A new ‘eco’ mosque in Cambridge hosted its first morning prayers this month — it’s a unique building with world-class environmental credentials and hopes to better serve the city’s burgeoning Muslim community. Freelance journalist Nashwa Gowanlock went to visit for Environment Journal.
Beyond the striking university campuses of historic Cambridge, lies a lesser-known part of the city that boasts its own chronicle — one of tolerance and diversity.
The heart of this multicultural community is Mill Road, a narrow and heaving thoroughfare lined with ethnic eateries and specialist supermarkets.
Nestled within the Victorian terraced housing is one of the city’s newest builds — the UK’s first eco-mosque.
A first not only in the country but also throughout Europe, the new mosque will serve some of the city’s estimated 8000 Muslims — including students — who hail from around 60 nations.
The project was founded by Tim Winter, a renowned scholar and lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cambridge University.
‘The mosque has been designed as a facility for local residents of whatever religious persuasion,’ Winter says.
‘Its public areas, including the gardens, cafeteria, and teaching space, will provide a significant new amenity for all our neighbours.’
Cambridge’s population has experienced a boom in recent decades, due in large part to the development of the city’s science and technology industries.
With only a handful of smaller mosques serving the city, demand for such a space to accommodate its Muslim residents had been mounting.
The mosque itself has been ten years in the making, with the once-derelict land at the far end of the street, in the Romsey neighbourhood, acquired in 2008.
According to local historian and guide, Allan Brigham, the area past the railway bridge has always been an area of change.
‘200 years ago, the only people living here were farm labourers,’ says Brigham.
‘After the railway came in 1845, Romsey Town became really an area for railway workers living here, which was a community completely unknown in Cambridge and they came mainly from the east of England. They weren’t people who lived in Cambridge before.’
A Romsey local of 40 years, Brigham was a member of a committee consulted in the project’s initial planning stages.
‘We said this end of Mill Road needed an area of greenery,’ Brigham says. ‘It will create a bit of breathing space and be really attractive. It will – and has already – helped uplift this end of the road.’
Creating a calm oasis
Inspired by the Islamic gardens of India and Spain, this greenery at the entrance to the mosque was sculpted by garden designer, Emma Clarke, as a contemplative space.
Along with the café and the atrium, which will host various functions and exhibitions, the garden was designed for all visitors to enjoy.
The mosque’s tree-shaped columns made from Swiss timber are another distinctive feature, meeting at the ceiling in a latticed canopy.
Selected in 2008 through an international competition were architects Marks Barfield, who also designed the London Eye and Kew treetop walkway.
This project was principally the vision of the late David Marks together with his partner, Julia Barfield, who says that marrying tradition and local character with contemporary design was a priority.
‘Throughout the world and throughout history, mosques have taken on the character of their area — they’ve taken on the vernacular of the architecture,’ Barfield says.
‘The idea of the calm oasis is very important in Islam. We imagined the site covered in a glade of trees and then the trees became structural trees and then they were joined at the top with this geometry.’
Every detail of the mosque was designed to specification and environmental concerns were at the forefront of structural plans.
‘The mosque incorporates a number of green technologies,’ Winter explains, ‘including air-source heat pumps, rainwater harvesting, grey water recycling, sedum roofs, photo-voltaic arrays and passive ventilation.’
‘These and other features respond to the Qur’anic insistence on the sanctity of the natural world and the commandment to avoid waste and extravagance.’
Natural light is diffused via circular skylights, supplemented with low-energy LED artificial lighting. Energy use is designed to be minimal, using static heating and natural ventilation supplemented by displacement cool air supply.
‘Cambridge is a symbolic capital city of modernity,’ Winter says.
‘This build signals Islam’s constructive and healing response to the challenges and problems which the modern world faces. Muslims should be at the forefront of the fight against waste and global warming.’
Social factors were also measured in planning the configuration of the building, whose height was determined by that of the local three-storey terraces; its brick façade also complements the architecture of the town.
The mosque’s gold dome may be an eye-catching attribute, but there will be no minaret and no call to prayer broadcast outside the building.
‘Sustainability is not just environmental; it’s also social,’ Barfield says.
‘In order for it to fit into this local setting, it needs to be of this place and of this time. But it also needs to celebrate Islamic culture.’
A city of tolerance
Over £23m was raised to fund the project, including donations from the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs and at least 8000 individuals. at least 8000 individuals.
Although it has yet to launch officially, the mosque temporarily opened its doors to the local Muslim community for its first Friday prayers on March 15.
Despite that morning’s news of shootings at two New Zealand mosques, which left 50 people dead, the prayer hall at the new Cambridge mosque, which has a 1000-person capacity, was packed with worshippers.
‘Hopefully, the mosque will be part of the community in the way that all the other churches in the area are,’ Brigham says.
Dubbed ‘the community of communities’, Mill Road has long been a landmark of unity.
Its Winter Fair, during which the entire length of the street is closed off to traffic, draws huge crowds every year.
Locals mostly run the stalls, exhibitions and stage performances that line the street, no matter the weather.
According to the organisers, the event is ‘created and run by people from the Mill Road area’. It is a ‘celebration of the area’s community,’ as well as its ‘culture and way of life’.
‘Most main roads divide communities,’ Brigham adds. ‘Mill road, one way or another, brings communities from both sides of the road together. And I think that’s what makes it unique in Cambridge.’
Its popularity is even beginning to gain acclaim, with Romsey Town being listed by Travel Supermarket in 2018 as being one of the country’s ‘hippest neighbourhoods’.
This year’s fair will be a chance for one of its newest neighbours to participate.
One of those welcoming them is Cambridge councillor for Romsey Ward, Anna Smith.
‘Romsey is a wonderful, diverse and vibrant ward, with a fantastic community spirit,” Smith says.
‘I’m thrilled that this beautiful new mosque, with its welcoming congregation, is coming to Romsey.’
Offering parallel values of respect for a place and its people, the mosque should find itself in good company as the city of Cambridge continues to thrive.