To the growl of bulldozers, a Muslim dream has started to take shape along the western edge of fashionable Regent's Park. And for London that shape will be unusual: a golden dome and a slender white minaret emerging from a crust of glowing mosaics and soaring above a complex of airy buildings in shapes far more familiar to Mecca than to London.
The dream—of providing a traditional mosque for Britain's Muslims and adding an Islamic Cultural Center to it—is an old one. Its origins, in fact, go back to 1944, when King George VI gave two and a half acres of land and a Victorian mansion to Britain's Muslims as a center for worship and study.
At that time the mansion was quite adequate for the number of Muslims in the country. Within 10 years, however, the mansion proved to be too small and plans for a bigger—and more traditional—mosque were launched. At first, under the impetus of various ambassadors and commissioners from Muslim nations, progress was swift. Funds were raised, a design was submitted to planning authorities and a foundation was laid. But that was as far as it got. After considerable deliberation, the Royal Fine Arts Commission concluded that the mosque would clash too violently with the adjacent Nash terraces, a famous series of elegant, classical-Greek houses designed in the early 1800's for England's Prince Regent.
After that setback the project drifted for a while. Ambassadors came and went but no one person stayed long enough to revive it. Then, five years ago, as the Muslim population in Britain climbed to 600,000, the project's board of trustees—now numbering 24—decided to let the world's architects see if an Islamic center and the Nash terraces were necessarily incompatible. They threw its design open to an international competition to which some 50 architects from 17 countries submitted ideas.
Some of the designs were exotic, such as a Turkish design in the shape of a tent, and some were traditional. But the best, according to a three-man panel from Paris's International Institute of Architects, the trustees and the Fine Arts Commission, was a modern adaptation of a classic design submitted by Sir Frederick Gibberd & Partners of London.
Although he was the architect of the passenger buildings at London's Heathrow Airport and had a major cathedral listed among his successes, Sir Frederick decided early on that a mosque was something special and devoted long hours to the study of Islamic architecture before going near the drawing board. From this research, he concluded that the mosque and the cultural center should be contained under one roof—to emphasize that Islam is a way of life, not merely a religious observance. He also concluded that the building must blend modern facilities and simplicity of line with traditional features.
What he came up with, therefore, was a complex of concrete and glass whose lines are clean and modern, which provides such modern facilities as a lecture hall, a library, a cafeteria, and underground parking, yet offers features that are distinctly traditional. Most of the exterior walls, for instance, will be two-story examples of the traditional Islamic arch in pre-cast white polished concrete, each faced with doors and windows of tinted amber glass backed by lattice work. At the rear will be a copper dome reminiscent of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock and above all of it will be the most familiar feature of all: a minaret soaring 141 feet in the air. Although its traditional function—as a platform to call the faithful to prayer—is impractical in modern London, the minaret will not be mere decoration. It will be equipped with an elevator and stairs to admit visitors to the balcony for a panoramic view of the mosque's courtyard and gardens, the broad lawns, deep green oaks and bird-dappled pond of Regent's Park and the lovely Nash terraces.
If possible, tradition will be observed elsewhere as well. Funds and other conditions permitting, Sir Frederick plans to incorporate the materials and themes that are the heritage of Islam: ceramic tiles and mosaics from Turkey, rugs from Iran and calligraphy from Egypt, Sudan and Morocco. On the second floor will be a women's balcony overlooking the main hall, an area large enough for 1,000 people and opening, through banks of hardwood doors, onto flanking, canopied terraces large enough to accommodate more than 5,000 people.
On special feasts the space will undoubtedly be needed. More than 8,000 persons used to gather in the gardens of King George's Victorian mansion for such major feasts as the 'Id al-Adha and 'Id al-Fitr. On completion of a traditional, recognizable mosque, attendance is expected to increase.
In the cultural center, usage by national and religious societies and clubs of such other facilities as the committee rooms and lecture hall is also expected to be high. But the focal point will unquestionably be the second-floor library, with its 70-seat reading room and shelving for 75,000 volumes. The library was a cornerstone in the plans of the late Raja of Mahmudabad, former director of the cultural center, for a program of study in comparative religion and a collection of books in all languages, including every book in English on Islam.
What all that will eventually cost is still a matter of estimates, but basic construction is already close to $7 million, a good proportion of which has already been raised. Some of the money came from government and private grants and some from donations from Muslim visitors to England, but most of it was raised in a fund-raising tour made by the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Libya and Tunisia two years ago. With a model of the center, Their Excellencies journeyed through the Arabian Gulf nations and collected about $2.5 million. Further trips to Pakistan, the Far East, the rest of the Middle East and North Africa are scheduled. Should any money be left over after construction it will be invested to provide maintenance income.
Helen Gibson, formerly with UPI, contributes frequently to Aramco World.