It may be topped by a golden dome but the new Cambridge Central Mosque derives much of its warmth from the way sunlight floods the building. Designed by Marks Barfield and also taking architectural cues and hues from the city, it is more than a place of worship: it is also an open symbol of conviviality and the centuries-old creative interaction between cultures.
Morley von Sternberg Brick tile cladding, crenulations & dome reflected in rooflight
“It’s a fantastic building isn’t it?” says a man on the street after he spots me taking a photo of the new mosque across the road. Cambridge Central Mosque opened last year in a residential neighbourhood of the British city and locals, both Muslim and not, have taken to it with enthusiasm and pride. A lot of this is down to the project’s distinctive but accessible design by London-based architects Marks Barfield. Its recognisably Islamic spatial arrangement, patterns, symbols and golden dome combine with contemporary and context-specific touches, such as brick tiles the same light hue of Cambridge’s famous gault bricks, multiple eco features, and a front portico and atrium that are low-rise and set back to fit the local context.
Mosques have always adapted to local environments and “taken on the vernacular of their time and place” says Julia Barfield, co-founder of Marks Barfield Architects. “A mosque in India will look very different from a mosque in North Africa or China. The question we asked ourselves is what would a British mosque look like in the 21st century in Cambridge?” A bus stop in front of the mosque, a peaceful garden, a cafe and outdoor tables and chairs all add to the feeling that this is an oasis and hub destined for all in the local community. “It is very permeable and this is refreshing,” agrees Shahed Saleem, author of The British Mosque: An Architectural and Social History. “Not many mosques achieve this, partly as a result of not having the space but perhaps also feeling that they need to be private or hide their interiors to avoid unwanted attention.”
Morley von Sternberg Islamic garden, fountain & front portico
This lack of space is something many mosques in the UK suffer from and was a big factor in the decision to build this one. “There are around 5,000 Muslims in the Cambridge area but the existing small mosques in the city overflow on to the streets at prayer time causing traffic congestion and parking issues,” explains Tim Winter, an academic at Cambridge University and one of Europe’s most prominent Muslim scholars. “It became clear that as the community grows it needs a larger dedicated space.”
From the beginning Winter, who converted to Islam in 1979 and was the driving force behind the project, was clear that the mosque should be more than a sacred building. “We decided that the space would not simply provide a worship facility, but would try and be a symbol of cultural conviviality and mutual respect and enjoyment that everyone in the city could find encouraging,” he says. And there’s a lot to encourage and lift the spirits as you roam around this engaging building and site. The garden with benches, the sound of the water from the octagonal fountain, the kids running around the prayer hall in fits of giggles (on my visit), but, above all, the 30 tree-like columns dotted around the building and visible from the outside. Made out of sustainably sourced British spruce, they draw you in and seduce with their undulating geometries and generous skylights, which bring daylight in to every part of the building and create shimmering shadows and effects as the sun moves through the ‘branches’.
Morley von Sternberg Female ablutions
“Our inspiration came from the idea of a Garden of Paradise, which incorporates a glade of trees and water as the source of life,” says Barfield. The ‘trees’ are based on the ‘breath of the compassionate’ and “one of the fundamental patterns in Islamic geometry,” she continues. In the deft hands of Keith Critchlow (a leading expert on sacred architecture and geometry) and the architectural team, it was converted here into a continuous structural pattern of repeating octagons and projected on to a fan vaulting ceiling using computer software. Alternate octagons became structural columns or ‘tree trunks’.
The ceiling also takes its cues from the fan vaulting that can be seen in the famous 15th century Kings College Chapel just down the road. Fan vaulting was an English innovation based on the ribbed vault introduced into Europe from the Islamic world during the Middle Ages. “Our mosque tries to move beyond ‘east meets west’ clichés, to reference the fact that the two cultures have always interacted creatively with each other,” says Winter. “The pointed arch for instance, which in a sense defines the shift from the Romanesque to the Gothic, existed in Muslim sacred buildings, such as the mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo or the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, centuries before Crusaders and merchants brought these styles and techniques to the West.”
Morley von Sternberg Atrium
In the same vein, the small museum to the left of the entrance highlights and celebrates Islamic medical, astronomical and philosophical knowledge brought to Europe in the medieval period. “Until two centuries ago medical textbooks by Muslims were routinely used in British hospitals,” says Winter. But the exhibition also seeks to show something more: “Science as it was cultivated in a sacred civilization, which valued a sense of balance between humanity and nature. A vision of the material world which is hospitable to contemplation and sustainability.”
“Taking care of the planet and nature is a strong trait in Islam,” agrees Barfield, “so there was a very strong bent towards sustainability, which is something we have always cared about as a practice.” The public areas were designed so that they could be naturally lit (during the day) and ventilated. “All of the rainwater is captured and used to flush toilets and water the garden, and the heat and cooling comes from an air source heat pump so there are no fossil fuels on site at all,” she continues. The system works so well that even on the hottest day last summer, which in Cambridge was the hottest day in England on record, “they didn’t have any problems”.
Morley vzon Sternberg Brick tile cladding, crenulations & dome
Like all mosques the Cambridge Central Mosque expects men and women to occupy different spaces. The way this is expressed architecturally varies enormously but with a growing number of women attending mosques around the world, here the decision was taken to use a movable Mashrabiya screen of varying heights. It is an element that Winter feels can make all women, with different expectations of privacy, comfortable in the building. Saleem says this is a notable move. “It is more gender inclusive than any other mosque I have visited in the UK. For me this is its greatest potential and success: if it can change the script of gender organization and access in mosques.”
Its other great potential and success is undoubtedly the understated but powerful way it promotes coexistence through its contemporary, approachable and uplifting design, helping dispel some of the fear and Islamophobia sadly so prevalent in Western society today. “Cambridge itself is an enlightened city,” says Winter, “a global hub which has achieved its greatness by welcoming scholars and students from all over the world.” Nevertheless, the far-right has in the past marched against the mosque but, as Winter points out, the marchers were bussed in from other parts of the country and “there is no local sympathy for their views”. He believes, “In an age of tension and negative imaging on all sides, this is architecture with a real therapeutic mission.” And, from the mosque’s glazed and transparent entrance to the hearty welcome newcomers and visitors receive, from the generous use of timber to the streaming and abundant natural light, it really is. You feel better and calmer just for being in this space. That’s not something that can be said about enough religious buildings.