The first mosque structure in Britain was an 18th-century folly built by William Chambers at Kew Gardens. Based on Turkish Islamic architecture and flanked by two minarets, it was one of several temples and garden buildings constructed at the time, of which only the Great Pagoda remains. Architect Shahed Saleem, the author of The British Mosque: An Architectural and Social History (2018), has revisited this folly in a brightly coloured Ramadan Pavilion in the V&A’s Exhibition Road Courtyard (March 3 – May 1). It riffs off the depictions of Islamic architecture found in the V&A’s Prints and Drawings collection, as well as the mosque elements on display in the Islamic galleries. ‘The Ramadan Pavilion is the counterpoint to the Kew folly as it represents Muslim life and culture in Britain, rather than a symbol of something distant and exotic’, Saleem explains.
The first mosque in Britain was created in 1889 by 20 English converts who adapted a Georgian terraced house in Liverpool, and there are now approximately 1,800 across the country for the 4 million Muslims in the UK. In the 1950s and 60s there was large-scale Muslim migration into Britain from newly independent countries in South Asia. The first established mosques were in converted houses and other buildings, and later in purpose-built structures. ‘The Ramadan Pavilion is a representation of the dynamic history of the mosque in Britain, through adaptations and ad hoc conversions to new buildings,’ says Saleem. He deliberately intended to confront the power structures of orientalism by ‘taking ownership of one’s image and creating architecture from that, and placing it within a significant cultural institution born in the colonial period’.
Saleem, whose parents are from India, is the founder of the architectural firm Makespace and the designer of mosques in Bethnal Green, Hackney and Aberdeen. ‘I began working on my first mosques almost 20 years ago,’ he says, ‘when I started to be approached through word of mouth by mosque communities to look at their buildings and aspirations. I have worked on many since then, at all stages, from adaptations and extensions to new builds.’ His mosque on Hackney Road, for example, is an extension to an early 19th-century end-of-terrace house whose gable wall is inscribed with a Victorian advertisement for locks and safes. The façade of Saleem’s addition, joined to the back of the house by a link that serves as a new entrance, features an abstract screen inspired by the pattern depicted on some 13th-century Iranian glazed tiles, incorporating quotations from the Qur’an, that are on display in the V&A’s Jameel Gallery.
The design of the Ramadan Pavilion has evolved through Saleem’s extensive research and observations mosques across Britain. ‘For the last 10 years I have been making drawings to capture my impressions of mosque architecture across the country. In these I show traditional Islamic architectural elements assembled in ad hoc ways, combined with domestic and vernacular forms. For me, this is how the mosque in Britain has been built, this is British Islamic Architecture’. Through his work, Saleem offers us a new way to think about the mosque. ‘The more I looked at mosques across the country the more I saw buildings that defied all notions of convention and taste, usually self-designed and built by highly marginalised and economically deprived communities. In this I saw great resilience, determination and inventiveness. These communities were creating new architectural meanings by drawing from their own lived experience and according to their own rules’. Saleem explored this formal vocabulary through his sketches and experimental maquettes, and these have now come to fruition in the Ramadan Pavilion which embodies these years of observation and exploration.
The British mosque was the subject of the V&A’s contribution to the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale (co-curated by Saleem, Ella Kilgallon and the author). In the Pavilion of Applied Arts, the V&A explored themes of immigration, hybridity and multi-culturalism through a study of three London Mosques, all self-designed by the communities that use them: Brick Lane Mosque, famous for its high-tech minaret, which was a Huguenot church and then a synagogue before becoming a mosque (a prototype section of the minaret is now on display in the V&A’s Architecture Gallery); Old Kent Road Mosque, a conversion of a former pub; and Harrow Mosque, a purpose-built structure erected next door to the two terraced houses that the mosque used to occupy. Using reconstructions of their highly decorative mihrabs, minbars and other architectural elements, the pavilion showed the new visual architectural language of Islam in Britain.
‘In Britain there is no overarching religious authority that directs or funds mosque building,’ says Saleem. ‘Religious congregations are independent and self-organised, and anyone can start a mosque, anywhere.’ Mosques in the UK are grass-roots, crowd-sourced, community projects that exemplify creative reuse. Many mosques are improvised spaces, found in terraced houses, old libraries and cinemas, in supermarkets and under railway arches, and they have adapted to and altered the British vernacular. As communities grow, they often fund-raise to build new, larger mosques to replace these improvised ones, and the architectural plans for these future structures are prominently displayed in many mosques. As a result of this evolution in mosque-making, these structures are lost as communities manage to raise the significant funds required for the new-build projects that replace them.
‘The improvised is, perhaps by its very nature, a temporary stage,’ Saleem continues. ‘The Venice exhibition and Ramadan Pavilion are about identifying, representing and recording this point in time, and celebrating it, accepting that it is part of an aspirational journey’. There has been a recent flourishing of purpose-built mosques in Britain, of which Saleem’s mosques are examples, as are substantial new ones in London, Oxford and Cambridge. Nevertheless, a recent YouGov poll commissioned by the Muslim Council of Britain found that almost 90 per cent of Britons have never visited a mosque. Saleem hopes that both the Ramadan and Venice Pavilions, by inviting visitors to explore mosque architecture, will encourage more to cross the threshold. ‘These projects will change the way people perceive and experience Muslim culture,’ he says, ‘but also how Muslims relate to the V&A, where their heritage is so substantively represented’.
Ramadan Pavilion 2023 by Ramadan Tent Project and the V&A
4 March 2023 – 1 May 2023
Exhibition Road Courtyard
Supported by The Diriyah Biennale Foundation, with additional support from COSARAF Charitable Foundation, the University of Westminster, RIBA, and AKT II.