The firm’s founder and director, Shahed Saleem, is a modernist architect who believes in preserving heritage, he is also in the process of writing a book about the history of mosques in Britain for the National Heritage Commission. His modernist ideals and concern for heritage preservation may come across as a dichotomy, but his aim to use architecture to address British Muslim communities looks at historical background and religious identities while assessing the present and looking at the future, ultimately rooting this heritage as a British one, rather than a foreign or migrant one.
The Muslim community in London claims a diverse range of backgrounds including South Asian, Arab, Turkish, North African, East African and so on. With the settling of Muslims naturally came the building of mosques. Each group brought with it an aesthetic for architectural shapes to be implanted into British grounds. For more than 100 years, various styles were attributed to purpose built mosques in Britain; from the 1886 Mogul Victorian mosque of Woking which combines Indo-Islamic with Gothic aesthetics to the more modern London Central Mosque established in 1977, quite typically equipped with a minaret and golden dome. Coupling these architectural details with the mosques developed out of building re-conversions, such as the East London Mosque which, in 1940, before building their current purpose-built structure, took hold of three townhouses to convert into a mosque, styles based on space availability and budget range.
Saleem believes that the dominant Asian and Mogul aesthetics are outdated and too foreign to maintain as an ongoing, contemporary design for British streets. “You tend to get mosques that are trying to replicate architecture from Muslim countries. We’re not really getting an architecture that is reflecting the current social and cultural condition of this country, it is looking outward to try and replicate imagery from other places.”
Scholars of migrant cultures have referred to feelings expressed by new generations of Muslim communities as “aparatism,” they don’t feel connected to the country of their parents’ birth, nor do they feel fully integrated with their own place of birth. On the flip side, the reality is that building mosques can still be controversial in England. Their iconic shapes draw certain levels of agitation. While there is no attempt to bury a past, a certain present reminiscent of the local being communicated through a homegrown architecture may be helpful in integrating the Muslim community into the urban landscape and thus social fabric.
“I suppose there is no way of genuinely knowing how a mosque would be received based on its design. One can only really make an assumption that because the buildings are so foreign, they antagonize the public,” Saleem explains. “Perhaps if it were more contemporary, referring to more indigenous architectural languages, to a style that is part of the contemporary architectural landscape here in this country they would be better received.”
Understanding the evolution of the mosque, people’s relation to it and communal reaction have all played a big role in the new aesthetic MakeSpace is developing. “I think it is important that architecture talks about the present, about where it is and what it is, about the society that it is in,” he says. “Muslim British society is complex and layered. With each generation you get vast cultural changes; it is the new generations that dominate the Muslim landscape.”
So how does one go about creating a new architectural language? Generally, architects would look at environment, existing landscape, climate, needs and function, visual language, and indeed, even stemming traditions. “I think there is an opportunity because the mosque is such an open typology. From a religious point of view there are just a few basic requirements for it to function as a mosque, once those are fulfilled, you actually have a lot of freedom with the design,” Saleem explains.
As it is now, a "typical" mosque would be one with a dome and at least one minaret. While the Prophet’s first mosques ever built didn’t have minarets at all, their shape grew out of the need for the mu’athen (person who calls to prayer) to project sound. The dome, on the other hand, does not hold as much value in its function being just a rounded hemisphere that cups the four corners of the usually square prayer room. In England, however, there is no call to prayer and the tight allocation of space makes the dome virtually useless, commissioners prefer a second story than an arbitrary shape.
MakeSpace are currently developing projects in east London, Leicester and Gillingham. The most minimal design is the mosque planned for east London’s Hackney Road. Part of an old terrace of houses, it is a double-structure with a Grade II listed Georgian house on one side, and a single-room building for prayer on the other. MakeSpace got permission to demolish the existing single story building to replace it with a three-story, creating extra space and a new entrance hall bringing the two sides together. Identifying the importance of recognizable symbols, the façade uses an abstract version of geometric shapes off an Ottoman tile. The traditional Islamic patterns are subtly built in to the new exterior design connecting as an extension to the preserved building, creating an elegant juxtaposition between modernist Islamic and Georgian London.
As a city, London has often been referenced to as a capital of the world, one that looks to the future. This rings most true when noting that this city has been hosting influx of people for centuries who have made this their new home. Taking these diverse pasts to create an indigenous present reflects the type of innovative breeding ground this city is.
By redefining spaces in conjunction with the pre-existing fabric the Muslim community would be taking its ground here quite literally. This look at the future and the present unites a culture in a localized, multiethnic setting. By using architecture to get past the migrant or imported culture, this heritage is being reinstated. The sensitive balance will have to be true to the integrity of the background and the needs of those close to it. In time, it will be known to what extent an argument between traditional icon and modern functionality might reign. In the search for a new architectural language, MakeSpace are redefining a cultural aesthetic, allowing Muslims to make their own urban mark to be protected and, once again, rooted into the streets of England. As Shahed notes, “I think that richness and social and cultural potential is not reflected in mosques that are built now and that is one of the things that we would like to try and address.”