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.
What does it mean to decolonise architecture, where do we start to understand and undertake this process?
To me decolonisation means recognising the histories and perspectives of those who have been traditionally marginalised. I think it starts by understanding how people use & create space and their cultural needs and perspectives, and bringing this into the design process. It places people and communities first over commercially driven architecture. Decolonisation ultimately is about giving up power and giving back, returning territory and compensating for losses inflicted on the colonised. Architecture’s role in this process must also be recognised and articulated as part of the decolonisation process.
Mosque Assemblage III - Shahed Saleem's continues to explore the history and language of the mosque in Britain through drawings such as this, which is available as a print from the William Morris Gallery or directly from his website
Through your own mosque designs, you seek to create an Islamic architecture that is responsive to the Muslim experience in Britain, which is mostly a migrant and marginalised one. Can you share your thoughts on how postcolonial diasporas can articulate their identities and narratives through architecture?
Diasporas and migrants often create their own spaces and architecture as the formal processes of building are usually not available to them. This improvised designing leads to great ingenuity and a new architectural language; a new kind of vernacular. This architecture of improvisation is unselfconscious, but it reflects the identities and narratives of the Muslim communities in a very immediate way. When we design more formally for these diasporas, I think it’s important to observe and learn from their history of self-made architecture.
Paper Castle - Shahed Saleem's model responding to a historic mosque model and displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2019
You recently created life-size case studies of three London mosques for the Applied Arts Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale as a part of an ongoing collaboration between the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Venice Architecture Biennale. Can you tell us more about the mosques featured?
The exhibition features the Harrow Central Mosque, the Brick Lane Mosque, and Old Kent Road Mosque. Each building demonstrated a different type of adaptation and showed a range of ways in which existing buildings have been converted into mosques.
Harrow was a house-mosque, and showed how a domestic space is incrementally altered over time to accommodate the mosque and a growing community. Brick Lane mosque is a historic building which was formerly a church and then a synagogue before becoming a mosque. It should how a historic building is adapted and how a sequence of religious uses have overlapped on the same site. Old Kent Road was a Victorian public house which was adapted to form the mosque. There were little external alterations, but internally the decoration of the public house were incorporated into the decor of the mosque, and it shows how these two very different types of building were combined in the creation of religious space.
Three British Mosques - the exhibition for the V&A Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2021, co-curated by Shahed Saleem, Christopher Turner and Ella Kilgallon
By portraying the evolution and adaptation of mosques and local buildings, how did the pavilion celebrate Islam and the South Asian diaspora in London?
I wanted to show that the mosque in Britain is a building type that has its roots in this type of self-made adapted architecture, where Muslim communities have created their own religious spaces. Through this process of ad hoc and improvised self-building a new visual language has emerged which is the Islamic architecture of Britain. The exhibition therefore draws attention to these buildings and gives them a recognition and significance that they might not otherwise have.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
I’m pleased that I’ve been able to develop parallel strands of practice, teaching and research, and that they are interconnected and support each other. I does take quite a lot of juggling and is not easy, but I feel very fortunate to by pursuing my interests in this way.
What does the future of Islamic art and culture look like to you and what is the potential for architecture shaping that vision?
There is some exciting work happening in Islamic art and culture both in the Muslim world and the diaspora. I am interested in work that explores the experience and identity of what being Muslim means, and what Muslim society is. Architecture can be part of this movement and though it might not shape the vision, it can embody its aspirations.
For more information follow Shahed Saleem on Twitter https://twitter.com/shahedsaleem_
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