Architecture: Say a prayer for the mosque

Britain's Muslims are trying to improve on the makeshift mosques of first-generation settlers - but are they managing to develop a style worthy of their heritage? By Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Culture
Reports of the number of mosques to be built in Britain by the millennium have been greatly exaggerated. This week there have been reports that 80, 100 or even 200 new mosques are to be built to coincide with the Christian millennium. As this year is 1417 (and 1418) in the Muslim calendar, the next Islamic millennium is some way off yet. And sadly for architects hoping to win commissions to design new mosques, there is not only no guarantee of millennium funding, but Britain's Muslims are not allowed, or willing, to build places of worship with money raised through gambling. Gambling, insists the Koran, is a sin.

Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise. For if millennium money was to be channelled into the construction of new mosques across the country, could the million-strong Muslim community be sure it would get the buildings it really wants and that everyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, has a right to expect?

To date, with a few honourable exceptions, the design of British mosques has left much to be desired. A dearth of Muslim architects and a lack of understanding of Islamic culture by non-Muslim designers means that most of Britain's existing 1,000 or so mosques have been built on what looks like an ad hoc basis. While the sight of a minaret outside the centres of Bradford, Birmingham, Manchester and Leicester remains exotic, encouraging the rest of us to find any mosque an exciting addition to the townscape, a closer look reveals a building type that has yet to mature in Britain.

This is not a criticism of mosques in general and certainly not of Islam. Quite the contrary. Islam has produced some of the finest architecture of all, as anyone who has travelled through north Africa, the Middle East, India or along the Silk Route through central Asia will know; but it will take time before architects and those who commission them in Britain find a method and a form of design that represents this great religion at its best.

In Bradford, where a number of new mosques are planned or under construction, Atba al-Samarraie, an engineer with Bullen Consultants, is only too aware of the haphazard ways in which British mosques have developed over the past decade. "Many mosques have been converted from old warehouses and community halls, and even churches," he says. "In many cases they have been built quickly to meet the demands of new immigrants and often by poor communities who have done their best to create proper places of worship. One of the big restraining factors on their development is that local planning authorities have frowned on them. They have not been against mosques as such, but, ideally, a mosque needs a tall minaret and this has sometimes caused a problem. The upper limit now seems to be 60ft, although it would be great if we could build higher. Planners, however, are changing their tune and are more sympathetic now to the idea of more expressive mosques."

Samarraie is busy working on the design of at least 10 new mosques, in Bradford, Batley, Dewsbury, Rochdale and Leeds. "The wraps will be off the new Bilal mosque in Leeds very soon. You'll want to see that. We're particularly proud of it. We've been working here in Bradford on the design of mosques for some years and I think the standard is rising with the expectations of the Muslim community."

Even then, there will never be one style of mosque across the whole of the country. The Muslim community, if such a thing exists, is held together by the teachings of the prophet Mohammed, but is even more diverse in many ways than, say, the Church of England. Different styles of mosques can be detected in different cities; these are normally related to the countries where those who worship in them originated. There is not, never has been and never will be, one style for all mosques, we can be sure, just as there never has been for churches.

"There are, however, four elements that every mosque must have," says Samarraie, "and without them they cannot go by the name. These are the dome, minaret, the grand entrance and the mihrab [a niche marking the direction of Mecca]." Otherwise a thousand flowers can bloom.

There is, then, no danger of a standard type of mosque sprouting across British cityscapes as the number of adherents to Islam grows. What matters is that the standard of design of mosques should rise, and be encouraged by planners, local communities and critics to do so. There should certainly be no place for political or religious correctness: if mosques are ugly, it should be said; if they are a delight, they should be welcomed as a sign of communities that feel happy and able to express their culture, and as adding to the catholic face of our urban skylines.

Naturally, it will take time for the vast majority of people to accept the sight of prominent mosques jostling for attention between spires, superstores and office towers. It still comes as something of a surprise to arrive at the mainline railway station of a British city to find not a church or a cathedral, but a mosque stealing our first view. This is true of Leicester, for example, and doubtless there are other examples.

And yet, what is often cited as Britain's first mosque - at Woking - is sited within view of the Southern Region (or whatever it's called now) mainline from Waterloo to Bournemouth and Salisbury. This Victorian building is a gem, a pretty design that adds delightfully to what has become, since it was built, a rather drab-looking commuter extension of south-west London suburbia. If there's one building worth seeing in Woking, it's undoubtedly the mosque.

When religions expand, the architecture that frames them flourishes: weeds flourish among the flowers. During the extraordinary church-building boom of mid to late Victorian Britain, horrors were raised spire-by-lancet alongside one another. Many a British town or city that expanded rapidly during the height of the industrial revolution is home to choirs of hideous churches, rushed up no doubt in good faith, but (unless you are a staunch devotee of the Victorian Society) irredeemably horrid.

The first wave of new mosques is more oddball than horrid, but it is exciting to see Muslim communities, architects and planners grappling with a building type that reached its apogee several hundred years ago and deserves to shine again.

"I've been trying for many years now," says Samarraie, who came to England from Iraq 20 years ago. "Muslims will welcome working with non-Muslim architects if they show they understand and have a feeling for the purpose and underlying principles of the design of mosques."

Must they look old-fashioned? "No, of course not. The Regent's Park mosque [by Sir Frederick Gibberd and Partners, who also designed Liverpool's Roman Catholic cathedral, or 'Paddy's Wigwam' as it is known locally] was a brave try, but we need to find new solutions that say something about religion and locale."

It may, however, be some time before we see a mosque designed by the diverse talents of, say, Zaha Hadid, Sir Norman Foster or Nigel Coates. Yet it will be a great day when the Muslim community has the confidence and encouragement to turn the early British mosque into uplifting architecture, a type of building we can all be proud of and delighted to seen