Cambridge eco-mosque breaks new ground

With the Muslim population of Britain doubling every fifteen years, the pressure on its places of worship is intense. No sooner is a mosque built than it overflows. The response has until now been to run up cheap but vast barns to keep the rain from the heads of the worshippers, with scant attention paid to architectural nuance. But a newer generation, both more educated and more reflective about religion, is growing restless.

Cambridge is a magnet for upwardly‐mobile, young Muslims. With a Muslim student population from over seventy countries and a steady trickle of conversions among undergraduates, it breaks stereotypes of mosque goers as monoglot Bangladeshi elders or Kurdish kebab sellers. The mosque is probably the most ethnically diverse place in Cambridge; but it is also becoming one of the most adventurous and articulate.

The existing mosque on Mawson Road, just off Mill Road, is a former chapel which was rededicated as a mosque in 1981. Since that time, its Friday lunchtime congregation has grown from around forty to seven hundred. Its location on a narrow Victorian street makes further expansion, or any provision for parking, an impossibility.

Enter the Cambridge New Mosque Project. In 2008, the former Robert Sayle warehouse on Mill Road was bought by a charity headed by Yusuf Islam, the former pop‐idol Cat Stevens. The project’s leaders recognized that a conventional solution on the site would be inappropriate. As a major international city, with a rich existing skyline of sacred buildings, Cambridge required a landmark, not a barn with a dome.

Interesting cultural arguments ensued. Mosque design has historically reflected the local cultures of the Muslim world. A mosque in Java bears no resemblance to a mosque in Bosnia, or a mosque in Senegal. And with Cambridge Muslims claiming such a diversity of origins, it was far from clear what the chosen idiom should be.

A hybrid seemed inevitable, and one with local references. But if mosque design has historically reflected local culture, how could British architecture figure in the shaping of the Cambridge building? One could quarry the past, and build a Gothic or a Palladian mosque. The dangers of pastiche would be immense. So, too, would be the potential alienation of the mosque’s users, unused to a form so alien to the religion’s heritage and its particular notion of the sacred.

An international competition was held, calling for inventive and innovative ideas. Entrants were told to propose a mosque that would hold a thousand men and women, and announce Islam’s presence in Cambridge as a spiritual and cultural asset not only to Muslims but also to the wider community. Solutions poured in. Brutalist concrete answers were offered, together with Star Trek futurism, replicas of medieval Syrian buildings, and revivals of Victorian railway architecture. In an age of recession, architects were desperate for the work; but they also seemed passionate about the scheme.

Confronted by four superb finalists, the jury finally picked a design by Marks Barfield, designers of the London Eye. Their scheme exploited the overlap between the colour and texture of Cambridge white brickwork, with some of the great brick buildings of Central Asia. But the building is strongly modern in inspiration and temper. It acknowledges Islam as an ongoing tradition, not as a cultural fossil.

The design allows visitors to experience a gradual transition, through a garden, a vestibule, and an atrium, into the main prayer hall, oriented towards Mecca. Trees give way to a covered space around a fountain, and then to the mosque itself, a private, inner space which soars to a height of three stories. There are no clichéd references to either Islamic or English themes, although both can be strongly intuited.

The link with the local and the Islamic is expressed not by exploring the distant medieval indebtedness of the Gothic style to Islamic building. Instead, the natural world is proposed as the point of connection. The inner sanctuary is faced with wood, and forms a forest of sixteen wooden columns, each of which opens up to support the roof, which it joins by means of geometrical structures inspired by Islamic design. The connection between the horizontal and the vertical, which is the symbolic message of a sacred building, is effected by a quiet celebration of the miracle of nature, and the ability of faith to detect mathematical order within it.

This focus on nature informs other aspects of the building’s design values. A minimal carbon footprint is required, to emphasise spiritual beliefs in humanity’s role as a humble and responsible custodian of creation. The building is energy‐efficient, with heat pumps, water recycling, and the strategic use of glass and other materials to gain and conserve heat. The great domes culminate in glass oculi, which bathe the interior in natural light. In the hours of darkness, high‐efficiency LED lights provide a soft but effective luminescence.

Islamic architecture is sometimes described as ‘the alchemy of light.’ The symbolism is obvious, as the Koran says, ‘God is the light of the heavens and the earth.’ Light is being, existence, truth, and reality. Darkness is made of shadows, which are insubstantial but can still distract us with the illusion that they really exist. The mosque tells the believer that the mystery of existence lies in the interface of reality and illusion, and that worship exists to help us find our way back to the way things really are.

The Marks Barfield design is still undergoing some alterations. Nevertheless, it is clear that the very secular city of Cambridge is about to be challenged by a new monument, which will remind us that for many, the principle of sanctity is still interesting, and that it can still inspire subtle and intelligent artistic expression.

In a time when religion is often judged by its fundamentalist extremes, the Cambridge mosque may function as a signpost to a forgotten reality, a symbol not only of religion’s ongoing appeal, but of its aesthetic and moral challenge to a culture most of whose monuments are frankly dedicated to the gods of money and of consumption.

Tim Winter is the Shaykh Zayed Lecturer in Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Divinity.

Author: Tim Winter

View the project here.