Candalepas Associates’ Punchbowl Mosque is a religious and community centre woven into the urban fabric of one of southwest Sydney’s most culturally diverse localities.
Af Jason Dibbs
A landmark contribution to Australia’s Islamic community, as well as the local architectural landscape, it negotiates with the conventions of the traditional mosque typology through the geometric interplay of hard and soft edges and a raw and austere sense of materiality. Poetically, Punchbowl Mosque searches for what is essential in sacred architecture and, in the process, redefines our understanding of the Australian mosque.
Punchbowl is a densely populated suburb in Sydney’s southwest, quaintly named after a nearby circular valley referred to by 19th-century settlers as ‘the punch bowl’. Today, the area is known locally for its cultural diversity, with migrant communities from countries including Lebanon, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and China now calling Punchbowl home. In the midst of bustling multiculturalism, the Punchbowl Mosque provides a new hub for the area’s Muslim community and, further, offers a new vision for Islam as part of the broader Australian community in the 21st century.
In an interview discussing early ambitions for the Punchbowl Mosque, Dr. Zachariah Matthews of the Australian Islamic Mission stated that the congregation wanted “to have a mosque that had the traditional elements … but that the finish itself and the design of it needed to be contemporary, new and different.” Whilst Candalepas Associates’ Punchbowl Mosque does in many ways depart from the conventional mosque typology, it still carefully retains those characteristics essential to cultivating an atmosphere of reflection and awe. Students of sacred architecture and followers of Islam will note the conspicuous absence of any minaret from the Punchbowl Mosque — at the heart of this omission lies an exploration into the essence of mosque architecture — as Angelo Candalepas has explained, it is not the structure of the minaret itself that is significant, but rather, the tradition and sound of the human voice projected from it, announcing prayer times.
Commentators have likened the Punchbowl Mosque to Brutalism, characteristic of public architecture from the 1950s to the 1970s. However, the only real connection between Candalepas Associates’ mosque and the Brutalist School seems to be the preference for concrete, poured and cast in situ. In fact, Candalepas has been quick to point out that his project was never intended to serve as a reference to Brutalism, nor was it ever intended to be ‘retrogressive’ in its outlook. Indeed, more fruitful comparisons may be drawn between the Punchbowl Mosque and the exquisite concrete detailing found throughout the work of Pritzker Prize recipient Tadao Ando. Similarly, the use of concrete in Candalepas Associates’ mosque is incredibly refined; the juxtaposition of soft curvilinear forms and hard, crisp edges in concrete is both elegant and striking.
Tensions between an intimate human scale and the scale of the sublime are evoked by visual datums created by the ascending vertical hierarchy of materials in the prayer hall, and the rhythm and repetition of the 102 Muqarnas domes, seemingly ‘carved’ into the ceiling. The Muqarnas domes each contain a 20mm-diameter oculus, introducing a play of light and shadow. The effect of myriad tiny ‘pin-points’ of light in the cavernous, honeycombed interior kindles associations with constellations and planets, and with the historic Islamic astronomers of the Middle Ages.
Aligned with the manifestly innovative character of the Punchbowl Mosque, Candalepas Associates have reconsidered the various programmatic components essential to worship in Islam. Ablutions are performed against a backdrop of timber accents and concrete, with light filtering in from above, behind a sloped ceiling light-shelf reminiscent of Jorn Utzon’s superb Bagsvaerd Church. The women’s gallery is elevated over the main prayer hall in a mezzanine, veiled by elegant vertical timber battens. The main dome directly above is stepped in concrete and timber, pierced at its center by a large oculus. The overall effect is powerful: in an interview with the Australian broadcaster SBS, a member of Punchbowl’s Islamic community said of the Punchbowl Mosque that “having this kind of extraordinary design… will uplift not only our beliefs but also what other people think about Islam.”
Candalepas Associates have received a number of accolades and awards for the Punchbowl Mosque, including the Australian Institute of Architects’ 2018 Sulman Medal for Public Buildings — the second time the practice has been awarded this prestigious prize (the first was for All Saints Primary School in 2008). Reflecting on the achievements of the Punchbowl Mosque, Candalepas has stated that “architecture should import, as does poetry, a sense of observation of the world.” And certainly, the Punchbowl Mosque is imbued with a sense of the choreography of worship and the needs of its congregation, but in the poetic exploration for that which is essential, it has also uncovered latent potential to transform communities and architectural traditions.