Baitur Rauf Jame Mosque
By Jason Dibbs
Marina Tabassum’s Baitur Rauf Jame Mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh, utilizes simple, unadorned materials and vernacular construction techniques to immense effect, emphasizing the interplay of light and shadow, and creating a space for religious reverie and transcendence.
The Baitur Rauf Jame Mosque was an intensely personal project for architect Marina Tabassum. The original commission for the project came from her grandmother Sufia Khatun, in commemoration of Tabassum’s mother and aunt, who had passed away unexpectedly. Tabassum has explained that her grandmother originally commissioned her with the project because she could sense her suffering. “In a way, designing the mosque became a kind of a healing process for both of us,” she said.
Khatun donated both money and land towards the mosque, but sadly did not live to see its completion. The death of her grandmother left Tabassum with the additional responsibility of raising the remainder of the required funds for the mosque herself, culminating in a project that ended up spanning almost twelve years. As a result, construction of the mosque was completed in stages, dictated by the availability of funds and material resources. Tabassum has explained, “when [they] had a good sum of money and [they] could buy, say, five trucks of bricks or some bags of cement, then [they] went about doing the construction.”
The Baitur Rauf Jame Mosque is located on the periphery of the city of Dhaka, in an area-type referred to as an ‘urban village.’ Addressing the lack of community amenities in the area, the design consists of flexible spaces that allow the building to act not only as a mosque, but also as a school, meeting room and children’s playground. These flexible spaces are framed by the raw materiality of the structure. Tabassum’s decision to build with bricks was prompted by both historical and utilitarian concerns. Historically, handmade bricks are reminiscent of the ‘golden age’ of Bengali architecture-the Sultanate period between the 14th and 16th centuries. Regarding the practical decision to employ vernacular brick construction, Tabassum has stated: “I’ve used a lot of brick predominantly because it is the only material we have. We don’t have stone and we have a labour force that is very cheap, so when we have budget projects … brick is what we use. You can take a very simple material and by the action of your own creativity and innovation take that to any level you like.”
Most conspicuous in the built design, is the absence of any dome, mihrab or minaret. Whilst this may seem to stand in contrast to the popular conception of what constitutes a mosque, Tabassum is quick to elucidate how the lack of architectural adornment in her design is actually an expression of that which is essential to Islam. She explains that “domes and minarets are symbolic gestures [and] symbols are not the essence of devotion or faith. At times they can detract from the main essence of Islam, which is about complete submission to one God omnipresent … To be in complete communion with God one needs a space that evokes a feeling of spirituality, a space where people can connect with the divine. I find symbols a distraction and I wanted to focus instead on the sense of spirituality.”
The Baitur Rauf Jame Mosque has achieved international recognition, most notably in its selection as one of six recipients of the prestigious 2016 Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The Aga Khan Award is designated to projects that ‘make a significant contribution-social as well as cultural-to communities in which Muslims or the heritage of Islam have a significant presence.’ Tabassum’s Baitur Rauf Jame Mosque on the outskirts of Dhaka is surely a shining example of this.
Marina Tabassum’s overarching design process for the Baitur Rauf Jame Mosque was described in an interview with Australian architect, Rowena Hockin. In the interview, Tabassum explained that she always commences with an understanding of the site, followed by a deep engagement with program: “this is the most important to me, spending time to connect with the site, and around the site. This gives you a lot of answers. And then program: we try to dissect the program. One way of my work is, if I take a mosque, … I would go back to the first stage of what was a mosque? How did it come into being, what was the function? Then you can let go of all the extra liturgies that are associated with those things, go back to the beginning and start something interesting. That is not to underestimate the history or legacy of mosque making, it’s a rich legacy, but they have to come together at some point and only then it becomes relevant. I feel that we are just updating ourselves through time. You cannot just build something out of nowhere and it doesn’t make sense to do that. So if you want to update then you have to follow through the history.”