Decoration meets uneasily with internal logic in Gibberd’s London Central Mosque
Originally published in AR September 1977, this piece was republished online in April 2016
‘Everybody likes it’, says Sir Frederick Gibberd, ‘except other architects.’ We can believe him. The London Mosque poses in a special way the problem of ‘language’. In linguistic terms it had two things to do: to be a spiritual home to the Muslims living in this country and to represent Islam and the Islamic culture to everyone else. Because of the different relationships which the Muslim and Christian traditions hold towards culture (and thence towards Architecture), the first of these programmes is easier to fulfil than the second.
The Muslim religion is based on acceptance of a set of eternal truths. A thousand and more years ago the accepters of these truths worked out a set of architectural forms which embodied them - and this was it: there was no motive to depart from those forms, which acquired the imperative of a National Flag. By contrast, in Christianity, an unchanging Divine Truth enters into a continuous dialogue with the changing secular world and this gives rise to a culture which is not static but evolving. As a consequence, the Christian tradition was able to accept Modern Architecture, to attempt (though not very successfully) to make it its own and to express specifically religious ideas through it. The Islamic tradition could not do this: there could be no corresponding dialogue: its forms had to survive intact and (as Western architects working in the Middle East have discovered) to be tacked on to buildings shaped by a different approach.
London Central Mosque
‘It is not the fact that it is decorated that upsets us, or even that it is recognisably traditional in appearance, but the fact that there is no internal logic which ties the decor to the structure behind it’
It is this difference in cultural attitude which gives modern Islam such a flimsy look in Western eyes. So it is with the London Mosque. If you put the decor to one side, you see that it is excellently planned and that its parts are nicely proportioned and stand in good relationships to each other: these architectural virtues will always stand it in good stead. But, of course, you cannot put the decor to one side. It is not the fact that it is decorated that upsets us, or even that it is recognisably traditional in appearance, but the fact that there is no internal logic which ties the decor to the structure behind it.
This makes it (at least for architects) a frivolous building. Looking at this problem in the round we can see that a Mosque which would have ‘represented’ Islam in the sense of giving Westerners a point of entry into Islamic belief and thought would not have made its users feel at home-and would not, in any case, have won the competition. As this is so, we must notice how admirably it suits its site in Regent’s Park. There is a poetic justice in this siting, for the Mosque figures as a sober, Festival-of-Britain, counterpart to the Prince Regent’s Brighton Pavilion. There is no good reason why architects should try and upset the good opinion the layman has of it.
london central mosque