In June a British architecture firm released its plans for redeveloping a giant mosque complex in south London. The designs are a statement on how sensitive a subject mosques have become in the West.
Mosques anchor Muslim communities, but also act as lightning rods for resentment and suspicion. The Swiss, for example, voted in a 2009 referendum to ban the construction of minarets. (Most mosques have at least one, but the Quran doesn’t strictly require them.) The vote was overwhelming: over 57% of the population and 22 of the 26 cantons approved it, despite opposition from the government, and an anti-minaret campaign poster explicitly linked mosque architecture with terrorism.
In the past few years, plans for other mosques have been stymied or mired in controversy in Belfast, Athens and Catalonia. In London itself, over 250,000 people signed a petition in 2007 against the building of a large new mosque complex at Abbey Mills, near the 2012 Olympic site. The scheme, dubbed the “mega-mosque,” was finally quashed late last year after nearly two decades of discussions and planning, amid unsubstantiated claims that its funding came from groups with terrorist links.
The Baitul Futuh, in the south London neighborhood of Morden, with a capacity of 10,000, crystallizes many of these issues. Like many European mosques, it was not purpose-built. The original structure, purchased in 1996, was a disused bottling plant in a narrow plot next to the Morden underground station.
Even after a generation of use, the building only imperfectly reflected its new purpose. While the chimney was transfigured into a minaret, the street-facing façade remained intact, and the routes to the prayer room at the rear of the plot were open to the elements. In September 2015 much of the complex was destroyed in a fire (a suspected arson), and in the months since it has become even more makeshift: Marquees have been pitched in nearby fields, and the administrative offices have been moved to prefabricated huts.
Despite this, the plans for the mosque’s refurbishment are statements of optimism. The Baitul Futuh is the global headquarters of the Ahmadiyya community (a Muslim sect considered heretical by many mainstream Muslims), and the brief was for the building to reflect that status, says Nasser Khan, vice president of the community association in the UK. Images of Friday prayers are relayed to many other Ahmadiyya congregations globally, and the complex hosts school trips, local exams, multi-faith conferences, and visiting dignitaries.
The complex covers 21,000 square meters (226,000 sq ft), and needs to be able to accommodate up to 15,000 people, allow space for separate male and female routes to the prayer hall, and include security measures such as scanning stations and X-ray machines. At the same time, it was crucial that the design feel open and welcoming, rather than besieged. “Our motto,” Mr Khan says, “is love for all, hatred for none, and we wanted that to be reflected in the mosque.”
To create that effect, the architects, John McAslan & Partners (whose eclectic portfolio includes a cultural center in Doha, London’s King’s Cross station, and the regeneration of the beloved Iron Market in Haiti) reinterpreted a traditional Islamic design motif: screens. The proposed frontage is grand and colonnaded, but composed of intricately patterned layers of screens, so that the shift from public to private space is gradual, and the building feels porous, with dappled natural light reaching far into its interior.
As well as a sense of openness, the new design is also more democratic. “Everyone comes into the same space,” says Fanos Panayides, director of major projects at John McAslan & Partners, “before splitting off into the separate routes.” These routes, in a concession to the British weather, will now be mostly covered.
It would be sad if the uptick in anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe in recent years led to physical constraints on mosque design or more protests against mosques. Britain became the home of the Ahmadiyya community after the group suffered religious persecution in Pakistan. If the plans get local council approval, the Baitul Futuh could provide not only a positive focal point for the local community, but a physical embodiment of Western Europe’s principle of religious freedom as a basic human right.