Harrow Central mosque

Three British Mosques: an interview with the curators of the Applied Arts Pavilion Special Project at the Biennale Architettura 2021

The Applied Arts Pavilion Special Project at Biennale Architettura 2021 is organised thanks to the collaboration between La Biennale di Venezia and V&A London. We interviewed curators Dr Christopher Turner and Dr Ella Kilgallon and architect Shahed Saleem to find out more about 'Three British Mosques'.
by Lara Morrell
April 27, 2021
Lara Morrell
Dr Christopher Turner, Dr Ella Kilgallon , Shahed Saleem

How and when did the initiative between La Biennale di Venezia and the V&A with the Applied Arts Pavilion Special Project come about? 

Dr Christopher Turner: This important creative partnership between La Biennale di Venezia and the V&A was first initiated by former President Baratta and the late Dr Martin Roth in 2015, and it remains the only special project between the Biennale and an international museum. For our 5th collaboration in the Pavilion of Applied Arts, located in the Arsenale, we present Three British Mosques, co-curated by the architect and author Shahed Saleem, with V&A curators Ella Kilgallon and myself. The exhibition explores themes of immigration, hybridity and multi-culturalism through a study of three London mosques and their communities.

The pavilion looks at the self-built and often undocumented world of adapted mosques. What does Three British Mosques set out to explore? 

Dr Ella Kilgallon: “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 exhibition sets out to document and celebrate the material culture of the three mosques under study, each representing a different moment in the story of the British mosque

Harrow Central mosque
Old Kent Road mosque

What do these three specific case studies in London exemplify in regards to immigration, identity and community?

Shahed Saleem: 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.

How will these stories be told within the setting of the Pavilion installation? 

Old Kent Road bookshelf
Brick Lane mosque

Dr Christopher Turner: 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.

Will these structures survive? How do you see the future of community-led design? 

Shahed Saleem: Many of the mosques in adapted buildings are gradually being lost 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.

Could you tell me about the ways that Islam has influenced architecture in Britain?

Shahed Saleem: From the late 18th and through the 19th century the Islamic world has exerted a strong pull on the imagination of British architects and artists. There is a rich tradition of depicting Muslim buildings by European travelers and these have influenced architecture and design through the period of Empire. Such influences can be found from the geometric and patterned designs of William Morris and Owen Jones to the early 20th century architecture of Edwin Lutyens, who sought a fusion of Mughal and Classical architecture. There are also more explicit references to Islamic architecture in iconic buildings such as the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, which was part of a fashion for the ‘exotic’ at the time.

What role will the important collection of Islamic Art at the V&A play?

Dr Ella Kilgallon: The V&A is home to one of the world’s largest collections of Islamic art from the Middle East and has collected art from the Islamic world since it was founded in 1857. Against the backdrop of this incredible collection, the pavilion sets out to explore an often-overlooked aspect of Islamic art and architecture: the contribution of the Islamic diaspora in Britain. It was the acquisition of Shahed’s sketchbooks, which include studies and designs for mosques, that in many ways initiated this project. We continue to grow the representation of British Islamic design in the V&A’s collections and, as a legacy of this research project, 3D digital scans of the three mosques, and test pieces of Brick Lane’s high-tech minaret, will enter the V&A’s extensive architecture collection.

In recent years, Islamophobia has been fueled by public anxiety over immigration and the integration of Muslim minorities into majority cultures in Europe, in what way does the project respond to Hashim Sarkis’ theme of this years Biennale ‘How will we live together?’

The ‘we’ of Hashim Sarkis’ title 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 ninety 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.

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