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British Mosques & Decolonising Islamic Arcitecture, Shahed Saleem

Shahed Saleem is a practicing architect, and a design studio leader at the University of Westminster School of Architecture. His particular research and practice interests are in the architecture of migrant and post-migrant communities, and in particular their relationship to notions of heritage, belonging and nationhood.

Saleem was commissioned by English Heritage to research and write the architectural and social history of the British Mosque. Through his architectural practice he has worked with faith communities for over 10 years in designing and delivering places of worship, and he regularly consults on academic and pubic projects focussing on the architecture and planning issues facing faith communities. His design work has been nominated for the V&A Jameel Prize 2013 and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2016.

More recently, Shahed was one of the curators at the Applied Arts Pavilion Special Project, a collaboration between La Biennale di Venezia and London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. The project, which was part of the Arsenale displays, is titled ‘Three British Mosques’, and looks into ‘contemporary multiculturalism through three adapted mosque spaces in London’.

We talk to Shahed about his connection to Mosques in Britain, decolonising Islamic architecture and diasporic communities relationship to the built environment.

You are a leading expert on Islamic architecture in Britain. How did you become interested in mosques?

I started my architectural practice in East London in the early 2000s which was an area with a high Muslim population, and I was soon approached by a local mosque and asked to design a new building for them. Through word of mouth, I began receiving more enquiries and commissions from mosques to extend, adapts, rebuild their premises. In this way I began working with Muslim communities and understanding their architectural needs and started to develop my own approach to Islamic architecture through these projects.

Shahporan Mosque, East London, designed by Shahed Saleem and completed in 201


What is your earliest memory of a mosque?

It was a mosque in a converted shop in a Victorian terrace in south-east London, I have a memory of being a small child waiting on a narrow timber staircase to enter a first floor prayer hall. In particular I remember the sound of the timber and the line of people waiting on the staircase with me.

In your book The British Mosque, you provide a rich visual investigation into Britain's architectural and social history, from the earliest examples in the late 19th century to the modernist mosques built today, how challenging was it compiling this research?

The research had to be complied from scratch, as I was the first person to excavate these histories. I had to design a research method involving interviews with community members as well as searching local history archives, planning files, maps and photographs. It was challenging because I was doing this across the country over a number of years whilst I was also running my practice and with a young family. However, it was very rewarding because everything I was finding out was new knowledge, it felt like I was the first person traversing a landscape, putting markers down for the first time.

Al Hikmah Mosque - Shahed Saleem designed Aberdeen's largest mosque, which opened in 2015


Which are your favourite mosques in Britain? Which is your favourite mosque in the world?

I don’t actually have a single favourite mosque, I like different mosques for different reasons. For example London Central Mosque is a beautifully proportioned grand space, with modernist design principles that have given it extensive glazing that allows light to pour in from the sides. There are some mosques in converted cinemas that I like because often the distinctive architecture of the cinema hall remains and becomes part of the mosque. I like the intimacy of many house-mosques, and the way in which the mosque is squeezed into these domestic spaces often in quite inventive ways.

Internationally, the Ottoman mosques of Bosnia have left their impression on me, in particular the way in which the journey from street to prayer hall passes through a measured sequence of garden then a portico or sometimes a courtyard. Also striking is the use of timber construction, sometimes for minarets, in such old buildings.

Townscape Mosque - One of Shahed Saleem's drawings in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London


You have also designed a mosque yourself, can you tell us more?

I’ve worked on many mosques at a range of stages, from planning permissions, to extensions or adaptations or new buildings. Where I have extended extensively or designed new mosques I have explored and developed my own approach to Islamic architecture.

With these I have tried to incorporate references to traditional and recognisable Islamic art and architecture, but to combine it with contemporary materials and style. By doing this I am trying to design buildings that can be understood in diverse ways, and that are multi-vocal; they speak numerous languages.

Your design work has been nominated for the V&A Jameel Prize 2013 and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2016. How does it feel to receive such recognition for your work?

Recognition of my work is welcome and very pleasing, however I am also particularly interested to hear how the users and local people respond to it. It’s important to me that people can relate to the buildings I design, and that they stimulate positive interactions.