Housed partially in a remodeled bottling warehouse backing onto the sensitive Merri Creek, the museum draws upon traditional Islamic principles and contemporary expression to create a juxtaposition of ideas designed to intrigue, welcome and challenge. The building’s design was heavily contextualised by its location and the shared history of Muslims in Australia.
When designing the Islamic Museum of Australia, we were adamant to resist the temptation to assemble a shallow interpretation of iconic Islamic symbols and plonk it on the banks of the Merri Creek. Instead we carefully created something that first and foremost reflects the context of its location and at the same time is crafted out of traditional design principles and methodologies.
The Museum’s entry is defined by a veil of rusted corten that wraps around the exterior. It encompasses many layers of meaning. For one thing, it is a material that is iconically Australian, rugged and weathered. The perforated pattern is a modernised reference to indigenous dot painting and tells the story of Muslims in Australia dating back to the peaceful contact between the Makassan and the First Australians. The perforations allow filtered light to stream into the entry area, thus creating a magical effect as the transposed dots of light transcribe the movement of the sun onto floor and wall surfaces. Interestingly, at night when the space is internally lit, beams of light filter outwards to be interrupted only by the movement of people within.
The rusted veil is set against a pristine prism delineated with a geometric pattern that is the flattened out origami construction of a sphere; the design references the oneness of God. As it is manmade, the purity of its form has been deliberately and respectfully rendered incomplete. The accompanying calligraphic text is an extract from the Qur’an which describes aptly and succinctly the mission of the museum - “In the Name of God the Most Merciful the Most Beneficent, and so narrate to them the stories that upon them they may reflect.”
The museum is a place that beckons the visitor to enter but it is not without its implicit challenges. The entry itself is but negative space between the corten veil and the stone prism, it is also dark and upon entering the path it is unclear. A ninety degree turn emphasises the need to reorientate or refocus, as if to say “look at what is to come from a different viewpoint”, before subsequently leading one to a naturally lit space that is the entry foyer. The theme remains throughout museum: darkened thresholds leading to lit spaces, bridges actual and metaphoric, lines of sight that do not correspond with pathways and doorways that are spaces between creased walls. These are all designed to maintain intrigue through gradual unravelling, even the way in is not the way out.
By designing the building in such a way that visitors must seek out spaces, we are inviting them to see past the veil, walk over the bridge, seek out the light – all metaphors that point to going beyond stereotypical views and instead serve to nurture understanding and harmony. The billabong is a case in point, once entered the visitor comes to this beautiful oasis and something can be seen going on beyond – to get there you have to cross that bridge, you must make the effort even if there is some uncertainty.
The galleries were designed to serve as blank canvasses for the display of exhibits. It was important the spatial design enhanced rather than competed with the exhibits. The use of anything other than white was carefully restrained to materials expressed in their “natural state” – the corten, the glass, the plywood balustrades and the polished concrete and blue-gum floors. The rationale is that as the museum develops and matures, the flexibility the spaces provide will allow a greater emphasis on interactivity.
Presently, there are five permanent galleries and one designated for visiting exhibitions. There are also three noteworthy punctuations to the journey through the museum; the theatrette – a vital interactive part of any tour, the workshops where visitors can come away with crafted items and the cafe which is increasingly accessed by cyclists riding along the Merri Creek path.
The museum serves its purpose as a positive dispeller of stereotypes and as a promoter of cultural awareness and understanding. The architectural expression is simply in line with this mission.
Photography by Christian Pearson