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Islamic architecture with a British accent: Secrets of the Central Mosque in Cambridge

The word “mosque” in Europeans is in no way associated with Cambridge, but in vain. Times change, and now in this historic British place a grandiose building for Muslims has appeared, because there are more and more adherents of this religion here. The Cambridge mosque has a unique design, it is decorated with carved geometric wooden elements and it can accommodate about a thousand believers. In general, this is a mosque of the XXI century.

The project of an ultramodern mosque was created in 2008 by Dr. Timothy Winter, who converted to Islam 40 years ago. Virtually all work — and £ 23 million was spent on construction — was funded by philanthropists. The author of the idea and the main architect of the project David Marx is no longer alive, but his brainchild continues to be realized – Marx wanted to move away from the typical Ottoman style in the design of a Muslim institution and build a unique mosque that fits into the British landscape, and his followers succeeded.

The central mosque of Cambridge is not only an important religious site for Muslims, whose community is growing rapidly here (there is even a center for the study of Islamic disciplines and an Islamic college at Cambridge). First of all, this is an innovative and rather courageous architectural project for the integration of a religious institution into the realities of the 21st century.

The architects of the Marx Barfield workshop combined the latest developments in the field of digital production and passive sustainable technologies without losing respect for Islamic geometry in architecture. The mosque was built based on both Muslim and British architectural traditions. To optimize the geometry of the project, a Swiss company was involved, which developed a complex 3D project.

The entrance to the new central mosque passes along the lively Mill Road in the industrial and residential part of south-east Cambridge. The road, once a country road and named after a long-abandoned windmill, is built up with unremarkable one- and two-story brick houses and is full of shop windows. Considering this, the mosque was designed so that it did not look defiant against this background, but delicately “welcomed” visitors, for which the architects used a number of nuances – for example, a cozy garden adjacent to the building. The religious building is surrounded by avenues of slender cypresses and limes.

Landscape design and gardens are the result of a collaboration between Emma Clark and Urquhart & Hunt, a landscape design bureau, and this is again a meeting of traditional Islamic garden principles and British style in planting green spaces. The central octagonal stone fountain is surrounded by oak benches, colored garden beds and shady trees.

This is followed by a series of convoluted carrying columns supporting a spacious portico. These 30 columns are broken into line-beams, which are intertwined, forming a geometric pattern of the ceiling. Each of the ceiling vaults frames the oculus, which filters direct sunlight entering the building, and at the same time contains air ducts hidden inside the rims. Columns running from the portico to the atrium and the prayer hall reinforce the sense of structure and stability. They impress with their monumentality, and at the same time create an atmosphere for calm contemplation, without attracting undue attention.

Earlier, prior to the purchase of this site in 2008, the Muslim academic trust headed by Yusuf Islam, better known internationally as folk musician Kat Stevens, and the local Cambridge academician Tim Winter, there was a warehouse of Robert Saylay department store. Also at various times there were a lime-cement plant, a sawmill, a foundry and a gas station. This mixed history of the use of the territory required some soil reclamation.

Historically, it is believed that an Islamic mosque should be adapted to the cultural and climatic conditions of the environment in which it is built. The central mosque of Cambridge, of course, confirms this rule.

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