Five years on from its opening, the landmark building at Qatar Foundation continues to inspire 

It’s been five years since the Education City Mosque opened. A milestone for regional architecture, the Qatar Foundation building has become an education hub for the Middle East.

The mosque itself is stunning, set on five large columns – which represent the pillars of Islam – and feature embossed verses from the Holy Qur’an. With the capacity to house 1,800 worshippers in its main prayer hall, and a further 1,000 in the exterior courtyard, it’s one of the most impressive pieces of architecture in the region.

Qur’anic Calligraphy

One of the most striking elements of the mosque is the calligraphy, which is the work of Taha Al Hiti, an Iraqi architect and calligrapher based in the London suburb, Worcester Park. He said that the main challenge was that the letters of the Qur’an had to be present (on the mosque) somewhere.

The space allocated for calligraphy included the minarets, which are a very vertical element, and the assumption was the Arabic writing would be horizontal. But Al Hiti said he disliked the idea that you would have to tilt your head to read it.

Al Hiti’s solution was to render the calligraphy vertically, which he did to stunning effect.

One of the most challenging aspects was to do the writing vertically, yet to keep it readable. My aspiration was always to have your eye move from the ground upwards to the sky, so even when the eye is on the minaret, you will be wondering about the creation of the Qur’an.

Education City Mosque designers Ali Mangera and Ada Yvars Bravo
Education City Mosque designers Ali Mangera and Ada Yvars Bravo

It’s clear that Al Hiti thinks deeply about his work, which is evident to visitors to the mosque; and his work as an architect informs his work as a calligrapher and vice versa. He said that calligraphy brought him a lot of work, and he used it in a lot of his architectural work.

I studied with a very talented calligrapher in Baghdad who taught me the secrets of the art form, like the relationship of the shape of the letters to the proportions of the human body.

This expertise was brought to Education City, particularly as many of the challenges faced were specific to the site. There were reflections of the calligraphy on the courtyard floor, which would mean people would end up stepping on Qur’anic text.

He said that he wrote a long essay on how the reflection of the letters was an inverted reflection and this meant it was okay to be ‘stepped on’.

Five years on from its opening, and it’s still a project Al Hiti thinks of with great fondness. He said that he is very proud of what they have achieved and of the challenges that they overcame.

Al Hiti is also impressed with Qatar and Qatar Foundation’s approach to large-scale projects such as this. What Qatar and Qatar Foundation are doing is beautiful. It takes someone with courage to say ‘this is what I want to do’.

As an architect and as an artist Al Hiti said he is disappointed when people in the Middle East copy something from the West. He said there is a need to design things that work in specific environment, so it takes a lot of guts to say ‘stop, I want something that’s designed for me and for my environment’.

I think Qatar Foundation is doing a lot of that, not only in art and architecture, but in everything. It’s beautiful to see what we create when we open our minds and try something new. The culture and heritage of the area is very rich, so it’s truly wonderful to use it in a new contemporary way.

Islamic Architecture

That ambition, and attention to detail, is clear in this project – from the importance of the colour white, the colour of the Ihram worn on the pilgrimage to Mecca, to the natural elements such as water and plants alongside the different textures that adorn the outer layers of the building.

For Al Hiti, the building illustrates the fact that Islamic architecture is different wherever you go in the world.

If you go to southern Spain you will see Islamic architecture that is very different from Iran or Syria, Baghdad, or Morocco – but they are all Islamic architecture.

The common denominator between them, which defines them as Islamic architecture, is calligraphy, explains Al Hiti. He said that when you see calligraphic letters on a structure, be it in Spain or Morocco or Baghdad, it defines it as an Islamic building.