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Guests at official opening of Cambridge Central Mosque admire its stunning architecture and eco-friendly design

Cambridge Central Mosque was officially opened today (December 5), with hundreds of guests admiring its stunning architecture and environmental measures.

Europe’s first eco-friendly mosque caters for Cambridge’s 6,000-strong Muslim community and was paid for entirely by donations.

Cambridge Central Mosque on December 5, 2019. Pictures: Amina Elbayoumi (23448426)
Cambridge Central Mosque on December 5, 2019. Pictures: Amina Elbayoumi (23448426)

Aiming for a zero-carbon footprint, the mosque in Mill Road features air source heat pumps and airtight insulation, solar panels, water-saving measures and sustainably sourced wood.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was present for the opening ceremony after an invitation from founding patron Yusuf Islam, also known as Cat Stevens, the singer-songwriter behind songs like Where Do The Children Play?, Wild World and Peace Train.

The trustees of the Cambridge Mosque Trust, the registered charity that looks after the mosque, said: “The Cambridge Muslim community, which brings together local people from over 70 different ethnic groups, is delighted that its long-standing dream to create an ecologically-responsible mosque has today become a reality.

“We are grateful to all our sponsors, to local residents, and to all who have shown such patience over the last 10 years while we planned and built this ambitious addition to the Cambridge skyline.

“We are sure that its symbolism of harmony between East and West will preside over a hub for peace, prayer, and mutual understanding.”

The Cambridge Mosque Trust, founded to manage the inception, design and build of the new mosque, was established in 2008 by Cambridge academic Dr Tim Winter and Yusuf Islam because it had become clear that the Abu Bakr Mosque on Mawson Road in Petersfield, Cambridge, was far too small for the growing Muslim population in the city.

The trust is a registered charity and a joint venture of the Muslim Academic Trust (MAT), the Diyanet Foundation of the UK and the Cambridge Muslim Welfare Society (CMWS).

Green features

Cambridge Central Mosque on December 5, 2019. Pictures: Amina Elbayoumi (23448467)
Cambridge Central Mosque on December 5, 2019. Pictures: Amina Elbayoumi (23448467)

The environmental credentials of the mosque are evident throughout.

The ventilation is supplied via roof lights and grilles, combined with air source heat pumps and airtight insulation, which naturally regulates the air quality.

Twenty per cent of the building’s energy use are supplied by solar panels on the roof, and rainwater is harvested and repurposed for flushing toilets and watering the garden.

In the atrium and main prayer hall are tree-like columns with timber branches that support the roof. This means it does not require additional support from unsustainable materials.

The trees themselves are made from cross-laminated spruce, which were sourced in sustainably-managed forests in Central Europe, milled in Switzerland and assembled on site in Cambridge.

Sensors detect differences in light intensity and are able to dim the energy-efficient lights. Careful use of glass helps to preserve heat.

Swift boxes are placed on the exterior walls to help the bird population.

Water-saving features accessed via sensor controls are incorporated into the ablution areas, where worshippers wash their face, arms and feet before prayer.

Design and architecture

Cambridge Central Mosque on December 5, 2019. Pictures: Amina Elbayoumi (23448424)
Cambridge Central Mosque on December 5, 2019. Pictures: Amina Elbayoumi (23448424)

The aim was for a deliberately British structure that would cater for diverse group of worshippers from all over the world while reflecting the local culture.

An international competition was held calling for inventive and innovative ideas.

“Our intention was to develop a strongly contemporary design, of its place and time yet reflecting both the Islamic and British sacred traditions,” said the trust.

Marks Barfield Architects, designers of the London Eye, were selected by a representatives from CMT, CMWS, the University of Cambridge Department of Architecture and the East Mill Road Action Group. The mosque was built by Gilbert-Ash.

The architects’ design is intended to take visitors “on a journey from the busy street through a progression of spaces, encouraging them to experience a gradual transition from the day-to-day, mundane world to a reflective, more spiritual one”.

Visitors first pass through a community garden, then a beautiful Islamic garden with a water fountain.

The garden was designed by Islamic garden designer Emma Clark, professor of design at the Prince of Wales Institute for Traditional Arts, working with landscape architects Urquhart and Hunt.

Many of the plants were chosen because they are found in Turkey, the Mediterranean and further East, but many also grow in the UK.

In the community garden at the front, for example, the columnar form of the birch offers a strong vertical accent familiar to Islamic gardens while reflecting the birch trees in the area.

From the gardens, visitors progress through to a portico. Brickwork cladding here is a nod to Romsey’s Victorian architecture.

Through here, visitors are taken into the atrium, where they can visit the café or the teaching and exhibition spaces, or move through to the ablution areas and into the main prayer hall.

Cambridge Central Mosque on December 5, 2019. Pictures: Amina Elbayoumi (23448420)
Cambridge Central Mosque on December 5, 2019. Pictures: Amina Elbayoumi (23448420)

The ablution areas feature turquoise Turkish tiles, while the prayer hall has custom made calligraphy, a mihrab (prayer niche) and minbar (pulpit) by Turkish artist Hüseyin Kutlu.

Geometric patterns symbolise the unison of English Gothic design and Islamic architecture. These were hand designed by Professor Keith Critchlow, an expert in sacred architecture and Islamic geometry. He uses tessellating geometric patterns “to symbolise the infinite and mathematical perfection”.

The natural world was chosen by the trust as the “proposed point of connection between Islamic and British cultural history.”.

Timber was therefore chosen as the main building material, since it is one of the most sustainable building materials, and timber construction company Blumer-Lehmann worked with the architects.

The design incorporates 16 wooden columns in the inner sanctuary, which open up to support the roof. These ‘trees’ in the prayer hall symbolise the four imams of Sunni Islam and the 12 imams of Shia Islam.

Architect David Marks said: “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.”

The mosque also includes two staff residences, an underground car park, cycle parking and a mortuary.

International collaboration

The building is seen as a triumph of international co-operation.

Envisioned by the Muslims of Cambridge, designed by British architects and financed by Turkish stakeholders, it was constructed by Irish contractors using Swiss-made timber components and Spanish marble. Cambridge property consultants Bidwells helped to manage the process.

It has won a host of awards already. The mosque was named Culture and Leisure Project of the Year at the British Construction Industry Awards, earned a regional award from the Royal Town Planning Institute, won the Education and Public Sector category prize at the Wood Award and was judged as the Best Community and Faith Project at the AJ Architecture Awards.

A consortium of government agencies in Turkey were the main donors for the mosque, along with a Turkish private company and the Qatar National Fund. THe Turkiye Diyanet Foundation, a civil trust, joined forces with the MAT and CMWS to help bring the project to completion.

An inclusive place

While primarily a place of Muslim worship, the Cambridge Central Mosque is non-denominational and welcoming to the whole community.

It is also intended to be “one of the UK’s leading women-friendly mosques”, with features such as a soundproof mother and child section, mobile stands to accommodate for the change in numbers of women present in the mosque, spaces for female worshippers both on the main floor and the mezzanine and a complementary therapy room.

The building is fully wheelchair accessible and fitted with hearing loops.

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