Monumentally misguided

Image of Edwin Heathcote

How might you celebrate cultural diversity in built form? The London borough of Tower Hamlets thought it had the answer: a set of steel gates for Brick Lane in a form supposed to be reminiscent of a hijab.

Brick Lane, a resilient, vibrant palimpsest of a street that has been home to successive waves of immigrant communities – Huguenots in the 17th and 18th centuries, Jews from eastern Europe in the 19th century and, more recently, Bengalis – is now a blend of neon-sparkled curry houses and designers’ studios. Its scraggy mix of Georgian streetscape and industrial found space works precisely because it is so ill-defined, so open to reinterpretation and reuse. The idea of fixing it in the urban imagination with a representation of a garment meant to conceal was a paradigm of municipal cluelessness.

Last week, the council agreed to rethink its plans after powerful local objections, which included vocal opposition from the artist Tracey Emin. Perhaps there was a realisation that urban gates are, if anything, a symbol of exclusion or ghettoisation.

The hijab gates, part of a proposed Brick Lane “cultural trail”, may be aesthetically illiterate but they do evoke the spectre of meaning in architecture – long dead, at least outside the pages of Dan Brown. Tower Hamlets’ dim attempt at symbolism shows a desire to accommodate and celebrate Europe’s growing Muslim population; the gates’ rejection, however, illustrates a fear of allowing Islam a physical foothold in the contemporary, liberal city.

The UK is not alone in this regard. Denmark found itself at the centre of a storm of protest in 2005 when the Jyllands-Posten newspaper published cartoons depicting Muhammad. Now, five years later, the rightwing nationalist Danish People’s party is returning fire in response to a proposal for the country’s first purpose-built mosque. Despite this, the ambitious plans for the new mosque, at the centre of a huge urban scheme including housing and souk-inspired shops, were given tentative approval by the Copenhagen authorities last week.

When I spoke to him, Bjarke Ingels, the architect whose firm BIG has designed the mosque, seemed pleasantly surprised by the reaction. Ekstra Bladet, the most tabloid-ish of the Danish papers, was really positive, he said. “They asked their readers to stop thinking about religion and start looking at the kick-ass architecture.” I’m guessing Ingels is paraphrasing, but the red-top reaction is confirmation of that fabled Danish tolerance.

You can see how even the tabloids would be seduced by BIG’s mosque – the plans are really rather beautiful. The structure segues into a tapering spiral of pentagrams, creating a series of openings between each successive ceramic-clad layer, and the Scandinavian sky is brought down into the interior in a deliberate reversal of the traditional dome acting as a cipher for the heavens. Ingels describes the building as “folding itself into a kind of turban”. A pair of slender minarets rise into towers that refer to the beautiful corkscrew spire of Copenhagen’s Baroque Church of Our Saviour, a delightful image of a mini-Babel.

If this promising structure represents light, then there is plenty of darkness around. Spectacular, if slightly clumsy, plans for a “mega-mosque” near the 2012 Olympics site in London met vociferous opposition in the same city that is attempting to build “symbols of tolerance and diversity” a few miles away in Brick Lane. Last November, a small rightwing Swiss party forced through a national referendum on a motion to ban the building of minarets. The “Yes to the Ban” campaign sported a fearsome banner of a prone Swiss flag punctured by a field of stark black rocket-like minarets, an Islamic bed of nails. In the foreground stood the black-veiled figure of a Muslim woman in full niqab. It was an image of primal fear, an intriguing glimpse into the feelings that this architectural archetype can provoke.

Back in Brick Lane, the structure that now accommodates the Jamme Masjid mosque was built as a church in 1743 by Huguenots. For years, there was barely a sign that the austere brick structure no longer housed a church but last year Tower Hamlets augmented it with a cylindrical tower of stainless steel inscribed with an Islamic-inspired pattern. It is neither minaret nor monument, just another inane attempt at a marker of cultural diversity. What better monument to cultural diversity could there possibly be than a French Protestant church that became a Methodist chapel, then a synagogue, now a mosque? Meaning in architecture is not achieved by topping such an abidingly significant structure with a stick-on, pop-up, pseudo-minaret.

The desire, whether on the part of a municipality or a mosque, to embellish the city with a monument of meaning and belonging is understandable. The terrible irony, though, is that the inanity of the ideas – the washing-machine-drum minaret, the ill-conceived hijab gates – has handed the truly symbolic architectural act to the Swiss.

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