‘Substance and Sustenance’

Volume 52, Issue 3 :: Text and Photos by Ashraf M. Salama

Cambridge Central Mosque exterior

The exterior embodies elements of traditional forms of Islamic Architecture while speaking of contemporary architecture.

The Cambridge Central Mosque in earth harmony

Prayer hall structure in the Cambridge Central Mosque

Prayer hall structure in the Cambridge Central Mosque, features digitally fabricated tree-timber columns supporting the roof structure.

As a “place of prostration,” the term mosque originates from the Arabic word masjid to denote a religious space or a place of worship for Muslims. The mosque in a non-Muslim context is a symbol, a point of reference that provides a framework under which people of a common belief can unite and interact. Representing a unique or unusual building type, it can be viewed as a construct; a stimulus for developing community spirit and a promoter of collective vigor. Primarily, though, it is considered a container in which universal human values and religious traditions and norms of appropriate human behavior and code of conduct are imparted towards implementation into a wider routine of ethical and moral practices within the everyday social environment.

Muslim communities in Western cultures have evolved into diverse sophisticated groups that range from migrant or expatriate skilled professionals to unskilled low-paid labor. They represent different cultural backgrounds, diverse education levels, and various age groups, and (in principle) form a clientele for mosque architecture that did not exist until a few decades ago. While mosques are designed and built to satisfy the religious needs of these communities, they are also perceived as non-verbal statements that convey messages of presence and a collective psyche. This adds a complex layer to the already acknowledged challenges that constrain the design of mosques in non-Muslim contexts which involve: establishing relevance to the physical and socio-cultural contexts, responsiveness to resistance or pressures from the local community, compliance with building bylaws and regulations of the local city council, and instituting references to symbols and visual traditions of regions where these communities come from. Consequently, the challenge of designing a mosque in a non-Muslim setting is to strike a balance between these aspects. The Cambridge Central Mosque is no exception, as it addresses such complexity into a unique landmark that speaks to its physical and cultural context, contributes a positive dialogue within the wider east-west perspectives, and reminds us of the primacy in Muslim belief of harmony with nature.

Cambridge, the Site, and the Mosque

Cambridge Central Mosque floor plan

Floor plan

The city of Cambridge is home to the second oldest university in the English-speaking world (1209). Over the past decade the city’s estimated 6,000 Muslims have had to pray in turns at smaller, overcrowded Islamic centers and some converted properties. Strikingly, Cambridge’s perceived rival, the city of Oxford that holds the oldest university in the English-speaking world (1167), has four well-established, purpose-built mosques.¹ Cambridge needed to respond to the growing local student and international Muslim population. This is coupled with the global multi-cultural nature of the city where people from all corners of the world live, work, and study and where the Muslim community includes people from Africa, the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent, South-East Asia, and China.

The site is in the Romsey area of Mill Road, which is historically recognized as a place for Cambridge radicals and as the most famous street outside the university area. Over the years, everything that was undesired (functionally and visually) by the university and the council was located here–from the cemetery to the railway, from workhouses to the hospital for infectious diseases.² While eclectic in nature, the Mill Road grew to house workers in terraces that form a community characterized by cohesion and socialist beliefs. While the road is seen as a thriving refuge of bohemianism, cultural diversity, and independent traders, it is unfairly depicted as an example of urban decay labeled as “the street of fear.” Over the past decade certain parts of the road have acquired a new distinctive image where quality, purpose-built student housing replaced dilapidated sites.

Enlightened Clients and Committed Architects

Detail of portico columns at the main entrance.

Detail of portico columns at the main entrance.

To generate a vision for the Cambridge Central Mosque, the Muslim Academic Trust–formed of a group of city Muslims, community activists, university academics, and religious figures–came together to fund raise, purchase land, and shape the program. Yusuf Islam (better known internationally as the distinguished folk-musician Cat Stevens) is one of the key figures of the trust. The effort was led by Timothy Winter (a convert to Islam also known as Abdal Hakim Murad) who is an Islamic religious scholar with a background in architecture. It was Winter’s charge to help foment a vision for the mosque.

The Muslim community raised £4 million to purchase the one-acre site. The £23 million construction project has been funded by more than 10,000 donations by diverse donors, ranging from individuals to governments, without special demands for specific religious affiliation, spiritual orientation, or selection of the Imams. Three key architectural offices (Marks Barfield Architects, Mangera Yvars Architects, the 5th Studio) were invited in 2009 to contribute their concepts.

The entries were varied. One employed a cubic arrangement to strike a balance between Cambridge and Victorian Styles on one hand and Islamic courtyard typology on the other. Another used Brutalist concrete and grey brick facades to develop a contemporary language for British mosque architecture.³ The winning scheme by Marks Barfield Architects originates from the spatial traditions and symbolic norms of Islamic architecture and also speaks to contemporary architecture, sacred form re-interpretation, and materiality. The late David Marks, a Jewish architect who along with his wife, architect Julia Barfield, designed the iconic London Eye and other landmark projects in the UK and worldwide, was the driving force behind the concept: to create a British mosque that was not a copy or pastiche of something from Islamic tradition. But he would not see the mosque’s completion. The trust released a statement: “We came to him with an ambitious project that would satisfy a religious community living in a minority setting within a historic English city, and he gave us a solution that was both daring and delightful.”

Project Concept and Key Design Features

The entrance atrium looks out to the portico and Islamic garden.

The entrance atrium looks out to the portico and Islamic garden.

The program includes a generous portico, an atrium or a congregation gathering space, a prayer hall for 1,000 worshippers, teaching spaces, meeting rooms, ablution areas, serene outdoor garden space, underground parking. The mosque was to possess architecture in true earth harmony. According to the architects, it was to be “truly inclusive, sustainable, safe, secure, and respectful of its neighborhood.” The design features a grid of dramatic spruce timber structural columns introduced throughout the main spaces and a façade cladded with bricks in a manner that complements the character of the area.

A sequential hierarchy of spaces and attuned thresholds direct the visitor gradually to the primary space—the prayer hall, passing through the lobby space. Secondary spaces (teaching and meeting rooms, ablution areas) are located on the two sides of the axis of movement. The 30 digitally fabricated tree-timber columns supporting the impressive roof structure represent the primary architectural concept. The theme reminds us of the design of the mosque and Islamic cultural center of Rome by Sami Mousawi, an Iraqi architect based in Manchester; Paolo Porteghesi, Italian architect and historian; and Vittorio Gigliotti, Italian structural engineer, where unifying elements of structural columns were utilized to curve outwards at the top, suggesting a four-branched tree.

The design emphasizes approachability, accessibility, and inclusivity, aiming to create a whole, which is non-sectarian, non-denominational, and multi-ethnic. An integral part of the spatial organization is to appeal to both males and females. While there are different entrances dedicated to each gender, the female prayer space is separated by intricately carved, moveable wooden screens to address privacy. Yet there is also an upper level prayer area for females. Therefore, any female from any tradition should be able to find a prayer space within which she feels tranquil. This also enables flexibility for expanding or contracting prayer spaces for women based on the number of worshippers.

The prayer hall is surrounded by solid walls with openings above eye level to foster calmness, focus, and contemplation. These openings together with the skylights interwoven within the timber trees introduce prudently calculated daylight. The entrance areas are inviting and welcoming. This is manifested through visual transparency achieved by the glass walls separating the atrium from the garden while introducing a magnificent portico–a colonnade-like shaded/covered open space in between. The outdoor garden includes two key spaces: a community green space directly facing onto Mill Road, and a more formal garden with trees and water, whose spatial organization follows Islamic architectural traditions.

Reflections on Substance and Sustenance

The role that the architecture of the mosque should play as substance and sustenance is underscored when considering the key design aspects. While substance involves both tangible and intangible aspects related to its meaning and essence, sustenance is intended to signify the act of sustaining and nourishment. As substance and sustenance, the design of the mosque is uniquely rich.

Window screens with Islamic floral ornaments.

Among decorative details are window screens with Islamic floral ornaments.

Intangibly, the substance is reflected in the story behind the mosque, where tolerance prevails, where the efforts of a Muslim community led by an academic Muslim convert integrate with the skills of a Jewish architect to create a place situated in a Christian context. In 2011, anonymous flyers were posted in the neighborhood urging people to object to the project on grounds of traffic congestion. The city council affirmed that it received 50 letters opposing the mosque, but more than 200 from local non-Muslims in full support. In principle, this is a representation of sustenance where opportunities for interfaith dialogue, understating, and appreciation are nurtured.

Tangibly, substance and sustenance are manifested in the design, which is a true reflection of the notion of “stewardship” as emphasized in the Qur’an: “The servants of [Allah] All Merciful are they who tread gently upon the earth with humility” (Qur’an – al-Furqan, 25:63). The religion commands its followers to be stewards of the earth, and actions that further this are deemed positive. Stewardship includes the protection of the environment and heritage, both natural and constructed. Being sensible with natural and constructed capital invigorates this notion of safeguarding them for future generations. A substantial number of sustainable design strategies are employed including energy management system, cross ventilation, green roofs, heat recovery system, durable materials, off-site construction and reduction of construction waste, shading and overhangs, water attenuation, water-saving fixtures, energy-efficient appliances, and a highly insulated building envelop.

It is palpable that substance and sustenance are reflected in terms of how the design speaks to and respect the context, the community, and the user while addressing both functional and spiritual requirements. The mosque sits serenely in the midst of a low-rise residential context, and in a very subtle manner. It does not publicize its presence stridently. Admiring the visual and cultural context, it gently conveys a message of welcome to the visitor through the hierarchy of spaces, defined boundaries, and acclimatized thresholds, commencing at the road’s edge with a vibrant, yet peaceful, Islamic garden which epitomizes paradise, which leads to a portico, then to an atrium leading onto a hallway, and then to the prayer hall, the position of which shifts slightly to address Makkah. This hierarchy of spaces engages the worshipper in a short journey from the outside world into the sacred and the spiritual.

Departing from the tradition of gender exclusivity that characterizes the spatial organization of many mosques,5 the design engages with the sharing of spaces by both genders where all spaces are collectively used up to the point of prayer space entry. Men and women both use the same prayer hall, with carved wooden screens that balance privacy and visual transparency. Engaging the community with openness to visitors of other faiths, the portico and atrium include a cafe area for up to 300 visitors.

Male ablution facilities

Male ablution facilities with plants separating movement from washing areas.

As both substance and sustenance, the project nurtures and promotes the nature and essence of architecture as a trans-disciplinary practice. The architects collaborated with professionals from a wide spectrum of disciplinary backgrounds6 including Islamic art and geometry specialists, landscape architects, timber engineers, acoustics and fire consultants, project management, including Keith Critchlow, an expert in sacred architecture. Together, they sought to develop a contemporary, local mosque design rooted in both Islamic and British sacred architecture traditions.7

The geometric patterns, manually developed by Critchlow, are demonstrated throughout the design, from planning and designing the overall building mass to façade treatments and interior wall details and the atrium floor. Conceivably, the most thoughtful embodiment of these geometries is in the magnificent timber trees, which allow for quiet contemplation. While they establish an architectural visual discourse between Islamic traditions and the recall of the proportions of Gothic arches, they emphasize spatial spirituality and simulate nature emerging from the ground and sprouting upwards and outwards to reach the heavens. Each timber tree culminates in an oculus skylight that allows light to penetrate between the timber ribs and into the space. Islamic garden design expert Emma Clark, together with the Urquhart & Hunt Landscape Design Studio drew on Qur’anic interpretations of paradise to create a contemplative refuge as a connection between the building and the community.

The Cambridge Central Mosque is a contemporary mosque in a non-Muslim setting. Indeed, in socio-cultural and spiritual-symbolic terms, it signifies a conscious articulation towards redefining the mosque typology for the 21st century in an urban landscape. It can be seen as a teaching tool for the architectural community as it cultivates human principles relevant to tolerance, engagement, collaboration, as well as interdisciplinary collaboration. The project should be celebrated for the skillful integration of advanced digital fabrication to pursue passive environmental technology and sustainable design strategies while inculcating a deep respect for and a deliberate interpretation of Islamic geometries and architectural heritage and traditions.

Water fountain

Water fountain occupies a prominent, central place in the Islamic garden.

  1. Adrian Curtis, “Stunning views of Cambridge’s £23m mosque,” 24 January 2019.
  2. Catherine Galloway, “From the General Strike to the campaign to ban Sainsbury’s, Mill Road has long provided a home to Cambridge’s radicals,” https://www.cam.ac.uk/radicalmillroad – For more information, see research from the Mill Road History Society, capturingcambridge.org, and millroadhistory.org.uk.
  3. See Mangera Yvars Architects: http://www.myaa.eu/projects/cambridge-community-centre/ and the 5th Studio: http://www.5thstudio.co.uk/projects/mill-road-mosque-cambridge/
  4. Ashraf M. Salama, “A Peaceful Fusion of Cultures,” Faith & Form, 37 (2): 2004.
  5. Tammy Gaber, “Gendered Mosque Spaces: Cultural, Religious, or Accessibility Issue?” Faith & Form, 48 (1): 2015.
  6. Project team: The Cambridge Mosque Trust (client); Marks Barfield Architects (architect); Bidwells (project manager and planning consultant); Price & Myers (structural engineer, construction); Jacobs (structural engineer, planning); Blumer Lehmann (timber engineer); Skelly & Couch (building services engineer); Emma Clark with Urquhart & Hunt (landscape architect); Keith Critchlow (Islamic geometer); Faithful & Gould (quantity surveyor, principal designer); Ramboll (acoustic consultant); Harris TPS (fire consultant); MLM (approved inspector); Gilbert-Ash (main contractor).
  7. See Ike Ijeh, “Cambridge Mosque,” Building UK, 13 March 2019; and Jason Dibbs, “Cambridge Central Mosque / Marks Barfield Architects,” arcspace, 16 March 2019.
  8. Emma Clark – Islamic Garden Design: http://emma-clark.com/

The author is the head of the school of architecture at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, United Kingdom, and the 2017 Recipient of the UIA Jean Tschumi Prize for Excellence in Architectural Education and Criticism of the International Union of Architects.

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