Murcutt Mosque

However divisive the subject of religion is, especially in today’s climate, there can be no denying that Islam, as with Christianity, Buddhism or any other major faith, has produced some of the world’s most beautiful architecture.

The basic architectural elements of domes and minarets that make up most mosques would be familiar to anyone who has ever visited a classic example. However, as with cathedrals and temples throughout various parts of the world, such elements are not dictated by strict religious based design requirements, but simply reflections of built cultural legacies adopted through the ages.

When architect Glenn Murcutt was invited by a Melbourne based Islamic community to design a new mosque, he insisted from the beginning that it should be a modern interpretation, reflecting the relatively young, primarily Australian born, congregation.

Murcutt was born in England to Australian parents in 1936. He grew up in a province of New Guinea before the family settled down in Sydney after the Second World War. After graduating in 1961 from Sydney Technical College, Murcutt engaged in work experience with various architects before setting up his own practice in 1969. Since then, he has produced a body of work that exhibits the regional sensibilities and attention to detail that follows from his unwavering motto, ‘touch the earth lightly’.  Although he works exclusively within Australia, his international influence is such that, in addition to numerous awards and medals over the years, he was the recipient in 2002 of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize.

Approaching the mosque, two elements immediately stand out; the dramatic angular concrete wall and the bright gold box forms atop the roof. The wall, created in situ, is an abstract representation of a traditional minaret, to be eventually topped with a decorative gold crescent. The box forms, actually triangular in shape, act both as skylights for the interior and passive ventilation units, dissipating hot air in the summer months. From inside they appear as coloured lanterns, painted to represent various hues associated with Islam.

Glass is used generously throughout the building, representing a transparency and openness that the congregation wishes to express to the wider local community. The eastern entrance is lined with glass pivot doors whilst the women’s area upstairs is encompassed by walls of glass louvres. The west side, or kiblah (facing Mecca), looks through a wall of glass onto a pond which, enclosed in concrete walls, provides an oasis like tranquillity. Tall slim steel columns add to the overall openness and lightness of the interior with the lanterns and water feature providing a dynamic play of movement and colour over the walls and ceiling.

The mosque provides the Newport Islamic community with a modern place of worship that nonetheless expresses the traditional values and forms of their faith. It is also an undeniably open and welcoming space for all who wish to visit.


Architectural Texture – A Brief Observation

The use of texture in architecture can be as crucial a design element as any in the pursuit of aesthetic clarity. Just as the application of material, colour or surface geometry can more boldly express a building’s stylistic form, a considered incorporation of textural surface treatment can enliven an otherwise anonymous façade.

Rydges resize

A seemingly passive texture can also be transformed by the active play of light and shadow across a façade as the sun and clouds interact throughout the day. This kind of effect recently drew my attention to a city hotel building which I had previously taken little notice of. Rydges Hotel, on the corner of Exhibition and Little Bourke streets in Melbourne, is a fairly typical tower on podium structure dating from the 1980s. The façade is composed of expressed horizontal and vertical concrete beams which delineate the hotel rooms across all floors of the tower. Although of some textural interest themselves, it is when a shaft of light highlights a section of the façade at a particular angle that these forms are really expressed in a dynamic visual sense. Looking closely, the texture of the concrete itself now becomes more apparent, appearing as sawn and dressed lengths of timber.

So, a photo taken offhand on a casual stroll through the city reveals how both the use, and a more considered observation, of architectural texture can alter the appearance of a seemingly unremarkable built form.


Art in Place #4

Eastern Hill Fire Station

Throughout much of the 19th century numerous volunteer fire brigades were formed in Melbourne, often named after the insurance companies or local municipalities they represented. In 1890, following a series of serious fires resulting in the loss of six firefighters, the Fire Brigades Act was passed in order to officially unite these disparate organisations and provide a more efficient, centralised service. Construction of a headquarters for the newly formed Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) began in 1891 on the corner of Victoria Parade and Gisborne Street. Opening on 3 November 1893, the new building was sited on one of the highest points in the city and remains to this day Melbourne’s central station, designated Fire Station 1.

Two local architectural firms, Tayler & Fitts and Smith & Johnston, collaborated on the project having both submitted winning designs to the competition. Exhibiting contemporary Queen Anne revival and Italianate styles, the Victoria Parade façade comprises a central gabled pavilion flanked by two- storey arcades. The entire building is raised on a blue stone plinth and is finished in yellow painted cement contrasted with red brick elements. The campanile-like tower, rising to 150 feet and topped by a cast iron and glass lookout, was accessed via an electric lift and was originally manned 24 hours a day.

In 1972 construction of a new station was begun, adjoining the original structure. Designed by Melbourne firm Bates Smart & McCutcheon, the new building exhibited a functional, late Brutalist style with its rough, board formed concrete finish and asymmetrical block forms. Of particular interest is the large mosaic mural located on the Albert St façade. Designed by artist Harold Freedman, the colourful piece (titled ‘The Legend of Fire) depicts various scenes of mythology and human technology related to the element of fire. Born in 1915, Freedman was attached to the Royal Australian Air Force as a war artist during the Second World War and later became renowned for his numerous public murals including the History of Military Aviation murals (Australian War Memorial), and ‘History of Flight’ (Melbourne airport, 1971).

Whilst most of the operational activities shifted to the new MFB building, the original structure was refurbished and continues to be used for offices and also houses the Fire Services Museum of Victoria.

‘View of Hong Kong’

Travel related souvenirs are odd consumer items. Generally mass produced and correspondingly cheap, they are bought as a representation of an often cherished and personal holiday experience.

Nowadays, with the ubiquity of inexpensive digital cameras and cell phones, the majority of tourists are capable of capturing relatively high-quality images as a record of their journeys. As late as the 1990s, however, one could still purchase souvenir colour slide collections depicting famous sites from a particular location.  As opposed to, say, a miniature Eiffel Tower or Singapore Lion, sites which were most probably visited by the traveller, the collection of slides (taken at some point before the visit) would no doubt include places that were never experienced physically.

The purchase of a single representative souvenir icon states ‘I was there and this is a physical memento (proof) of that moment’. The collection of slides, however, is clearly proof of tourist sites, but not necessarily that of the actual sightseeing activities of the tourist. It is thus a record of someone else’s (the photographer’s) viewpoint purchased by a visitor as a kind of surrogate memory of their trip.

As is the case with so much other materiel we accumulate over the years, travel souvenirs often end up as second-hand items at a local ‘op-shop’ (short for ‘opportunity shop’ in Australia, commonly known as thrift stores in the U.S and elsewhere). It is at one such store that I came across two souvenir slide collections depicting Hong Kong.

View of HK

Anyone familiar with Hong Kong and its districts will no doubt recognise the enormous changes that have occurred since these images were taken. The exact dates of the photos are not available but judging by the cars and fashions displayed I can guess that the first set dates from the late 1960s whilst the second appears to be from the early to mid 70s. What strikes me is the odd choice of subject matter for some images. Whilst most depict what you would expect from a set of souvenir images aimed at tourists (city skyline, shopping districts, architectural landmarks etc) there are included some odd choices such as commercial docklands, railway infrastructure and numerous shots of highways.

As a result, however, what were once simply cheap mementos of a visited city have now become significant historical documents, a specific time capsule, of an extremely dynamic urban environment.

Late 1960s?

Mid to Late 1970s?



Colonial Architecture 2

Korea Under Japanese Rule:

Part 2 -Gunsan

Located on the southwest coastal edge of the fertile Honam plain, Gunsan, under the ambitious rule of the Japanese Empire, was never going to remain the small fishing village it had been for centuries. In 1899, following the major Korean ports of Incheon and Busan, Gunsan was officially opened to foreign trade, rapidly developing into an important regional commercial hub. Driven largely by rice production and exports, the town’s population dramatically increased throughout the early 1900’s, with the majority of new residents being Japanese nationals. A corresponding increase in new urban construction resulted in many commercial and administration buildings appearing mainly on or near the waterfront, some of which can still be seen today.

Gunsan Customs House:

Completed in 1908, the former customs building was designed by a German architect and partially built with imported Belgian bricks. The European influence extends to the overall appearance of the structure with its broad hipped roof and façade gables. The contrasting materials and textures of the red brick, light stone and dark slate tiles are well balanced, harmoniously delineating the main structural components of the building and contributing to its solid yet pleasantly scaled form. The former Customs House building has, unlike many of the other nearby colonial structures, been relatively unmolested over time, appearing much as it had during the years of occupation.

Miz Trading Company Buildings:

Near the customs building are two structures that were disassembled and relocated to their present sites from elsewhere in 2012. Timber framed with a cement stucco like finish, the two storey buildings are relatively unadorned except for the Japanese style tiled roofs. Designed and constructed during the 1930’s, they appear to have lost much of their original fittings and structural material, having been thoroughly restored or recreated as part of the relocation. The buildings now serve as café and gallery spaces.

Bank of Joeson, Gunsan Branch:

The rather imposing, though sober, style of this 1922 building befits its original function as a branch office of the central bank of the Japanese colonial era. Attributed to the architectural firm of Nakamura Yoshihei, the design had significant input from Austrian employee Anton Feller who contributed the early European Modernist and Secessionist elements to the building. Standing on a rusticated stone base, the two-storey block form is clad in dark brick with contrasting cream stone window bays. Ornamentation is kept to a bare minimum with simple geometric patterns carved above the first-floor windows and flanking those on the second. The main design flourish is the rather heavy handed rusticated portico consisting of tapering, buttress like forms framing the main entrance. The original stone feature was removed at some point and has been replaced, along with parts of the façade, with a concrete recreation. The interior of the building has also been restored and now houses the Gunsan Modern Architecture Exhibition Hall.

The Gunsan Branch Office of the Joseon Food Corporation:

Located a little further back from the waterfront area is a structure that appeared near the end of the Japanese occupation and clearly demonstrates the contemporary architectural trends of the time. Constructed in 1943, the building is a classic example of the Streamline Moderne style of the Late Deco period. The façade rounds the street corner in a fluid, unbroken manner, lending a sense of movement to the site. The entrance portico comprises a flat roof form, decorated with an entablature of repeating squares, supported by large rounded pilasters. A typical Art Deco decorative detail can be found atop the roof in the form of a small stepped pediment, reflected underneath. Although in need of renovation, the building is in good original condition and exists as an important architectural bookend to the Japanese colonial period.

Sakawa House:

Constructed in a vernacular Japanese style as a home for a wealthy merchant, this relatively simple single-story house adjoins a two-storey structure that apparently served as a vault. The well maintained front garden is of a typical domestic Japanese design, featuring numerous bonsai trees, a pond and a miniature stone pagoda.

After the liberation of the Korean people from Japanese oppression in 1945, many of the built reminders of that brutal period were understandably destroyed or simply left to deteriorate, just as the Japanese themselves had destroyed or defaced much Korean built culture.

Gunsan 15

*remnants of Korean temples and other structures destroyed during the Japanese occupation.

The passage of time, however, can ease somewhat painful memories and feelings of anger towards a former aggressor. A new generation can now see the value in preserving these structures without ignoring the historical events they represent.






Colonial Architecture

Preserving architecture associated with an era of foreign occupation is understandably a source of great contention in any nation that has experienced such a period in its history. While one side may argue that buildings constructed during these times (especially those related to the administration and control of the occupied state) stand as humiliating reminders of an oppressive period, others see the importance of preserving an uncomfortable built history so that past acts, however traumatic to recall, are never forgotten or repeated. Another, more objective, view is that maintaining a historical continuity of built heritage adds to the richness and overall depth of a nation’s urban environment, serving as a physical record of its trajectory over the centuries, warts and all.

This series, beginning with Korea, aims to highlight urban areas throughout Asia where built evidence of past occupation and rule by foreign powers can still be seen. Whether the reader holds a particular opinion one way or the other, these posts are intended purely as objective examinations of the architecture itself from an urban environmental point of view.

Korea Under Japanese Rule:

Part 1 -Incheon

The annexation of Korea in 1910 was the final stage in a process of aggressive Japanese imperialism towards the nation that had begun in the late 19th century. Rapidly developing into a modern military and industrial state under the Meiji Restoration, Japan was eager to expand its fledgling empire to counter the increasing influence of Western powers in the region. Conclusive military victories over China (the First Sino-Japanese War, 1895), and then Russia (the Russo-Japanese War, 1905), not only gained Japan dominance over Korea but dramatically increased the nation’s prestige both domestically and internationally. Over the same period a series of vastly unequal treaties gradually diminished the sovereign powers of Korea, culminating in the Japan-Korea treaty of 1910 via which the weakened nation was formally annexed and absorbed into the Japanese Empire.

korea-tight-place1200*a contemporary cartoon depicting Japan and Russia fighting for dominance over Korea.

Japanese influence had been permeating aspects of Korean politics, culture and society for years before the annexation. The most obvious physical manifestation was, of course, in the form of residential, commercial and administrative buildings that gradually appeared throughout the country. Often designed in a fusion of contemporary European and traditional Japanese architectural styles, such buildings included banks, government department offices, warehouses and domestic houses. Although much has been lost to war and urban development, there remain pockets of preserved colonial era architecture throughout South Korea.

For many people visiting South Korea, Incheon is simply the name of the vast international airport that serves as the country’s main gateway. Most don’t realise that the City of Incheon is not only the third largest after Seoul and Busan but also an increasingly worthy cultural destination. In addition to Korea’s largest Chinatown, and sites related to the Korean War era amphibious landings, the city has preserved a district of colonial era administrative and commercial architecture.

Chemulpo 1

*Incheon port around 1904

Opened to international trade in 1883, the port city has ever since been considered a crucial part of Korea’s development infrastructure.  Japanese merchants and traders had been doing business in Incheon for decades before the official 1910 annexation, after which their activities and commercial impact on the city naturally increased greatly. Built evidence of this activity can be seen in the former Japanese concession located near Chinatown in the Jung-gu district. Some of the best architectural examples exist in the form of three late 19th century bank buildings situated on what is known as Gwandong Modern Architecture Street. Originally identified by a numbering system developed by the National Bank of Japan, they are (if heading west along the street) the former 58th, 18th and 1st Banks of Japan, Incheon branches.


The 58th Bank (1892) is a two-storey structure styled in a French Second Empire manner with a mansard roof incorporating a clock. The chamfered entrance is flanked with square pilasters and topped by an arch with rusticated voussoirs.  Windows are symmetrically placed on both floors and feature corbelled entablatures. The building is currently occupied by the Korea Foodservice Industry Association.

Constructed in 1890, the 18th Bank of Japan building is a rather squat, single storey structure exhibiting an understated late Regency style.  Faced in contrasting grey and cream stone, the facades are punctuated with tall rectangular windows topped with simple corbelled entablatures. The offset entrance is flanked by square pilasters, above which sits an entablature decorated with dentils and crowned by a small scroll pediment. The building now houses a Modern Architecture Museum related to new structures in and around the historical Incheon area.


The 1st Bank of Japan building was completed in 1888 and is arguably the most elaborate of the three. Faced in rusticated stone with an enclosed portico and barred windows, the building presents itself as a small fortress, albeit a decorative one. A simple entablature with dentils runs along the roofline, above which is a parapet punctuated with circular apertures. The roof itself is of a shallow mansard style with a single cupola highlighting the entrance portico. The building now serves as the Incheon Open Port Museum, which is well worth a visit just to view the beautifully preserved interior.

Apart from the bank buildings there are a few other structures of interest scattered around the area including a large red brick warehouse complex that dates from the 1930s. As part of a plan to preserve early 20th century buildings in the area by re-purposing them, the complex was refurbished and transformed into the Incheon Art Platform which seeks to develop artistic collaborations between both local and international artists.

Although these buildings represent a difficult time for the Korean nation, the local government has obviously understood the value of preserving them for both cultural interest and historical rumination. The fact that many of the structures have been re purposed for educational and cultural activities can be observed as a form of considered consolation with the past, a process which is far more useful and valuable than an act of demolishing all links to a traumatic period in history.


101 Collins Street

Over the past three decades the Melbourne based architectural firm of Denton Corker Marshall has firmly established its built presence in the city, often in spectacular fashion. From large urban sculptural pieces (the red and yellow cantilevered beams that make up Melbourne International Gateway) and transportation infrastructure (the 490-meter-long Bolte Bridge) to public cultural facilities (Melbourne Museum), the firm has created many of Melbourne’s now familiar landmarks. Projects such as TAC House (Melbourne, 1989), Governor Phillip Tower (Sydney, 1993) and Brisbane Square (2006) have also proven the firm’s ability to produce high quality commercial high-rise architecture that is aesthetically interesting.

Completed in March, 1991, 101 Collins Street represents a Postmodernist vision of Art Deco and Neo-Classic design. The skyscraper, clad in polished Spanish granite, rises 57 storeys to a height of 256 meters (including spire), making it currently the 4th tallest in Australia. The Deco reference is expressed in the form of vertical, buttress like forms that project from the centre of each facade, stepped towards the top of the building in a manner that recalls many classic pre-war skyscraper designs.


*AT&T Building, image courtesy Wikipedia

The dramatic foyer space is a Postmodernist exercise in both whimsy and luxuriant material craftsmanship.  The space was designed by American architect John Burgee who, in partnership with Philip Johnson from 1967 to 1991, produced some of the most prominent buildings of the Postmodern era including the AT&T Headquarters in New York (1984). Incorporated into the lower right side of the large podium structure, the entrance alludes to a classic portico structure with black granite framing four free standing Doric columns. Visitors enter the building via a glass and stainless-steel curtain wall into a lavish lobby that resembles, in both material extravagance and dimensions, an ancient Roman temple. A large pattern of concentric circles decorates the marble floor, flanked on either side by gold leaf panelled bays featuring still pools. Water features prominently throughout the ground floor with additional pools, lined by more travertine Doric columns, running along either side of the lift core structure.  Art is also a conspicuous element with sculptures, painting and photography thoughtfully placed throughout the space, in addition to a dedicated gallery near the Little Collins Street entrance.

The overall effect is impressive, if more than a little indulgent. I find the exterior architectural design to have aged far better than the interior which, to be fair, given its context of having being created at the end of the excessive 80’s, remains reasonably tasteful. The Postmodernist affectations may seem a little silly nowadays, but that was nearer the point even at the time. After the severe seriousness and strict formalities of Modernism, a little playfulness was required and Postmodernism provided some architectural comic relief. As far as quality design and architectural integrity goes, however, the firm of Denton Corker Marshall never took to the task in anything less than a serious manner, as their built record attests to.