Sacred designs: the rich history of British mosques
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Any walking tour, book, psychogeographic essay or self-consciously cultish feature about east London will include a story about the Brick Lane Mosque. First built as a chapel by French Huguenots in 1743, it was taken over by Wesleyans, then Methodists and became a synagogue in 1891, converted by refugees from the pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe. In 1976 it settled into its current incarnation as a mosque, the same building providing spiritual shelter to successive waves of immigrants and outsiders.
Its symbolism has become a London cliché but that dubious status disguises its capacity to surprise. One of the biggest of those surprises was when the community erected a minaret, which from a distance looks like a stack of washing machine drums, but from close up reveals itself to be a spire of delicately pierced stainless steel that glows in garish colours at night.
A building conceived by French immigrants in an English i diom adapted by Muslims from Bangladesh in a street where curry houses mingle with vintage stores and graffitied bars, is now at the centre of Three British Mosques, an exhibition at the Venice Biennale of Architecture in collaboration with the V&A. Christopher Turner, the museum’s keeper of design, architecture, and digital, suggests that transporting this hybrid building to Venice, a city which he says Ruskin described as a city of Arab splendour, a place where east meets west, allows the museum to look at this condition of an embedded architecture of immigration.
The mosque shares the exhibition space with two others, one in the Old Kent Road and another in Harrow, in a show examining this radically under-researched building type which is now so common in British cities — and so little noticed by non-Muslims.
The first mosque designed in Britain was a 1761 folly in Kew Gardens. Designed by William Chambers (whose pagoda at Kew survives) it was a decorative, orientalising building framed by a pair of minarets and capped by a dome with a crescent moon on top. The next two came in 1889, one in a terraced house in Liverpool, the other an exotic design in, of all places, Woking, aesthetically situated somewhere between Chambers’ folly and the Brighton Pavilion and commissioned by British orientalist and linguist Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner. Somewhere, in the strange territory between all of these examples, is an image of the mosque as ad hoc, adaptive and decorative which both defines and muddies the waters of what the British mosque might mean.
Shahed Saleem, an architect and author who has written a book about the subject, is co-curator of the exhibition. “I started my research because there was nothing written about British mosques, yet there are now 1,800 around the country and they have been changing the townscape. This was a project about what these places are, their significance to communities, how people make them. We’re not approaching this as high architecture but a representation of meaning, process and aesthetics carried by migrants, not created by architects,” he tells me.
Saleem points me toward the mosque in the Old Kent Road, built largely by immigrants from Nigeria: “It was a Victorian pub with a dining room upstairs. Elements of the Victorian architecture were decorated, the columns and pilasters painted in gold, which creates a hybridity, with new meanings applied, reinscribed on the architecture. It’s a process that immigrant communities have lived through, attempting to adjust, and the mosques are the embodiment of that migrant experience.”
Sections of the interiors have been replicated in forensic detail, creating strange moments in Venice. They highlight the hybrid, celebrating the everyday nature of these cobbled-together interiors and the occasional mismatch between the reuse and the original intent, but also acting as anthropological and sociological research, recording the layers of accretion in spaces which are at once robust and fragile.
These reused spaces are in danger of disappearing as communities become more established and can afford purpose-built mosques. “It’s a way of collecting this ad hoc architecture, of documenting this phase before it is lost,” Turner says.
Ella Kilgallon, the third co-curator, says that their department also aims to look at “contemporary design”. “We’ve got the test pieces for the minaret that was added to the Brick Lane Mosque and 3D scans of the building, and we’ve acquired Shahed’s sketchbooks of mosques from his travels. But there is this idea that traditional Islamic architecture stopped some time in the late 18th century.”
These are not masterpieces of architecture, but they do present traces of a fragile history. “So many people dismiss these mosques as pastiches,” says Turner. “But Shahed views [this architecture] as a performative process, more generous and nuanced.”
A Ramadan pavilion was going to be installed in the courtyard of the V&A in parallel to the Biennale installation, a colourful, enjoyably kitschy and postmodern folly designed by Saleem and inspired by Chambers’ design in Kew Gardens. It fell victim to the pandemic, but the curators assure me it will appear at some time in the future.
The question of kitsch always haunts the images (as it does, perhaps, in all sacred architecture), but Saleem says that he and the other curators have “tried to avoid the questions of taste”. “It’s such a highly culturally conditioned way of seeing things. We tried to understand what is the language people are bringing with them? What does it mean? There’s a persistent return of particular motifs which, when combined, give a kind of hybridity.”
The interiors featured here are distinctive and carry with them a degree of resilience — but also pathos. The same white foam tiles in dropped ceilings seem to recur everywhere, hinting at the way these spaces have so often been adapted from commercial uses. The fluorescent strip lights with their pallid glow cast a cool, even light over everything so that the objects and artefacts are equally prominent: a pair of scuffed shoes, a framed picture of Makkah (from a smaller, older incarnation minus its current skyscrapers), a digital display board showing prayer times.
Layers of objects slowly coalesce to create a place. There are also mass-produced retail Islamic products such as Hajj wall-hangings, gold-embossed Korans, and Chinese-made Afghan rugs. It is a globalised landscape of things. At times you think you might be looking at a madrassa in Pakistan or a stuffy prayer room in Indonesia, until a sash window or a view of terraced houses brings you back from a reverie. These are the spaces of the newly arrived and the poor — they come with a strange beauty.
Turner points out that the network of mosques established over decades in often inhospitable landscapes are a “crowdsourced architecture, grassroots and bottom-up. They might make a model for other community projects”. “Anyone can set a mosque up. It’s very democratic,” Saleem adds. But is there a danger of exoticising Islamic design in a similar, nostalgic and symbolic way to what Chambers did with his 18th-century folly or how curry restaurants have adopted an all-purpose South Asian look? Are we in danger of fetishising an idea set against a background of Islamophobia, of othering it through good intentions? Or is this the Martin Parr moment for mosques, patronising and twee?
“There is an exoticisation,” Saleem says. “But we think we’re taking the making of these buildings the way communities have taken ownership of space, and what we’re doing is trying to hear the stories of the people who built them and who use them, listening and contextualising.”
This is an exhibition about capturing what Turner calls “a stage on a journey”. While the end of this stage will be, ironically, a symbol of success for these communities, this project ensures it won’t be lost completely.
‘Three British Mosques’ will be on display at the Venice Biennale of Architecture to November 21, vam.ac.uk