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The Brick Lane Great Mosque and Architectural Conservation

The Brick Lane Mosque occupies an eighteenth-century site, “listed as a building of architectural and historical interest” (fig. 41).[2] It is located in a conservation area that began to be “gentrified” during the 1980s—a process that entailed the “decanting” of Bangladeshi garment factories, shops, and residents and their replacement by well-heeled white owner-occupiers, City offices, and up-market shops. These changes, largely to the west of Brick Lane, rapidly transformed the character of the area known as Spitalfields. For some white outsiders, the mosque building was a physical expression of both a local English heritage and a gentrified, Georgian present. For the Muslim congregation, the mosque’s main attraction lay in its proximity to their council estate homes. For the mosque management committee, the building, while convenient, was a source of concern because of its need for renovations consistent with Muslim ritual requirements.

Figure 41. Brick Lane Mosque, Spitalfields, London. Photograph by John Eade.
[Full Size]

The mosque committee did little to change or Islamize the exterior, merely posting a list of prayer times on its main door and a large notice in Bengali, Arabic, and English on the building adjoining the former chapel. The exterior was recently refurbished and still appears to the non-Muslim visitor to be a plainly decorated eighteenth-century chapel.

Internally, however, the committee undertook substantial modification, reasonable to mosque members but offensive to local conservationists. The changes were stimulated by the 1985 visit of President Ershad and subsequent contributions from the Bangladesh government to finance a new floor to accommodate an additional six hundred worshippers. The refurbishment entailed the elimination of the dilapidated gallery and wall panelling.

No planning permission was required from the local authority for these renovations. Conservationists, however, were quick to protest. The architectural historian Dan Cruickshank, features editor of Architects’ Journal, a prestigious national weekly, and a leading member of the local conservation movement, was quoted in the local newspaper as saying: “What is so terrible is the way in which it was done. A lot of people are renovating houses in that area and they saw panelling being smashed. It was carried out brutally.” The president of the mosque management committee, however, insisted that concerns for the historical character of the building were in fact taken into account: “We are taking out a gallery, but the historical things are not being touched, they are being preserved.” Most important, he explained that the extra space provided by the refurbishment would alleviate a situation where “people are praying in the streets outside now” (East London Advertiser, October 17, 1986).

Both sides in this exchange appeared to agree on the importance of conservation of historical sites, but they differed over standards and procedures. Dan Cruickshank’s protest expressed the concern of the locally influential Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust, of which he was “an indefatigable member” (Girouard et al. 1989: x), which condemned changes of a sort that at an earlier period would have attracted little public comment. Internal modifications of the Brick Lane site by its Jewish occupants during the late nineteenth century, for instance, do not appear to have caused concern (see Jewish Chronicle, July 3, 1973). Now, however, the conservationist lobby clearly regards the Huguenot refugees’ chapel as a vital expression of an indigenous urban culture and landscape. Whatever may have happened in the past, a wide constituency considers both the exterior and interior of the building as part of the local heritage.

The dispute highlights a fundamental problem at the heart of the conservationist project. What should be preserved as an authentic expression of England’s urban heritage? Raphael Samuel, a social historian and local resident, has made a powerful critique of the Spitalfields conservation process:

Is it a real historical past which provides the point of reference—or an imaginary one, of grandiose or gracious living? Where, if anywhere, is the line to be drawn between repair and reproduction, the authentically old and the contrived replica?…What alterations and additions are to be respected—the 1780s fanlight? the 1850s fireplace? the 1920s bracket lamp? the 1940s radiator?—and what removed as alien grafts? (Samuel in Girouard et al. 1989: 161)

The mosque management committee succeeded in solving the problem of the overcrowding during religious festivals while avoiding drawing further attention to the building’s Islamic function. It thus deflected what would presumably have been an even stronger reaction from outsiders.

The changes taking place in Spitalfields call into question the continuing effectiveness of this low-key strategy. The movement of City businesses and wealthy owner-occupiers into the ward has been accompanied by the migration of Bangladeshi firms and residents from West Spitalfields as the garment trade has shifted its center toward the south and east of Brick Lane. Bangladeshis still dominate council estates in the central and eastern areas of the ward, but they have begun to search in larger numbers for employment outside Spitalfields. The industrial and commercial character of the ward is being radically changed by forces beyond Bangladeshi control (see Forman 1989; Samuel in Girouard et al. 1989). Indeed, Samuel even speaks of “a holocaust which is about to wipe out their [Bangladeshi] tracks”: a transformation that conservationists have unwittingly encouraged and that now “threatens to engulf Spitalfields in a sea of Georgian fakes” (Samuel in Girouard et al. 1989: 170). Of course, the leaders of the mosque management committee may well believe that they can use this process to their material advantage by selling out and moving to an imposing, purpose-built center that might rival the East London Mosque. Through such a move, they would be able, perhaps, to escape the limitations of the present site and the debate about conservation and urban heritage. In the process, they might, of course, exchange one set of problems for another, as the experience of the East London Mosque in fact suggests.

Members of the mosque defended the Islamization of the site on the opponents’ own terms, insisting on their respect for “historical things” and denying “brutality.” The debate was, however, about more than wood panels. Architectural conservation is part of a more general, ongoing discussion about what it means to belong to the nation, whether defined as “England” or “Britain.” This discussion incorporates questions about the plural character of that nation and the part played by “ethnic minorities” in shaping that plural character as Britain engages in a rapidly changing Europe. If the former Huguenot chapel needed to be carefully preserved as a particular expression of a national heritage, how did that “sacred” imperative relate to another sacred imperative, the desire of those from an ethnic minority to adapt the building for ritual purposes? Issues of cultural pluralism have been equally at stake at the rival East London Mosque, whose leaders adopted a strikingly different strategy toward representing their Islamic presence in the borough.

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