Design Thesis

The final year at any architecture design school challenges the student to deal with the design thesis topic. As a practising architect, you will obviously be practical and take into account the amount of work to be comparable with costs borne by the client. But in the final year, you can explore all you want.

In order to make the whole experience of being in the final year memorable, the student must be inspired by the topic most of all. Finding the site is secondary, but having said that, where and why a student proposed the site could figure as a big issue in the design.

When I was a student at North London Polytechnic back in 1990, I chose to do the “Quranic Studies Institute” in London. I was exploring and reading up on Islam and Sufism a lot then. I remembered rummaging through numerous bookshops in London, as if I was in this spiritual quest to understand myself.

The chosen site was near the Regent’s Park Mosque or now they called it the London Central Mosque. The institute had workshop spaces for calligraphy, cubicles for researchers and scholars and it was meant to be a gathering space for people interested in the Quran and Islam. Looking back, I realised I was heavily influenced by Hermann Hesse’s book, “The Glass Bead Game“. My boss at Rock Townsend, Alistair Hay loaned me a copy when I did my year out after Part 1. I wanted to create a world that was depicted in that story. Anyway, I enjoyed having lunches of tomato and aubergines at this Algerian owned cafe near the site until some bloke wanted to propose an arranged marriage for me! As an alternative, it was the Pizza place near the tube station. What a bummer!

I got a distinction for that project as I read a lot on the topic, and there was this brilliant book by the late Ismail Al-Faruqi and his wife, called the “Cultural Atlas of Islam” that explained clearly the principles of designing in Islam, and I tell you mate, it is definitely not “domes and minarets”. I even had to read a lot on the essence of Islam, which is the concept of Tawhid. Beautifully articulated buildings such as Masjid Kampung Keling and Masjid Trengkera (1728) in Melaka, Malaysia adopted very well the principles of Islam by assimilating local forms and context. So at the end, my design thesis project looked like it fits in London. The Ismaili Centre at Cromwell Road, Kensington, and L’institut Du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) in Paris are two examples that subtly evoke Islamic principles without copying Arab culture. Contrast that to our wholesale export of Turkish mosques designs at Shah Alam and in Masjid Wilayah. My comment about the latter: Wow, so Hagia Sophia lah you ni!

It was difficult to find the form to express my design thesis project. I tried to have it looked high-tech at one stage. And finally, when I explored materials and construction, I used travertine marble and referred to Michael Hopkins’ factory design for inspiration. (The Round Building). The design must be highly refined and detailed like arabic alphabets and script. I was trying to get the right balance in the end.

Your design thesis topic must be able to show you the direction that you must take. It should not be preconceived. You must get lost in it (your search) but come out purposeful. You should learn about the topic in depth. It is good if you get a topic that could give you possibilities.

The topic should be tangible enough so that it can be translated into space and architecture without too much difficulty. Herein the importance of mastering ideas into concept.

It should provide enough complexity to take you further into a thesis.


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