House of worship extended into urban context with locally sourced materials
The proposal for a new mosque in Cambridge seeks to develop a contemporary language for mosque building in Britain – one that responds both to the particularities of its local cultural context and urban setting, as well as to the legacy of a variety of internationally recognised ‘types’.
The programme of the building extends – in the tradition of the great mosque complexes – well beyond the prayer hall itself, encompassing a range of activities from refectory and cafe to mortuary and school. These functions are orchestrated around a series of external spaces which structure the depth of the site – from a public forecourt adjacent to the street through to a world of private gardens at the rear, via an internal ‘souk’ which orchestrates the entry into the main prayer hall.
The disposition of these parts helps to define the relationship of the building with its context, and to establish its particular form – balancing the need for it to sensitively integrate with its small-scale and predominantly residential context, whilst having an appropriate presence within the city. Whilst the plan form of the building is derived from the geometry of the site boundaries and the surrounding urban grain, the roof forms are orthogonal to the qibla orientation of the main prayer hall: the difference between these generates the unique form of the building.
Clad in local brickwork, the building establishes, at one level, a careful and modest engagement with its urban context, rooted in a translation of a local vernacular. Set back from the street, the main volume of the prayer hall rises dramatically from this everyday context. With an array of bricks gilded, and building in density towards a golden crown, it becomes something transcendent, other, and – perhaps – somehow recognisable or familiar as a mosque.
The brief required a prayer hall for 1000 worshippers, which was also to accommodate other functions – lectures, classes and meetings. The design allows for a direct relationship with the qibla for any number of worshippers – ‘standing unmediated before God’ - whilst the potential subdivision of the space allows flexibility for use by smaller daily prayer groups or by much larger gatherings.
The triple-height volume before the qibla establishes the position of the mimbar, with a crown structuring both day and artificial lighting through a lantern and a suspended chandelier. Behind this volume, the mezzanine gallery is raised on a column grid – the lower and upper spaces providing alternative settings for smaller prayer, study or reading groups.
The design represents both a response to its particular Cambridge context and an evolution of traditional forms to suit the contemporary British cultural setting and climate. Study of the traditional domed hall, hypostyle and Friday Mosque types led to the development of an original form of mosque, creating a place that is an inclusive local centre whilst remaining particular to the muslim community.
The vault of the prayer hall is lined with textured pre-cast concrete panels, inscribed with an interwoven geometric tracery. At the springing of the vault a band of panels, perforated and with rooflights behind, form a horizon of daylight - reflecting a traditional representation of the division between earthly lower storeys and a dematerialised fictive heaven.
The setting in Mill Road in the outskirts of Cambridge – is an area characterised by consistent two-storeyed Victorian terraced-housing. The exterior walls and the roof of the mosque complex are of local brickwork - re-interpreting this vernacular - whilst to acknowledge the significance of the mosque, this brickwork is randomly patterned with gilded bricks, increasing in density and regularity towards the summit of the roof, which becomes completely golden.
The environmental systems are predominantly passive, maximising the thermal mass and insulation of the fabric and using renewable energy with passive ventilation, solar thermal and photovoltaic generation. The building uses materials of low-embodied energy and high re-cyclability, where possible, locally sourced and produced.