Spatium Architects: Redefining Ornamentation
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
I wrote a piece on how Spatium Architects redefined elements of ornamentation in their project: Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Spatium Architects arose out of an important era known as Postmodernism that greatly rebelled against Modernism’s lack of ornamentation. Architects began creating more structures with less restrictions and more imagination using modern building materials and decorative elements to create a variety of novel effects. This movement became prominent in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
By having a tautological position, Spatium Architects have managed to maintain their identity, during the Postmodern Era. Their celebration of tautology, or the repetition of ideas as a modular, becomes the process for their designs. This led to them acquiring certain elastic and ethical qualities. Their designs are very unique in terms of spatial dynamics, furniture, lighting, and shopping windows. They mainly design for fashion stores and hotels, places that require ornamentation to attract an audience. In addition, they have a transient quality, which is the main essence, of their designs. They have applied this design approach to a transient realm: the realm of fashion. Transience refers to evanescence, or having the quality of staying for a short time. By taking a tautological position in their design process, and concentrating on detailing and innovative use of materials that can potentially be sustainable, Spatium Architects defined ornamentation in their own way.
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahan Mosque is an impressive award-winning building with an uncommon size and elegance. Before his death, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, previous president of the United Arab Emirates, had a vision of a place of worship that would be at a scale so large that it would attract people worldwide. He wanted a piece of contemporary UAE architecture that would be appreciated worldwide. He also wanted the mosque to be seen from all directions, so designed it to be 11 m above sea level. It is located in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates and is considered to be monumental architecture. The mosque was opened to the public for visits and for prayers in 2007. This is the third largest mosque in the world. The site of the Mosque is 22,412 sq. meters and can accommodate 40, 960 worshippers.
With respect to Islam’s code of conduct, to visit the mosque, one must be dressed appropriately. In Islam, men should wear trousers and women should cover their bodies from their wrists till their ankles, and also cover their head hair. In case people expectantly visit the mosque while dressed inappropriately, there’s a room near the entrance of the mosque, which provides temporary abayas [loose black robe that covers the body from head to toe] for visiting women and kondoras [loose white robe traditionally worn by Emirati men] for visiting men to wear while they are on the premises. Details such as respecting a specific dress code and equal treatment of visitors make each tourist forget about these issues and focus more on their experience of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque.
The tour guides that direct the visitors around the site and provide them with valuable information are an important aspect of the overall experience. In addition, there are a number of Visitor Experience Coordinators that can assist physically challenged tourists with wheelchairs.
Site, Form and Space
The complex includes a large parking for visitors, exterior gardens, the Mosque, a large courtyard and a tomb for the late Sheikh Zayed. From my own experience, I recognized that the spaces in the Mosque’s complex are divided into rectangles of different dimensions. The visitor’s parking is composed of several rectangular spaces placed adjacent to each other. As one walks away from the parking and up large exterior steps on the sloped land, one will see Sheikh Zayed’s tomb on the right hand side and the Grand Mosque straight ahead. The mosque’s central space is the rectangular courtyard.
The interior of the mosque is made up of four rectangular spaces. This includes the main Friday prayer hall, the general prayer hall for men, the general prayer hall for women, and the central entrance space. The general halls for men and women are of the same size. Sheikh Zayed believed in equality between men and women, and reflected this idea in the mosque.
The Mosque has eighty-two Moroccan style domes, which are decorated with white marble. The main dome’s outer shell is 32.8 meters in diameter, 70 meters in height from the inside, and 85 meters in height from the outside. As an Islamic architectural feature, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque includes four soaring minarets or tall spires, which are used to call for prayers.
Detailing and Innovative use of materials
Spatium Architects designed the interior of the Mosque. However, this project is very globalized, in terms of skill and laborers, down to the materials and construction. The Mosque uses artisans and materials from Italy, Germany, Morocco, India, Turkey, Iran, China, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Greece, and the United Arab Emirates.
The materials used for the walls, the floor, and the interior decorations are materials that are mainly natural, such as marble, stone, semi-precious stones, crystals and ceramics. They have long lasting qualities and don’t deteriorate easily.
The outer area of the mosque has 1,000 columns, which are clad with more than 20,000 marble panels inlaid with semi-precious stones, including lapis lazuli, red agate, amethyst, abalone shell and mother of pearl. UK Textile designer Kevin Dean designed the mosaics that refine the Mosque’s courtyard.
The floor is paved with a self-cooling marble, which is an innovative material that has aesthetic as well as cooling properties. It is important to have a cool surface for people to walk on, especially in Abu Dhabi’s hot and humid climate.
Islamic designs and craftsmanship
Iranian Artist, Ali Khaliqi, designed the world’s largest carpet for the main hall of the Mosque. 1,200 Iranian artisans handcrafted this 30 million Dirham carpet. The problem is that it was too large to be transported from Iran to the UAE. The solution was to transport it in parts, so the carpet now contains 2,268,000 knots.
The Qibla Wall (which faces the direction of the Holy City of Mecca) of the Mosque contains the Mehrab (the niche located in the middle of the Qibla Wall), which is decorated in gold- glass mosaic and features subtle fibre-optic lighting. This detail is integrated as part of the organic design of the whole interior.
UAE calligrapher Mohammed Mandi designed the 99 names of God, featured on the Qibla wall, in traditional Kufi calligraphy. Two other types of calligraphy, Naskhi and Thuloth, are found throughout the Mosque and were designed by Syrian calligrapher Farouk Haddad and Jordanian calligrapher Mohammed Allam.
Light plays a crucial role in Sheikh Zayed Mosque, as it completes and highlights the architectural experience of the space. Sheikh Zayed’s lighting conditions arose out of a concept that also reflects on the building’s functionality. Spatium Architects linked the external lighting concept to the lunar cycle, which sets the Islamic calendar. The building mimics the appearance of the moon.
Martin Professional’s local representative, Martin Middle East, project managed the exterior lighting installed for the building. Fixtures which are operable in an environment where summer temperatures reach 50°C were used. As Spatium Architects and Martin Middle East worked together, they learned many things about the projection, the intensity, and the texture that they wanted to use for Sheikh Zayed Mosque. They liked the idea of clouds moving across the moon, streaming in a west to east direction from Mecca, the holiest place. A 360-degree lighting scheme was designed to give visitors a clear connection between the building and the lunar cycle. Shadows of clouds were projected across the main prayer hall, over the domes, and along the building’s inner face. In addition to that, variations of light intensity relate the building more to the moon’s appearance. Spatium Architects also believed that maintenance is key for any building’s ornaments. They searched for luminaires that had a feedback management system to help with maintenance across the building. The maintenance team’s reporting process was important as it made sure that the building’s lighting system would work every night without relying on daily maintenance. They wanted the building to function the same in the future, without relying on a large amount of maintenance.
Mock-ups were required for the systems that created the effect of a single lit composition. They managed to light the spaces, and still provide adequate functional light without exposing luminaires. Constraints included complexity of architectural and interior design plus installation speed. They coordinated the installation of this system through drawings. The light sources were concealed in designed coves, niches, and ledges and behind musharabia details, which led to the building glowing at night. Lighting emphasizes the glass mosaic, marble, carved gypsum panels and calligraphy.
Spatium Architects claimed that they wanted to create a space with a high level of religious elegance and civic importance, and they succeeded ¬in doing so. The lighting technology and interior detailing is amazing. After visiting the site at night, I’ve noticed that the grand mosque, although sitting on a plateau, appears to float and reflects the glow of the moon. By using a high level of technology integration in addition to the maintenance requirements of a large project, Spatium Architects succeeded in turning their dream into a reality.
By collaborating, using the right technology and exquisite detailing, Spatium Architects succeeded in making their vision of having an exciting and culturally appropriate illumination scheme a reality.
Ornaments enhance the architectural experience and are considered one of its major parts. It can create interesting spaces such as those found in the Friday prayer hall in the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which contains many ornaments and beautiful lighting conditions. However, ornaments should not be used for the sake of having them. Spatium Architects constantly dealt with this issue. They took a tautological position in their design process, and concentrated on detailing and innovative use of materials to redefine ornamentation. They believe that beauty and function should coexist in ornamentation.This aspect distinguishes Spatium Architects from others architects that rose from the Post Modern era.
Words // Yosr E Sherbiny
Photos // Noora Alawar (@studio.d04)