Cambridge's calm oasis: Cambridge Central Mosque shortlisted for Stirling prize

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech as he and his wife Emine Erdogan (not seen) attend official opening ceremony of Cambridge Central Mosque in London [Getty Images]
4 min read
21 September, 2021
Cambridge Central Mosque has been nominated for the Stirling Prize, awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects for the UK's best new building. Opened this year by the Turkish president, the mosque has been praised for its calming presence.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) revealed its Stirling prize shortlist which focuses on the UK’s best new building. The award is given to the architect and building “thought to be the most significant of the year for the evolution of architecture and the built environment.” 

This year's shortlist of six includes the Cambridge Central Mosque, the Windermere Jetty Museum, 15 Clerkenwell Close, Key Worker Housing Eddington, Kingston University London Town House and Tintagel Castle Footbridge. 

RIBA chair, Jo Bacon said, “Each one of these projects has delivered best in class environmental standards while creating extraordinary architectural solutions appropriate to their context."

However, it's the Cambridge Central Mosque, designed by Marks Barfield Architects – responsible for the London Eye and the treetop walkway in Kew Gardens – that seems to be the favourite to win this year. 

"The design of the mosque was inspired by the idea of 'calm oasis' and the garden of paradise"

In 2009 Marks Barfield Architects won the bid to design the mosque, with a concept of a calm oasis within a grove of trees.

Co-founder of Marks Barfield Architects, Julia Barfield told Dezeen when considering the design: “It was a question of what a British mosque should be in the 21st century; it was very much about recognising that Islam is part of British culture now and has been for hundreds of years."

Originally commissioned in 2008, the project was then finalised, with the doors opening in 2019. 

The mosque was built after the old prayer space became too old for the congregation. It cost £23 million in total, with over 10,000 private, public, local and international donations, while the main donors included the Turkish government, a private Turkish business and the Qatar National Fund.

The vision behind Cambridge Central Mosque's architecture was based on creating a gentle, calming presence within its surroundings [Getty Images]
The architectural vision behind Cambridge Central Mosque was based upon creating a gentle, calming presence within its surroundings 

The growing population of Cambridge was also factored into the demand, with over 60 different nationalities of Muslims in the Cambridge community, meaning the mosque can now facilitate up to 1,000 people. 

Although not the first globally, Cambridge Central Mosque is the first of its kind in Europe to be both sustainable and eco-friendly with zero carbon footprint. The Cambridge Mosque Trust told Cambridgeshire Live that this would highlight and encourage people to see the role of faith in the “responsible management of the earth’s resources”.

Every detail within the structure attempts to minimise its environmental impact, with rainwater harvesting, sedum roofs and greywater recycling.

The mosque itself has been designed to feel forest-like with its tree-like pillars that join and create an octagonal canopy holding up the roof. This structure is said to be evocative of the English gothic fan vaulting style.

One of the many geometric interiors of Cambridge Central Mosque
Geometric designs dominate the interior of Cambridge Central Mosque

The design emphasises the importance of creation and the natural world much like Islam encourages its followers to. The mosque’s stripped back and bare interior leaves space for what it was intended for and that is to allow those using the space to reflect inwards instead of being distracted by outward wealth or extravagance.

A dome also sits on top of the structure, a common feature of Islamic places of worship which symbolise the connection between heaven and earth. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech as he attends official opening ceremony of Cambridge Central Mosque [Getty Images]
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech as he attends official opening ceremony of Cambridge Central Mosque [Getty Images]

The design further combines local architecture and traditional Islamic design aspects, such as geometric patterns that symbolise the infinity of God, as well as the greatness of creation. The design of the mosque was inspired by the idea of a “calm oasis” and the garden of paradise.

A modern-day debate in mosques remains around women’s spaces. Research carried out by the Charities Commission found that only 15 percent of mosques had women in management and governance roles, yet 51 percent of mosques said that women attend Friday prayers.

However, this mosque has made a concerted effort to create space for women and consulted local female mosque users when designing spaces with levels of preferred seclusion, from high to waist-height to a central area with no screen at all.

Some have described the mosque as a gentle landmark in the city of Cambridge with its presence being a reminder of the contribution and presence of Muslims in Cambridge and all over the UK

Mariam Khan is a British writer and activist. She is the editor of It's Not About the Burqa, an anthology of essays by Muslim women.

Follow her on Twitter @helloiammariam