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The New Shahjalal Mosque - A Public House

Part 2 Project 2010
Carlos Dos Santos
Kingston University Kingston-Upon-Thames UK
The typology of the mosque in the contemporary city is politically and socially charged. Spiritual place makers for the Muslim community, they can generate a sense of alienation from the broader community, perceived as being impenetrable and inward looking.

The Shahjalal Mosque currently occupies a series of temporary buildings that sit reclusively on a corner of Shandy Park in Stepney, East London. The park itself is centrally located within the Ocean Estate, recently described as one of the most deprived estates in Britain.

The ambition for this project, in the context of the mosque’s desire for a permanent new building, was to design a new mosque that could become a tool for engendering place and invigorating Shandy Park. Through a process of honouring and validating what already exists, the building has been designed as a noble civic edifice that embraces the domestic quality of the Ocean Estate. Operating at the scale of the city the building creates a public square by using the geometries of the existing adjacent buildings. This external room brings clarity to the park and restores the prominence and dignity of the existing buildings. At the scale of a room the building simultaneously orientates toward Mecca and the adjacent external geometries, generating a plan where rooms with extended thresholds are surrounded by a patchwork of seemingly ambiguous spaces. These left over spaces give the programme a distinct hierarchy and in return acquire legitimacy.

At the heart of the new mosque is the prayer hall, its sacred character embodied in its structure and materiality. The more informal spaces - for education and community use - reduce to a domestic scale around internal courtyards. This marrying of grandeur and domesticity was found in the ‘Grapes’ public house in Limehouse, where a rich, shared interior mediates between two extreme conditions – the street and the river Thames.

Wrapped in a skin of intricately detailed brickwork, the building reflects and re-energises its environment. The new Shahjalal mosque also attempts to go beyond its immediate context and engage with the broad history of sacred and civic architecture.


Carlos Dos Santos


The project is for a new mosque at the centre of the Ocean Estate in Stepney, East London: a proposal which takes on, with verve and rigour, a series of complex but very contemporary issues. How ‘public’ should an inner city mosque be? To what degree does it share its rooms and its landscape? What is the role of a religious building in the public realm of the city, particularly in an area which has been poor for as long as anyone can remember, and now faces an uncertain future? And in a civic culture dominated by glossy icons and spiritless community buildings, is there room for something better?

In search of answers to these questions, Carlos undertook a detailed study of an unlikely but surprisingly appropriate precedent, the ‘Grapes’ public house in Limehouse. The pub is a durable set of rooms which combines grandeur and domesticity, and deals comfortably with two radically different ‘fronts’ – a quiet backstreet and the expanses of the river Thames. Similarly, it seems able to nurture a specific community whilst welcoming outsiders. Lessons learned from the Grapes, documented in beautiful documentary drawings, are put alongside a comparative photographic study of the local area, capturing a range of junctions between home and public realm. Such studies led to an architectural language which blurs the domestic and the civic, and a construction logic which is both powerfully simple and considerate to its neighbours.

Critically engaged with the ‘public house’ thesis of the Unit, Carlos’ mosque, like the Grapes, resolves extreme conditions through deceptively simple means, combining the grandeur of collective prayer with more informal spaces, all contained by an obsessive, tautly resolved plan. Boldly sited in the estate’s central green space, Shandy Park, the building reorganises its context and provides new clarity to the park and adjacent public buildings, with an unusually sophisticated understanding of the relationship between building and public space. Carlos matches these concerns with a clear-headed attitude to construction and detailing, resulting in a building which achieves richly atmospheric interiors through its primary structure and a construction process involving minimal disturbance to the park.

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2010
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