Austria,

Buried in the Alps

An Islamic cemetery has become a source of architectural solace, deep in the alpines of Austria

Writer

John Burns

Photographer

Matthias Rhomberg

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At the foot of Austria’s alpine slopes, just a few miles from the borders of Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany, lies the small, sleepy town of Altach. For all of its picture postcard meadows, verdant mountains and the typical ‘gingerbread’ houses that pepper them, Altach is a town most famous for its cemetery.

Serving the needs of the region’s thriving Muslim community, the establishment of an Islamic cemetery – aside from receiving international applaud for its award-winning architecture – is considered a major step forward for the integration of minority Muslim groups into dominant Austrian society. As well as offering succour to the living, the cemetery has also come to symbolise a deeper confirmation of homeland to the departed.

 

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I like wood as it carries emotion, stories and consolation with it like no other material

‘Until recently, the Muslim deceased were, with few exceptions, transferred to their country of origin for burial,’ says Gottfried Brändle, the mayor of Altach – a town that’s so far removed from the rest of Austria that its inhabitants speak an entirely different dialect to the rest of the country.

Though Islam has been a state-recognised religion in Austria since 1912, its practise surged with the arrival of Turkish and Bosnian communities in the 1960s and again, more recently, with those displaced by the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and with citizens arriving from North Africa and south-east Asia. ‘The descendants [of these communities],’ Mayor Brändle explains, ‘are increasingly recognising Vorarlberg as their new home and placing value on being able to use municipal facilities to practice their religion and culture.’

Altach is just one town in the state of Vorarlberg , where many Muslim residents have lived and worked for over 40 years. As first-born generations are followed by second-born generations and so on, a place of mourning and an official site for Islamic burial became not just a yearning, but a necessity.

‘Carrying family members back to the “old countries” is expensive. It gave us the feeling that we are not full members of Austrian society – it interrupted the integration process,’ says Attila Dincer, a local resident and spokesman for the Muslim community. In 2003, Dincer formed the grassroots initiative group ‘Islamic Cemetery’, uniting all nine Austrian Muslim sub-communities to campaign together for the creation of the group’s nomenclature.

Prior to the cemetery’s opening in June 2012, Dincer’s group campaigned and liaised with various institutions for almost four years before the Altach cemetery was commissioned. Following an architectural competition by invitation, Bernardo Bader – a local architect with an office in Dornbirn, the largest town in Vorarlberg, and a portfolio of minimalist wooden residencies  – was chosen to design the project.

‘Topics like “construction culture”, design or energy efficiency are not of interest to me at the beginning of a project. I like to talk to the clients about their primordial needs and wishes first; their rituals, habits and, never forget, their economic limits,’ says Bader, who explains how he took into careful consideration the thoughts of all involved, from the local government to the Catholic Church and okay.zusammenleben, an advice centre for immigration and integration.

Aside from being a challenging topography that few get right, designing a cemetery is surely not the most vaunted of tasks for a young architect. But cemeteries can provide fertile ground for architects to flex some creative muscle: these are, after all, landscapes that comfort the mind.

The final building possesses a purposeful and studied minimalism. A blocky, one-storey rectangular building comprises the heart of the complex, greeting the congregation at the roadside and guiding them through the various stages of the funeral proceedings; first, past the starkly simple ablution and assembly rooms, before leading them out into a partially-covered courtyard, where prayers are silently spoken over the deceased and the funeral service takes place.

Behind the main building a lattice-like network of concrete walls extend into the pastures, creating five distinct, staggered spaces for burials. Viewed aerially, these rectangular graveyards take the form of a hand, its five digits pointing towards Mecca. The colour palette is tastefully subdued throughout; the roseate hue and rough, grainy finish of the concrete exuding warmth against the changeable alpine elements.

‘The building is a very simple building, but that was our request. It was not important for us to have a dome or a minaret at the cemetery, just everything that we need for a funeral,’ says Abdi Tasdögen, the local imam and a member of the board at IGGiÖ, devoted to the ‘Islamic Faith Community’ in Austria.

The Islamic design components that do feature in the complex are decidedly subtle, modern and incorporate local handicrafts. ‘The wooden ornament is based on the traditional Islamic octagonal motif,’ says Bader, describing a design found in the main building of the cemetery. ‘I like wood as it carries emotion, stories and consolation with it like no other material. It’s still produced in a very romantic way in our rural area.’

Decoration is sparse at the cemetery, only found in these oak panels and in the calm, cocoon-like prayer room inside the main building, which Bader consulted Bosnian artist Azra Akšamija to design. Richly ornamented and washed in golden hues, Akšamija’s ‘Shingle-Mihrab’ installation faces Mecca, providing both the prayer room’s Qibla wall, and the visual and spiritual focal point of the building.

‘The space is conceived so that it can speak, architecturally, to many different cultures,’ Akšamija says of her design’s stainless steel mesh curtain and ‘shingles’ of local wood. Upon entering the room, the shingles appear as a solid, wooden wall. However, when in motion, light interplays between the shingles creating an illusion of animation. ‘As you move through the space, you also start to recognise that some of the shingles are denser, creating calligraphic Kufic inscriptions that spell out Allah and Prophet Mohammed (PBUH),’ Akšamija adds. The saff, or prayer rugs, were handwoven in a traditional kilim (flat-weave rug) workshop in Sarajevo, in Akšamija’s native Bosnia.

The ecru shades of the rugs brighten as they approach the Qibla wall, focusing the mind towards Mecca and adding a depth and comfort to the prayer room. When kneeling on the rugs, bright rays of light from the window filter through the gaps of the ‘Shingle-Mihrab’ and flicker on the rows of saff, focusing the mind, again, on the direction of prayer.

Since its opening in June 2012, 28 burials and ritual ablutions have taken place at the cemetery. Despite the project’s inherent melancholy, the transformative power of architecture to positive effect is clearly evident for all involved. ‘I have the impression that we have made a huge step with the realisation of this project,’ says Brändle.

Altach’s Islamic cemetery manages to slip carefully and unassumingly into the existing landscape; its tautly hewn, monolithic concrete walls at once synthesise with the surrounding pastures and rocky mountains yet clearly delineate it too, interweaving local architectural styles with Islamic symbolism. It’s dignified in its reductivism and beautiful in its simplicity.

‘It’s always nice when I see families visiting their dead on certain days, maintaining their graves and speaking prayers for them,’ says Tasdögen. ‘It’s a sign that the integration efforts of Muslims in Austria are recognised by the authorities. The Islamic cemetery in Altach symbolises that Muslims are part of Austrian society.’