Islamic prayer space within the Islamic Cemetery Altach: Qibla wall and prayer rugs
The first Islamic Cemetery in Vorarlberg, Austria, opened on June 2, 2012, nine years since the first idea for the project. Located in the municipality of Altach, along the road L190 between Hohenems and Götzis, the cemetery serves all Islamic communities from different towns and cities of Vorarlberg, allowing for burials according to the Islamic Rite. The facility can accommodate approx. 700 graves; it encompasses a plant for the ritual washing, as well as a small prayer space. The overall cemetery project was designed by the Vorarlberg architect Bernardo Bader, and I was commissioned to create the architectural sculpture (“Percent for Art” or the “Kunst am Bau”) in the interior of the prayer space; my project includes the Qibla wall and the prayer rugs.
With this cemetery, both immigrants and hosts in Vorarlberg are setting an important sign for coexistence in Austria. For Muslim immigrants in Vorarlberg, the cemetery is a symbol that Austria has become their new homeland beyond the death. My project for the interior of the prayer space highlights this point with a design of the Qibla wall that attempts to symbolically connect different cultures in Vorarlberg though the specific choice of material standing for the local building traditions and craft, as well as formal references to Islamic religious architecture.
The Qibla wall is executed in form of three curtains made of stainless steel-mesh and carrying an array of wooden shingles. The three curtains are positioned parallel to the wall and window at different distances, dividing them into three parts: two side panels, which are closer to the interior, and a middle portion that is closer to the window. This arrangement creates an abstract form of the mihrab, the prayer niche. An additional layer of the curtain is mounted above the mihrab part, simulating the decorative elements of the traditional Ottoman mihrabs called muqarnas. Muqarnas are stalactite-like three-dimensional geometric elements used in Islamic architecture for decoration of mihrabs, domes, minarets and niches, or as transition between wall and niche. Animated and spiritual spatial experience The perception of the Qibla wall changes depending on the gaze of the visitors in the prayer space. Upon entering, the qibla wall appears like a wooden shingle wall. With this, the viewer is presented the reference to the local architectural tradition in Vorarlberg, in which the wooden shingle represents both a traditional, as well as the contemporary formative building material. Yet the shingles are directed towards Mecca, indicating the prayer direction. When moving in space, the pattern of the shingle curtain appears animated. When standing still and looking towards Mecca, the appearance of the Qibla wall winds down, which in turn supports a focus on the prayer. Because the shingles are positioned orthogonally to the window, the visitor has a clear view to the outside, where they can see the park surrounding the cemetery, thus symbolically reiterating the interpretation of mihrab as a gateway to afterlife. At eye level, some shingles are arranged more densely, creating the inscription “Allah” and “Mohammed” in Kufic script. The Kufic script is one of the oldest forms of Arabic script. While the shingle-curtains also function as blinds, they simultaneously break the light, making it more visible and staged, highlighting the spiritual (one of the 99 names of God) and architectural dimension of light in mosque architecture.
The prayer rug
Six prayer rugs in different shades of beige/brown indicate the prayer rows (saff), while granting the appearance of more depth in prayer space. The color gradient of the carpets is brighter in direction of Mecca, setting a symbolic emphasis on the direction of prayer and purity of the prayer space. The carpets (flat-weave called kilim) were hand woven in the kilim workshop in Sarajevo, founded by the artist and rug specialist Amila Smajović. Beside Amila’s committed to fostering research, preservation and reproduction of traditional Bosnian kilims, the workshop employs women who have become victims of war in Bosnia.
Azra Akšamija, Shingle-Mihrab (Qibla wall and prayer rugs at the Islamic Cemetery in Altach), 2012
mixed media: stainless steel mesh curtains, wooden shingles, new wool handwoven carpets (flat-weave)
dimensions: curtains 3x 3×2.9m; carpets: 6x 1x11m
Client: Municipalityof Altach
Financing: Municipalities of Vorarlberg, Land Vorarlberg, donations of the Islamic Communities of Vorarlberg
Cost 2.3 Mio Euro
Project guidance and mediation: Eva Grabherr (okay. zusammen leben. Projektstelle für Zuwanderung und Integration), Attila Dincer (Spokesperson of the Islamic Community in Vorarlberg)
Architect (overall cemetery project): DI Bernardo Bader (www.bernardobader.com)
Construction Manager: Thomas Marte
Photos: Adolf Bereuter
Architectural sculpture (Percent for Art/ Kunst am Bau):
Concept and Design: Azra Akšamija
Conceptual contributions: Dietmar Offenhuber (www.offenhuber.net)
Metalworker and shingle montage: Eberle Metall (Josef Eberle)
Carpet weaving workshop: Association For The Protection Of The Bosnian Carpet (Amila Smajović)