s also firm about not pushing an agenda in her designs. While she likes to work with bamboo, for example, she insists on not trying to insert it into every project.
“I wasn’t doing things to push a philosophy or change people,” Jamil said. “I do things that come to me. I do what’s right and suitable. You change by doing, not telling people to change.”
This article was originally published in the Red Envelope series, as part of the third journal themed ‘Women’. The Red Envelope journals are published by LWK + PARTNERS, and edited by Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae. They aim to provide knowledge and insight on global urban design for readers interested in architecture, design, development and the built environment.
Volume I, Journal III is available to read in digital format here.