Before the opening – Julia C Johnson

Sacred home to the calligraphic heart

Free-form calligraphy written from timber plays a leading role in Britain's first eco-Mosque.
Designed by Marks Barfield, the Cambridge Central Mosque is an interfaith first, marrying
esoteric Islamic geometry to the British High-Tech architectural tradition. And the father to
this union? Why, none other than Buckminster Fuller.

On a road along one of Cambridge’s lesser traffic arteries, maybe two miles from the city centre, is the new Cambridge Mosque. It has been described and is being promoted as the world’s first Eco-Mosque. What does that mean? 

Julia Barfield and David Marks – Photo Evening Argus and right, the Cambridge Mosque's roofline

It means a building with some strikingly beautiful free-form timber calligraphy doubling as tree columns. It means a poetic use of brickwork in the service of Arabic script written and integrated in the building’s walls. And it means, at a more parochially technical level, 100 photovoltaic panels on the sedum green roof, air source heat pumps helping warm the floor, and rain-water recycling into the garden and toilets - all completely common sustainability strategies in the currencies of today’s world of mass sustainability.

That, at least, is one starting point. From a broader cultural, civilizational even, perspective, the architects, David Marks and Julia Barfield found themselves pondering a larger question as they looked at the project brief back in 2008.


Outside in the Garden - Photo Morley von Sternberg

“A British Mosque – what should it be?” Julia Barfield recalls the pair asking themselves, more than a decade later, as I sit in Marks Barfield Architects’ spacious first floor studio off a side street from Clapham Common. The studio,   which brought the world the London Eye wonder-wheel, has now created a home for British Islam in the heart of one of the country’s two cities of learning, Cambridge. Place the two together and there is a small explosion of two and two not quite computing. Islam, after all, is one of the world’s major monotheistic religions, with a tradition of architecture stretching back over a millennium expressed in the language of sacred geometry, and the tradition doesn’t sit entirely comfortably alongside 20th century secular modernism’s quest to construct a godless future.

At first glance, Cambridge might not seem an obvious choice either when picking a site for an international showcase of 21st century Islamic architecture. The principal UK Muslim populations are in London, the West Midlands and across post-industrial Lancashire and Yorkshire. Yet Cambridge and its ivory towers, I shall be told, are home to a growing number of young, international and cosmopolitan students and academics from all over the Islamic world. The city was already home to several thousand practising Muslims by the early 2000s, with Friday prayers regularly spilling out from the modest hall that acted as the Mosque onto the immediate surrounding pavement.

Father and Son – John and Timothy Winter
/Abdal-Hakim Murad – Photos Pidgeon Digital
and Cambridge Muslim College

How far the idea would have proceeded, however, if the questing son of a respected Cambridge modernist architect hadn’t been drawn to Sufism in his search for spiritual answers in the late seventies is an open question. Forty or so years later, Timothy Winter is the Shaykh Zayed Lecturer of Islamic Studies with an office in Cambridge University's Divinity Faculty. With one foot in the higher echelons of the British academic establishment, Winter’s advocacy of the Cambridge Mosque is one of several projects he’s been involved in addressing the growth of British Islam in a globalised world. There is the Cambridge Muslim College, which opened its doors ten years earlier in 2009 and prepares future Imams for working in a multi-cultural 21st century. Likewise, the Cambridge Central Mosque is a clear attempt to nurture a British Muslim path and identity. If the architectural media has been scant on information regarding this Islamic backdrop, read a few of the interviews which are immediately summoned at the click of a Google search, and you will uncover that Winter, whose Islamic name is Sheikh Abdul-Hakim Murad, is a renowned scholar and considered one of the most internationally influential Muslims. What is also absent from these articles, though, is mention of his architect father, John Winter, whose mid-20th century journey traversed working in SOM’s and Erno Goldfinger’s studios, and teaching in the early sixties at the Architectural Association (AA), where his students included Jeremy Dixon and Nicholas Grimshaw.

The Portico entrance – Photo Morley von Sternberg

This, by accident or design, or possibly even for some, destiny, brings things full circle. As students, the youthful Marks and Barfield were High-Tech architecture enthusiasts at the AA. They may not have worked at Grimshaw’s, but High Tech is in the studio’s DNA. After meeting at the AA, Barfield worked at Fosters, and Marks at Richard Rogers before setting up their practice in 1990. They had first been drawn to each other in a shared fascination with Mr. Captain America, Buckminster Fuller. In the light of this detail, the pairing of the builders of a High-Tech success story, London Eye’s studio, with the mysticism and sacramental symbolism of the country’s British Islam Mosque makes a kind of intriguing sense. Each may seem different, off-centre and almost eccentric, yet there’s a sense of both coming from, albeit different, parts of the insider establishment world, whether the ivory-towered academic realm of religious studies or the private Architectural Association and a particular architectural tradition that has ruled over British architecture for the last forty years.

Keith Critchlow with compass and his illustration for the
doordesign – Critichlow portrait: Richard Twinch

Other points connect further, rather than separate. A core part of the geometrical language at the heart of the project is the work of the world-renowned elder of esoteric geometry, the late Keith Critchlow. Though both Critchlow and the Mosque's garden landscape designer, Professor Emma Clark, have been long involved in The Prince's Trust – Critchlow was instrumental in its conception, ran its Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts Department and remained Head of Research until his death last spring, April 2020  – and though its founder, Prince Charles, was the bête noir of modernist architecture, like Norman Foster, Critchlow had been an enthusiastic Fuller prodigy, setting up a company he named Polyhedral Developments in 1969 after working in Ghana at Fuller's invitation.

Bucky in conversation – Fuller in listening mode with Norman Foster (left) and a young Keith
Critchlow (right) – Photos Norman Foster Foundation and the Princes Trust

The geometry makes itself apparent as soon as one steps into the Mosque’s small garden, as I did a few weeks before visiting Marks Barfield, on a sunny February day back in the different world of early 2020, joining one of the regular guided tours. Separated from pavement and a bus stop pull-in by a railing boundary, the small mainly concrete-pathed garden, designed by Emma Clark, includes an octagonal water-fountain symbolising the Garden of Paradise. The fountain, designed by Andrew Yeung, depicts Paradise, its octagon integrating the circle and square to reflect Heaven and Earth and the journey from one to the other. In front of the garden is a glazed portico entrance to the foyer. Inside and underfoot is Critchlow’s contribution, a beautifully tessellated geometric floor. The many hundreds of tiles continue the octagonal motif first introduced by the fountain, a design called the Breath of the Compassionate, a core pattern and concept within the Islamic tradition of sacred geometry. Comprisingeight-pointed stars and crosses, the pattern’s expanding and contracting geometric form symbolises the ‘divine breath’ which in Muslim cosmology is forever
creating and dissolving the universe.

The fountain. – Photos - Morley von Sternberg

The Islamic Octagonal Breath
of the Compassionate geometrical
pattern, developed into the
tree geometry – Keith Critchlow
/MarksBarfield Architects

If the inspiration for the design of the tiles and bricks of the floor and ceiling are Islamic in origin, the tree columns are based on the late flowering period of one of English architecture’s most celebrated pre-modern eras: English Gothic. Marks Barfield did not have to look far. The curved glulams of the timber trees echo one of Cambridge’s most iconic buildings and specifically, its fan vaulted ceiling: : King’s College Chapel was one of the last and largest of English Gothic’s late ‘Perpendicular’ phase. By the time of King’s College (built between 1445 and 1515) vaulting techniques had become ever more elaborate, as well as introducing various sleights of hand: the stone columns reaching up to the roofs were functional and the fan vault’s equidistant ribs may have appeared so too, but were actually imitation masonry and purely decorative. Still, the spectacle remains stunning, making the College Chapel one of the top three must-see sites for visitors drawn to the tourism honeypot that is central Cambridge.

That visual spectacle, written in the more modest timberwork language, is previewed in the Mosque’s foyer. Twelve timber trees loft upwards in four rows of three. These columns add to a first shorter row under the overhang portico entrance. The timber trees rise out of the floor and spread upwards and outwards something like woody frozen fountains. The curved beams extend into a wavy support structure, while steel spider frame connectors brace the trees, above which circular LED lighting rings sit under light wells cut into the roof, together providing a mix of natural and electric lighting for the space. On each side, creamy bricks interleaved with smaller ruddy red bricks make up the façade walls.

Kings College Chapel fan vaulted ceiling, Cambridge – Photo Cc364/ Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0  |  The Breath of the Compassionate tiling pattern of the foyer floor – Photos (including detail) Morley von Sternberg

The male ablution rooms – Photo Morley von Sternberg

The foyer is an intermediary space transiting between the secular every-day and the sacred. In preparation to enter the main prayer hall, visitors remove their shoes and other outdoor clothing, storing these in the boxed compartments under two long benches either side. A corridor follows, with a first set of beautifully decorated and hand-carved oak double doors, variants on the ‘compassionate breath’ star tessellations. This brief ante-chamber also includes side wings for ablutions before entering the main prayer hall. Beige-brown colours recede into the walls mid-distance apart from where the washing occurs, where rich turquoise tiles line the walls between the sensor-controlled taps facing changing stalls for washing both hands and feet, along with large plants.

When the corridor’s far double doors are opened onto the main prayer hall there is an intake of breath at the almost empty space broken by the rhythm and grandeur of the full size timber tree columns nearly double the height of those in the preceding atrium. The ceiling is a tracery of timbers, the wooden ink of a calligraphy flowing in and out of the roof lines. A grey carpet covers the floor, which divides into the main male (70%) and female’s (30%) respective areas, with a low wooden fence shading the border. A wood recess traces the lower wall around the hall. At the centre of the right-hand side wall, a golden pulpit faces the direction of Mecca – south east - from where the Mosque’s two Imams preach, surrounded by finely-drawn Arabic lettering. There are further circles of lettering placed on the walls around the room. High above and near to the pulpit, large circular glulam beams announce the opening of the dome, the lower half of which holds a series of glasswork windows.

There are thirty trees in all, made up of 2,746 pieces of glulam in 145 shape variations, in the 10m x 10m room, a jigsaw puzzle of timber that is one of the Cambridge Mosque’s highlights. The manufacture was prepared by Blumer-Lehmann, the Swiss specialist engineered timber company. Uncovered by David Marks while researching potential wood engineers, the architects decided on the timber specialists early on, bringing them into the project before the competition had been won. Marks travelled to the southern Swiss side of the Bodensee inland lake to visit the Blumer-Lehmann – see further the Annular Unstructured Blumer-Lehmann feature  link to AU-A4 - set up and came away impressed. There were other timber contractors they looked at, including the big Austrian players, Wiehag. Though large scale, Wiehag didn’t contain the refinement required for the developing tree geometry and engineering, Barfield says today.

Enter the timber trees – Photo Morley von Sternberg

The Dome – Complete and under construction. Photos Morley von
Sternberg (left, and Blumer Lehmann (centre and right.)
The Tree Top Walkway, Kew Gardens
– Photo Kew Gardens

The Swiss timber engineers are the latest specialists Marks Barfield have collaborated with since their breakthrough London Eye project, completed in 2002 as the millennium-funding afterglow was just beginning to fade. There the challenge had meant bringing on board ski-lift engineers, and a coach maker to work up the cabins, slowing their scything round and round the air. Barfield: "It's been our working method since we've done the wheel." In the years since there's been the Kew Garden's Tree Top Walkway (2008) and the Brighton i360. "The Mosque is the latest one." "These specialists are the master-craftsmen of our time," she adds. For the Cambridge project, the studio worked on developing the 3D geometry before bringing in Blumer-Lehmann to join the design process. Again, Barfield is full of praise. "It was a joy working with them. We worked together toward finding solutions and not finding problems," adding that the 3D geometry work needed a "fairly sophisticated 3D computer and we were well matched in our capabilities."

The timber tree motif is not singular, and more than a few have considered the Mosque’s columns’ similarity to Shigeru Ban’s Nine Bridges Golf Club in Korea. There, a comparable structural tree system is holding up the building. Both buildings illustrate a particularly poetic use of glulam in their respective column systems, although the fact that the Cambridge Mosque’s calligraphic rhythmic language emerged out of the esoteric Islamic geometry tradition provides a key contrast. The latter distinction has been a consideration in a legal plagiarism case brought by Ban against the London studio. There are other examples too: the Danish Architects Cobe’s winning competition entry for redesigning Tampere’s rail station in Finland features a striking (so far unbuilt) timber tree system station concourse. It isn’t, however, a first time that tree columns have been a part of British project. This was helped in no small measure by the sizeable budget, Barfield notes, turning to a prime descriptive in many architects’ lexicon: “enlightened clients willing to pay for the design process.”

Square Kufic Arabic calligraphy meaning 'Say he
is Allah (the One)' and on the interior and external
walls – Photos Morley von Sternberg

The project was, however, to fall under a dark cloud. Marks fell ill and through 2017 battled a diagnosis of cancer, right in the intense middle of the build. He died in October 2017. The sadness and shadow of Mark’s death was to colour the project over the subsequent months. The calligraphic glulam trees are a testament to Marks. So, too, is the other material the Mosque showcases: brick. The 200,000 or so bricks have been exactingly laid to make up an abstracted pattern of Arabic, reading right to left as “Say God is One.” Casting a half glance and the abstraction evinces order, though one would be hard pressed to note the Arabic script. Together the glulam and timber bring built poetry to the project whole.


During the First Prayers, March 15th 2019 – Photo Julia C Johnson

In the prayer hall Kal, the guide continued telling the story of how Cambridge Central Mosque is an example of 21st century modernity. Technically, there were the now nearly normal eco features: the sedum and PVs on the roof, and also bird boxes for swifts; rainwater is recycled in the garden and toilets, and other features help convey the core backdrop message the ‘world’s first eco-Mosque’ title claims. According to a BBC report on the opening, the Mosque was designed to "pay homage to Islam's emphasis on the sanctity of the natural world and the commandment to avoid waste and extravagance". Kal also emphasises the social inclusivity of the Mosque, the trees representing both Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, four for Sunni, and twelve for the Shia (this might seem weighted towards one of the branches, and no explanation was given, nor for that matter, enquired of, as to why timber trees weren’t equally distributed.) The Mosque is designed to hold 1,000 worshippers, and most Fridays between 800 and 900 crowd into the hall, the guide noted, before proceeding to talk about gender inclusivity, a subject which feels like it requires careful navigation. There are the demarcated areas for men and women, and rooms are provided for baby feeding, and other spaces for children - and this rather strict separation doesn’t fit entirely comfortably into modern secular culture. Despite pronouncements about the Mosque being for people of all faiths and of none, a sense of how different Islamic culture is from much of daily British life, and particularly the assumptions about women’s lives, is underlined by these architectural divisions.

Yusuf Islam greets Turkey's President
Erdoğan and right, Baraka Khan. Below,
President Erdoğan addressing the opening.
- Left and lower photos Presidency of the
Republic of Turkey website, upper

At the far end of the hall are further doors, leading out to a small open space and garden to the building’s rear, which is also where cremations can take place – a significant improvement on what went before, where there was no provision for funeral rites for the city’s Muslim community. Three stories high, with a façade that weaves Qur’anic phrases into the traditional Cambridge gault brickwork, the architectural design aims to complement and merge into its neighbouring streetscape. After the tour, the church group returned to the garden at the front of the building. Above the portico overhang, words in Arabic lettering read Oneness of God and beneath this, families and couples mingled, some enjoying food in the café to the immediate right of the foyer. Three gardeners were busy weeding, digging, and planting around the yew tree hedges. Just beyond the railings, buses pulled up every few minutes and street life continued, a reminder of how, despite its title, Cambridge Central Mosque is some distance from the city centre, and underlining a contrast to the more central sites of some of Cambridge’s main churches.

The building opened in the summer of 2019, costing almost £23m. Large donations came from Middle Eastern countries, including £15m from a consortium of Turkish Government agencies, and a further large sum of money from the Qatar National Fund. That these are not the most popular of regimes in the modern world hasn’t passed various media commentators by, although the Mosque say they are completely independent, and the money was provided without any attached strings. They also point to a young woman, Baraka Khan, who, while studying at Cambridge became passionately involved in the project and raised over £500,000. Khan was also ill with cancer and tragically and died weeks before the Mosque’s completion and opening. That opening was not without its own sensitivities, as one of the trustees, Yusuf Islam (the one-time pop star and singer, Cat Stevens) invited Turkey’s President Erdoğan, one of the top ten planetwide controversial politician’s at home and abroad, to formally open the Mosque, which he did in December 2019.


“Tim Winter wanted a piece of architecture,” Barfield stated in Clapham. “So many Mosques are conversions.” Now this piece of architecture is here it’s tempting to wonder what will happen next with the evolution of the contemporary mosque? In a BBC feature of the opening, Julia Barfield told the interviewer that the design brief was to create "a truly British mosque in the 21st Century. This Mosque can be a cultural bridge and takes the environmental message to one of the biggest faith communities in the world."

Marks Barfield have done this, even if the environmental message is only at the beginning of the conversation. There are other bridges as well, including the unusual confluence of Islamic and High-Tech traditions, with the figure of Buckminster Fuller as unlikely father figure to the project, there in the background. In one sense the Mosque is a tribute to two men inspired by Fuller: Marks and Critchlow, and their bridging of two elementally different traditions in a single building. In one of his essays in Faith in Fakes, Umberto Eco, the Italian novelist and semiotician, provided a list of post-modern Medieval archetypes. With the union of Islamic esoteric geometry and the British High-Tech tradition, surprising though it may seem, here another physical example is offered unto that conversation.

Oliver Lowenstein