by Devanshi ShahApr 22, 2021
For the fifth consecutive year, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is collaborating with La Biennale di Venezia to present Three British Mosques at the Applied Arts Pavilion Special Project. Conceptualised in collaboration with author and architect, Shahed Saleem, the pavilion looks at the self-built world of adapted mosques. The three featured case studies include the Brick Lane Mosque, a former Protestant chapel then Synagogue; Old Kent Road Mosque housed in a former pub; and Harrow Central Mosque, a purpose-built space that sits next door to the converted terraced house it used to occupy. Britain's first recorded mosque was created in 1889 in what was a terraced house in Liverpool; since then the number has grown to 1,800. The history of the mosque in Britain is one of cultural dialogue with different histories. The pavilion in particular will explore how the adaptations have affected the urban fabric. The pavilion will be carpeted, as in a mosque, and these stories will be explored through 3D architectural reconstructions, filmed interviews and photographs.
STIR engages in a candid conversation with the curators of the Pavilion of Applied Arts 2021. In the following interview with Shahed Saleem; Christopher Turner, Head of Design, Architecture and Digital Collections at the V&A; and Ella Kilgallon, Assistant Curator, Designs at the V&A, we discuss the many layers of their curatorial engagement.
Devanshi Shah (DS): Why select these three structures?
Shahed Saleem (SS):Three British Mosques celebrates a phase of mosque-making in Britain that began in the 1960s and continues today. This period has seen Muslim communities creatively re-using the existing built environment and adapting it to meet their spiritual and communal needs. Mosques can be found in a range of converted buildings including terraced houses, pubs, cinemas, supermarkets and railway arches. Most mosques in Britain are the result of decades of incremental growth from their modest origins as adapted buildings to the purpose-built mosques that replace them. The three mosques understudy each represents an important stage in the evolution of the mosque in Britain; Brick Lane Mosque, marked out by its high-tech minaret, which was a Huguenot church and then synagogue before becoming a mosque; Old Kent Road Mosque, a conversion of a former pub; and Harrow Mosque, which used to occupy two semi-detached houses before a purpose-built mosque was built nearby to replace it.
DS: With the Brick Lane Mosque, while the structure remains a religious centre, the religion practised inside does change. Can one see that transformation in the structure itself?
SS: Due to the heritage status of Brick Lane Mosque structural alterations to the building have been limited but there are subtle changes throughout. Internally the most significant modification was made to the gallery over the main prayer hall, which was adapted into a second floor of additional prayer space. An eight-sided lightwell was created by repositioning the original Georgian panelling, allowing worshippersto see the mihrab (the niche demarcating the direction of Makkah) below.
Externally, the minaret-like structure on the southeast corner of the building makes it clearly identifiable as a mosque. After planning applications for the addition of minarets, finials and a dome were refused, permission was granted in 2009 for a 29-metre-high minaret structure. This was permitted on the condition that it was free-standing from the Georgian structure and would be taken down if the building ever stopped being used as a mosque. Positioned on a stone base, the stainless-steel structure is cut with an arabesque pattern and internally lit with coloured LED lights. The minaret is traditionally where the call to prayer is made, but in the UK, it is generally symbolic as speakers transmitting the call are not permitted. Designed by David Gallagher Architects, the minaret has become a landmark for east London.
DS: Could you please expand on how the emergence of mosques since 1889 impacted/ caused the urban fabric to evolve?
SS: The majority of mosques in Britain were established in the post-WW II decades by migrants who were mostly from South Asia. It was easiest for these communities to use as found buildings and convert them to mosques. In this process, they altered the internal layouts, reorienting the spaces towards Makkah, and added motifs and symbols to identify the building as an Islamic place of worship. The communities grew rapidly, so these buildings were extended and adapted to accommodate this growth of worshippers. These adapted mosques were therefore constantly evolving, and where possible they would include more substantial architectural elements reflecting a Muslim heritage. The buildings, therefore, became a hybrid of the existing building combined with new Islamic additions and aesthetics, and this came to characterise mosque architecture of the period.
DS: Is there a distinct feature of the British Mosque? If so, can one trace it and how?
SS: Many of the mosques in adapted buildings are an amalgamation of Islamic and local architectural elements, and this is their distinctive character. They are gradually being lost, however, as they are replaced with new purpose-built mosques to cater for their growing communities. The Harrow house-mosque has already been replaced with a large new mosque next door, and it has reverted back to residential use. The Old Kent Road Mosque is due to be demolished and a new larger mosque will be built in its place. Because Brick Lane Mosque is in a historic building, it is protected and alterations are limited to the interior, so because of this, it is likely to remain.
The new replacement mosques are designed professionally, so the community's role in the design process is more formal, as they are a client commissioning a design rather than designing it themselves. The new mosque architecture then becomes more removed from the visual culture of Islam that is embedded in the community members, so their aesthetic memory and imagination, is somewhat lost in this evolutionary process. Mosque design will therefore become more formal and academic as the early migrant mosques are replaced.
DS: Could you expand on the statement of the portability of Islam as a religion?
SS: A physical mosque is not required to perform Islamic prayer, whether individually or in congregation. It can be performed in any space, and that space then serves as a mosque for the duration of the prayer. And anyone can lead the prayer, it does not have to be a formal Imam, so a mosque can be set up by any group of people, no matter their size, in any new place. This has meant that mosques have been established across the country as independent and self-organised places of worship, responding to their immediate community needs. This has led to an organic landscape of mosques and mosque architecture across the country.
DS: What were some of the layers of the design and architecture you were able to uncover through your research?
SS: One of the most interesting things that we found was the way in which certain architectural elements of existing buildings were altered and adapted, and then incorporated into the new architecture of the mosque. This was usually an improvised process, where design decisions were made on the spot in response to the building element in question. For example, the Victorian cornices and columns in the former pub were painted and adorned with additional Quranic calligraphy. This then creates a new visual language where different cultural histories come together in a unique way.
Having discussed the details of the research behind the content of the pavilions, STIR moves the conversation more towards the curatorial approach, what follows are their joint comments.
DS: What was your main focus when establishing the curatorial approach for this year’s V&A Pavilion?
Curator’s comment (CC):The ‘we’ of Hashim Sarkis’ title for the Biennale begs the question: to which ‘we’ do we refer? Islamophobia is a reality for British Muslims, and often this is directed at mosques. A recent YouGov poll commissioned by the Muslim Council of Britain found that almost 90 per cent of Britons have never visited a mosque. The pavilion, by inviting visitors to explore mosque architecture and appreciate its contribution to the British urban landscape and architectural history, will hopefully encourage more to cross the threshold. This exhibition seeks to celebrate how mosque building in Britain is a grass-roots, self-funded community exercise, an achievement that is perhaps not recognised by non-Muslims.
DS: The press note mentions a few key ideas of Shahed Saleem's research. Could you expand on the value of the creative reuse and the ad-hoc nature of the structures featured?
CC: These mosques exemplify how existing buildings are given new uses and meanings by migrant communities. Through this process of architectural adaptation, the community is exploring a new identity for itself in a new place. They are bringing a visual and cultural language from their own heritage that they have experienced or that they imagine, and combining it with an existing architectural language. A material and visual culture of Islam in Britain then emerges which is a hybrid of the existing and the new. This new Islamic architecture becomes the reflection of the Muslim community in each place, it becomes a part of how they see themselves, and how they represent themselves to others. These three case studies are archetypal examples of how mosques have been formed in Britain; through the re-use of the house, the pub and the historic religious building.
DS: The curator quote states that the pavilion is an attempt to record and celebrate a particular stage of mosque making. Could you elaborate on how an exhibition does this (in a larger context), and particularly how that manifests in this installation?
CC: The pavilion celebrates the unique visual language of Islam that has emerged in architecture in Britain through 1:1 reconstructions of portions of their interiors. These give visitors something of a sense of the physical experience of these mosques, with their highly decorative minbars, from which the imam delivers his sermon, and the mihrabs and mosque carpets, which orientate the congregation to Makkah, and other architectural elements. In an introductory section, we will also show 3D scans of each of the mosques under discussion, and a test section from Brick Lane Mosque's distinctive hi-tech minaret; interviews with community members will also be included alongside films by the artist Julie Marsh of the mosques in use, made in collaboration with their congregations.
DS: What is one of the most important, most overlooked aspects of curation, the biggest challenge of being a curator specifically for this pavilion?
CC: It is very difficult to convey the emotional experience of architecture in an exhibition – it's very difficult to convey this in blueprints, plans, models or drawings, which is the specific challenge for an architecture biennale. In 2016 we sought to address this by exhibiting a large architectural fragment of Robin Hood Gardens in the Arsenale, alongside a monumental film of the building, a sort of digital cross-section, made by Do Ho Suh. This year, we have commissioned 1:1 replicas of portions of the mosques under discussion, with their highly decorative mihrabs and minbars, and colourful row carpets. A recent YouGov poll commissioned by the Muslim Council of Britain found that almost 90 per cent of Britons have never visited a mosque, and I am sure this statistic is similar in Italy. We hope that our exhibition will encourage more to cross the threshold.
DS: This is a question I always ask. Where does art end and design begin, especially with how blurred the boundaries are now?
CC: The boundaries are very blurred, particularly in the realm of speculative design, and the V&A participates in both the art biennale and architecture biennale with a special project in the Pavilion of Applied Arts.
Curated as a series of thoughtful engagements that enhance the contemporary debate and discussion on architecture, the STIRing Together series introduces readers to the many facets of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. Tracing the various adaptations and following the multitude of perspectives, the series carefully showcase some incredible projects and exhibits, highlighting the diversity and many discourses of the show.