East dawns on Jozi’s skyline

2011-06-27 13:38

Joburg is experiencing something of a facelift as Ottoman and Saudi mosques bring a new flavour to the city’s skyline.
Joburg has been a bastion of Western architecture for years and continues to battle the faux Tuscan design plague in its northern suburbs.

Previously, apart from the Sauer Street mosque in the CBD, the City of Gold could boast only a few mosques in what were formerly Indian and coloured suburbs.

But now South Africa’s economic engine seems to be making strides in architectural diversity.

The city’s landmarks – such as the skyscrapers of the CBD and Sandton, and the Hillbrow and SABC towers – have new competition in the form of mosques.

This silent architectural revolution starts in Midrand, north of the city, where a grand mosque has sprung up.
With its soaring minarets, the Midrand Turkish Masjid cuts an imposing silhouette. Occupying a massive 103 931m² on the corner of the R101 (Old Pretoria Road) and LeRoux Avenue, the mosque will be estimated to have cost R300 million by the time it is completed.

It is a replica of the 16th-century Ottoman Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, Turkey.

Selimiye was commissioned by Sultan Selim II and built by architect Mimar Sinan between 1568 and 1574. It is considered one of the greatest achievements in Islamic architecture.

The Midrand project is bankrolled by a 72-year-old Turkish businessman, Ali Katircioglu, popularly known as Uncle Ali.
He has temporarily settled in Midrand for the completion of the mosque, believed to be the largest in the southern hemisphere.

Uncle Ali says his intention was to bring the Ottoman architectural style to the southern hemisphere, and he knew that South Africa would be the country of his choice after he met Nelson Mandela.

The world-renowned statesman persuaded him to erect a school next to the mosque and that’s how the Sama Boys’ School came into being.

Mandela also advised Uncle Ali to render a service to the poor in the form of a clinic. When construction is finished next year, the complex will not only be a place of worship but a space for education and healthcare, supplying free health services to disadvantaged communities in the area.

A bazaar will also sell Islamic literature to generate income to sustain the day-to-day running of the facility. Other special features are a conference facility and a 1500-seater community hall.

Orhan Celik, the director of Aksan Property Development, the construction company building the mosque, says they chose Midrand because the area had the only available land which was suitable.

The site has been a hive of activity since January last year. At any given time, there are between 50 and 150 labourers pushing wheelbarrows, sawing wood, laying marble and tiling.

The mosque is three-tiered, with four minarets clustered around the dome. There are 21 smaller domes adorning the courtyard and boarding school.

The minarets are 55m tall and 3m in diameter, and are made of reinforced concrete and not bricks, as is normally the case. A team of builders from Turkey have been flown in to construct them.

Creating the 24m-diameter dome proved to be a challenge for the construction team. Celik says it had to be constructed during one pour of concrete, which took 19 hours.

Inside, the floor is covered in all-natural, white, marble ceramics and special tiles. The windows are of coloured-glass windows and intricate Islamic artworks brighten up the walls.

Once all the work is done, plans are afoot to apply to the Gauteng tourism department to have it listed as a landmark and tourist attraction. According to Celik, the mosque will be open to the public and all will be welcome to visit.

Celik says that already they have had an influx of visitors and onlookers streaming to the gates.

“We look forward to welcoming visitors next year who will appreciate the Ottoman style of design, something South Africans have not been exposed to,” he says.

He adds that they have not yet experienced any rejection from residents and neighbours in Midrand.
A coy Celik says that nothing has been finalised for January next year, when the official opening is scheduled to take place.

Brian McKechnie, an architect with Activate Architects in Joburg, gives the new developments a thumbs-up. He says it augurs well for a society that strives to be inclusive and diverse when the architecture reflects that process.

McKechnie says it would be great if African concepts were explored as well. For Joburg eyes, he adds, accustomed to Western architecture, the appearance of the new mosques may come as a surprise. But in time they will blend in with the cityscape.

He applauds the Sauer Street mosque, which he calls “an accomplished piece of architecture, with beautiful details and a considered craftsmanship, much like a traditional church which is beautifully constructed with an amazing amount of craftsmanship”.

McKechnie predicts that in five years, the Joburg skyline might be dominated with other creations, not just Western architecture.

He adds that the city itself reflects a diverse people on the move. Main Street has a Manhattan feel, while Bree Street reminds him of Addis Ababa.

He says unlike Cape Town, which is a uniform European-like city, Joburg is much more diverse and representative of other cultures.

Naaman Geda, a senior architect at David Sithebe Architects in Joburg, sees the new developments as a religious expression.

“In architectural terms it’s indicative of the awakening of the religious sector. It reflects the changing religious demographic of the city. It also shows a level of courage in the Muslim community to claim their place along with their economic muscle,” he says.

He adds that the imposing nature of the new mosques and the elaborate artistry are meant as statements. “They make a point that Islam is here. It’s a statement of presence. I suppose one has to celebrate one’s religious convictions.”

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