Cambridge Central Mosque
Marks Barfield Architects have made an important British-based contribution to the ongoing redefinition of the mosque typology for the 21st-century urban landscape.
Af Jason Dibbs
In the Cambridge Central Mosque, the practice behind the London Eye and numerous other acclaimed and innovative projects has melded the latest developments in digital fabrication and passive sustainable technologies with a deep reverence for Islamic geometries and architectural tradition, creating what is the first purpose-built place of worship for Cambridge’s flourishing Islamic community.
The approach to the new Cambridge Central Mosque runs along the busy Mill Road in a residential-turned-industrial-turned-residential part of southeast Cambridge. The road, once a country lane named for a long-lost windmill, is lined with mostly unremarkable one- and two-story brick-clad residential blocks and shopfronts. The Cambridge Central Mosque does not announce its presence too loudly in this setting; rather, it gently gestures a welcome to the visitor through a series of nuanced and calibrated thresholds, commencing at the road’s edge with a vibrant yet serene garden. Beyond this, a row of intricate yet robust tree-like spruce columns supports a generous portico, expressing a sense of the tectonic and geometric rhythms that reverberate within the building proper.
The commission to design and build the new Cambridge Central Mosque was awarded to Marks Barfield Architects following an international competition in 2009. Marks Barfield Architects collaborated with Keith Critchlow, an expert on sacred architecture and geometry, on their design entry, which sought to develop a contemporary and local mosque design whilst drawing on Islamic and British sacred architecture traditions. The geometric patterns hand-drawn by Critchlow are manifested throughout the design, from planning to the superstructure to façade details and the atrium floor. Perhaps the most profound incarnation of these geometries is found in what is arguably the building’s decisive detail: the 30 digitally fabricated tree-columns supporting the building’s impressive, hulking roof structure.
These load-bearing columns are elegantly ambitious. Fabricated by Swiss timber construction experts Blumer Lehmann, the ‘trees’ have been meticulously engineered and consist of 145 different component types and 2,746 individual components. They connect at the ceiling to create genuinely awe-inspiring vaults, each one framing an oculus that filters direct sunlight into the building, and which, ingeniously, contains ventilation ducts concealed within its inner rim. From the portico to the atrium and prayer-hall, the tree-columns reinforce a sense of structure and stability; although they are indeed impressive, they set the scene for quiet contemplation rather than a distraction.
The site of the Cambridge Central Mosque was formerly a warehouse for the Robert Sayle department store, now long gone. In addition to this, the brownfield site had been a cement and lime works, a sawmill, a foundry, and a petrol station, prior to being purchased in 2008 by the Muslim Academic Trust — spearheaded by Yusuf Islam, better known internationally as folk-musician Cat Stevens, and local Cambridge academic Tim Winter. This mixed history of site uses required some soil remediation, removal, and containment below landscaped areas. The landscaping and gardens, the result of a collaboration between Emma Clark and Urquhart & Hunt Landscape Design, is an elegant, formal meeting of traditional Islamic garden principles and a British planting palette. A central, octagonal stone fountain by London-based Andrew Ewing is flanked by oak benches, colorful garden beds, and shade trees. Spending time in the garden is an experience that is at once vivid and serene.
Historically, mosques have adapted to the formal, cultural and climatic conditions of the environs within which they are built. Marks Barfield Architects’ Cambridge Central Mosque certainly exemplifies this, as confirmed by a walk along Mill Road, with its fabric of Cambridge ‘Gault’ bricks, beautifully reflected in the brick tiles cladding the mosque. This notion of ‘adaptation’ is further emphasized by the way the mosque ‘fits’ into its streetscape. At the same time, however, the Cambridge Central Mosque can also be seen as the most recent attempt to redefine the mosque typology for uniquely 21st-century conditions. Marina Tabassum’s Bait Ur Rouf Mosque in Bangladesh, Pritzker Prize winner Glenn Murcutt’s Australian Islamic Centre in Melbourne, and Angelo Candalepas’s Punchbowl Mosque in Sydney each redefine the typology not only by adapting to local conditions but also through engaging with emergent technologies and contemporary cultural shifts. One example of this is the way increased female participation has been architecturalized in the aforementioned projects, especially in Marks Barfield Architects’ Cambridge Central Mosque.
The Cambridge Central Mosque is an important addition to the evolving discourse on mosque design in the 21st century, and to the urban fabric of Cambridge and its growing Muslim community. A final and especially poignant reason why the Cambridge Central Mosque is an important building is that it stands as one of the final architectural testaments of the late architect David Marks, MBE, half of the Marks Barfield partnership with his wife Julia Barfield. It is perhaps fitting that we close this article with Mark’s own words:
We didn’t want to create a replica or pastiche of something that existed elsewhere. The opportunity to do something English, British, excited us. Now that there is a significant Muslim community in the UK it’s time to work out what it means to have an English mosque.
— David Marks