A few days ago, we presented a case of Islamic architecture gone contemporary, by way of a cultural centre in a city right outside of Lisbon. The Muslim diaspora seems to be using architecture to send a new message of self-representation, as there is now a second case under our radar: the Punchbowl mosque.

The recently completed institution is located in Punchbowl – a dense, diverse suburb of Sydney named after the curvaceous sides of a nearby valley – and designed by local firm Candalepas Associates, best known for robust yet refined urban housing. Its raw concrete exterior has attracted the inevitable ‘brutalist’ tag, but its matte finishes are surprisingly soft and enticing, while its strong angles and occasional curves present a series of striking profiles.

Traditional elements such as the minaret and a shallow dome are included but, at the request of the congregation, given a contemporary twist. The former, for instance, is integrated as a jutting projection from the main body of the mosque, acting as an entrance for female worshippers to the two wood-screened balconies that overlook the prayer hall.

Punchbowl has an austere grandeur, but also affords visual pleasure

Stepping into this main space, visitors are met by the project’s real set-piece. Hanging above the entrance are seven steeply raking rows of crisp concrete half-domes, 102 in all, rising up two adjoining walls, offering changing, captivating silhouettes as one moves though the hall. Each of these half-domes is inscribed in golden calligraphy with one of the 99 Names of Allah, and each is punctured by a small 30-mm hole at its centre, drawing in a tiny shaft of light that traverses the interior as the sun passes overhead.

The half-dome forms were cast in situ to exacting standards – a significant feat of engineering in itself – and pay homage to the ornamental muqarnas vaulting of traditional Islamic architecture, in which highly decorated niche-like forms, often arranged in tiers with hanging elements, cover the undersides of arches, gateways and dome chambers. Here at Punchbowl they have an austere grandeur, but also afford visual pleasure, as light from the oculus and clerestory windows of the timber-clad dome moves across their surfaces, articulating their precise, layered geometries and reaching deep into their patinated recesses.

During the project’s 20-year genesis, architect Angelo Candalepas was inspired by his trips to Ahmedabad and Agra to ‘embrace the playful nature of concrete,’ and has succeeded here in creating a humane, intimate space, yet one that also provides hints of the sublime through its simple materiality and its rich geometric forms.


This case study is a preview of Frame 129, our July/August print issue.