The British Mosque: A unique architectural history

February 05, 2017
Hackney Road mosque, which was nominated for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2016.

London - The story of the mosque in Britain goes back to the 1880s, further than in any other Western coun­try. For British Muslim architect Shahed Saleem, who has designed two mosques, this area of architecture lacks exposure. His book The British Mosque: An Archi­tectural and Social History, to be published this year, seeks to shed light on the subject.
There are approximately 1,500 mosques in Britain, serving the country’s 3 million Muslims. The majority of the mosques are con­verted spaces — former houses, shops or even pubs — with about 200 originally designed as places of Islamic worship.
“There has been a lot of archi­tectural and design criticism of mosques [in Britain] that they are not very sophisticated in terms of design or that they are quite pas­tiche and tacky,” Saleem said.
“Many of them are nothing more than converted buildings with a dome or minaret attached. So there is this slightly schizophrenic visual language that is almost uncomfort­able with itself… These mosques don’t really know what they are trying to be. Are they a traditional building or a local mosque?”
Many newly built mosques in Britain bear little resemblance to traditional mosques in their de­signs, leading Saleem to say: “The alternative is to have an avant-garde response but the people who use that mosque think, ‘Well, I don’t really connect to this build­ing.’ It’s a whole different architec­tural language, from a whole differ­ent culture.”
Saleem said he envisions a hap­py middle between these two ex­tremes: An architectural design that embraces and adapts on the past but exists in the present, rep­resenting a religious identity that is both modern and contemporary and uniquely British.
“Muslims in this country have been determined to create a Muslim infrastructure for themselves and have really struggled and battled to create the mosque, changing the nature of England’s townscapes. So I think it’s important that we don’t now create buildings that are com­pletely Western,” Saleem said.
“What I’m interested in is chart­ing a course between the two. I don’t want to disregard all the ar­chitecture that has already been built and say we need to start from scratch. What I’m interested in is looking at what people have built in this country, in these converted ad hoc-type buildings and almost draw a new visual language from that.”
It is important for Saleem that local mosques tie into their com­munities. “Yes, both the local in­digenous communities but also the local Muslim history of mak­ing buildings in this country,” he said. “The Muslim history of mak­ing mosques in England is that it’s a very self-built, ad hoc process in which the communities are very connected to the buildings because they fund and design them them­selves and I think it is important to draw from that.”
Saleem said he sought to bring those aspects together in the two mosques — the Shahporan Masjid on London’s Hackney Road and Ab­erdeen’s Masjid Alhikmah in Scot­land — he has designed. However, the most striking thing about Sal­eem’s two mosques is that neither utilises the architectural features that have come to define mosques — the dome and the minaret.
“Well, it’s not dogmatic,” he said.” If it’s appropriate and it works and it has a role in that particular situation, then I would look at us­ing minarets, probably even more so than domes. The usefulness of the dome is that it helps you feel the space internally but there are very few opportunities to use that because of the size that’s required while you don’t need it for acous­tics nowadays because of micro­phones and so on.
“As for the minaret, it has now become a visual symbol. The mean­ing of an object can change over time. If it started off as a practical device [to issue the call to prayer] it has turned into a visual symbol. The question is how do you now best use that visual symbol?”
His mosques also marry a blend of traditionalism — referring spe­cifically to British mosque-building — and more modern styles. Shahpo­ran Masjid, for example, includes a mashrabiya screen that is a nod to one from the first purpose-built mosque in Britain, Shah Jahan mosque in Woking. “So that’s kind of an English reference, if you like,” Saleem said.
His Aberdeen mosque includes hand-made ceramics as well as a vast granite block that refers to the local stone industry. “While there is a series of different things happen­ing, they are all working together,” he said.
The most important thing is to look to the future, even while keep­ing hold to the past, Saleem said. “A mosque should challenge your per­ceptions. Designing a mosque is an internal dialogue, a dialogue about British culture, a reference to our own history.”