With an elegant design inspired by both Islamic and British traditions, this highly-sustainable, welcoming and calming place of worship by Marks Barfield Architects sets the standard for what a 21st century religious and cultural building can be
Words by Sophie Tolhurst
Images by Morley Von Sternberg
Client: Cambridge Mosque Trust
Architect: Marks Barfield Architects
Project manager: Bidwells
Structural engineers: Price & Myers (construction), Jacobs (planning)
Timber engineer: Blumer Lehmann
Building services engineer: Skelly & Couch
Landscape architect: Emma Clark with Urquhart & Hunt
Geometric artist: Professor Keith Critchlow
Cost consultant: Faithful+Gould
Acoustic consultant: Ramboll
Fire consultant: Harris TPS
Approved inspector: MLM
Timber consultant: Smith and Wallwork
CDM Principal designer: Faithful+Gould
Planning consultant: Bidwells
Main contractor: Gilbert Ash
There’s a simple and evocative image that demonstrates the need for the Cambridge Central Mosque: a photo, shown by project architect Matthew Wingrove, pictures a small building in the Romsey area of the city – on the pavement in front are rows of people knelt praying, while the open door reveals more kneeling figures along the length of a corridor. This was the Abu Bakr Mosque, and the people pictured were members of its congregation unable to fit into the crowded prayer hall.
Completed in March 2019, and marking a huge improvement for Cambridge’s Muslim population, is the new 1,000-capacity mosque, located less than a mile away. The project was led by Dr Tim Winter, chair of Cambridge Mosque Trust and Shaykh Zayed lecturer in Islamic Studies, Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge – and a convert to Islam himself. The competition brief prompted deep reflection on the idea of what a 21st-century British mosque would be. The submissions received offered widely varying ideas: ‘Brutalist concrete answers, Star Trek futurism, replicas of medieval Syrian buildings, and revivals of Victorian railway architecture,’ as Winter has described it.
Above the timber ‘trees’ the circular skylights let in natural light
Across the world and across the centuries, mosques have taken on very different forms, relating to the local architectural vernacular rather than one fixed tradition. Cambridge’s Muslim population is itself very diverse, with individuals hailing from as many as 60-70 different countries. This inspired a certain freedom to the project. The winning design came from Marks Barfield Architects, which was keen to eschew creating a pastiche of any one style. It took inspiration from an image of the ‘Garden of Paradise’ (described in the Qur’an) and also incorporates references to both local architecture and British religious buildings, as well as examples of Islamic architecture and geometrical patterns from around the world. Marks Barfield’s inspired approach has led to the creation of an exemplary design on several fronts, not just as a purpose-built mosque for the UK, but as a landmark religious and cultural building.
Sustainability is more than just a buzzword tagged on; it’s a central concern for the practice – and for the project, as having a low carbon footprint is crucial to fit in with the ‘spiritual beliefs in humanity’s role as a humble and responsible custodian of creation’. Hence, the building utilises air-source heat pumps, natural ventilation, rainwater collection, and water reuse. The elegant timber-heavy design also helps lower the carbon footprint.
An Islamic garden leads to the front portico
Noting the common elements between Gothic and Islamic architecture, the defining ‘tree’ detail of the mosque is inspired by fan vaulting, examples of which can be seen at nearby King’s College Chapel as well as the Chapter House of Wells’ Cathedral. The walls use the local colouring of Cambridge light buff Gault brick and red brick contrast, while the patterned brickwork is an example of square Kufic calligraphy – a graphic form of Arabic calligraphy that can be found on mosques and mausoleums from across the Middle East to China. As Wingrove explains, Arabic is more flexible in its calligraphic forms, and this manipulated text, saying ‘Say he is Allah (the) one’, works well as a repeated pattern. He notes, however, that a lot of attention had to be paid to ensure that this brickwork pattern was correctly laid throughout.
The timber trees repeating across the site form a nature-inspired but gridded landscape. The structure of the individual tree comes from a sacred geometric pattern called the Breath of the Compassionate, drawn in a 3D form. Marks Barfield worked right from the beginning of the project with geometric artist Professor Keith Critchlow (who had previously taught both David Marks and Julia Barfield), while the timber contractor was Swiss company Blumer Lehmann.
The dome over the prayer hall features a finial that extends to 17m
Above the trees, circular skylights let natural light in, producing beautiful shadows as it passes through their timber beams. Another highlight, and literal high point, is the dome in the prayer hall with its finial extending to 17m. In Islamic architecture it symbolises the vault of heaven. The dome features a geometric design, and was created using traditional techniques rather than digitally after a subcontractor dropped out of the project.
Space had to be used carefully on the long and thin plot, and there’s a pivot midway from the street grid to a grid aligned with Mecca by the time the prayer hall is reached; this, the largest part of the building, is rearmost in the plot, signifying the transition from the everyday to sacred space, via the areas for ablutions – the ritual washing before prayer. In a population as mixed as Cambridge’s there are multiple attitudes towards traditions and rules of worship. One area of divergence is in the way women use the mosque. I am told by a member of the mosque team that in his native Turkey women often have a completely separate entrance, and that sometimes they pray in a separate basement space or even at home. The solution reached here was the result of surveying local Muslim women’s user groups to find out exactly what they wanted. The arrangement is flexible and on the liberal side, in the sense that they pray in the main hall, albeit in an area to the rear of the hall behind a ornamentally perforated screen. There are also further mother and child spaces behind glass doors, at ground level and on a raised balcony. All maintain a visual connection to the prayer hall, and have speakers projecting the prayer, while also being acoustically sealed so children ‘can be children’. This separate women’s space also has its own mihrab – the alcove in the Qibla (Mecca-facing) wall – where the imam would stand.
Shoes are left in the entrance on the way in
One of the most important things in viewing the project, Wingrove says, is simply to spend time in the building to experience its calm, which is indeed immediately palpable on entry.
A separate space for female ablutions
Near the end of my visit, the mosque was starting to welcome worshippers – it was expected to be full for the important Friday prayer. A diverse crowd – as the shoes lined up in the entrance testify: ‘really traditional sandals next to a pair of massive, day-glo orange Nike AirMax,’ Wingrove comments – will come together to pray and to enjoy the peace. As Winter has commented: ‘The building is strongly modern in inspiration and temper. It acknowledges Islam as an ongoing tradition, not as a cultural fossil.’
Kale (ceramics); Intermarmor (marble); Domus (craquele glaze)
KME Tecu Gold