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In normal times, Dominic Stevens walks past the Blackpitts Mosque in Dublin 8 twice a day – on his way in and back from work at JFOC Architects in Harold’s Cross.
At the moment, the sacred space is housed in an old cream warehouse, behind a blank cream wall. Stevens’ and his fellow architects have a different vision, though.
New designs filed as part of a planning application with Dublin City Council show the warehouse gone, replaced with a dedicated mosque for its congregation, and 27 residential apartments between the first and sixth storeys.
“They thought that they would like to dignify their mosque and stop worshipping in a shed, and have something that feels like a mosque,” says Stevens, on the phone from his home office on Thursday afternoon.
The designs blend traditional Muslim architecture with the familiar red-brick of Dublin’s streetscapes and the surrounding Liberties area, he said.
“Cities are amazing because they’re a melting pot of people from lots of different places,” he says. Dublin is no exception – and that’s always been reflected in its architecture, he says.
“There’s not an indigenous Dublin architecture and then other architecture that doesn’t belong,” says Stevens. “Dublin is a mishmash of different traditions and times of architecture from different places. Particularly as we were a colonial city.”
“Irish Islam wants to be inclusive and part of our lives, and so it was important to engage the street,” says Stevens.
Right now, the mosque faces Blackpitts as a large grey wall with steel gates, the warehouse roof visible over barbed wire. On a Friday, people slip in to worship through a door at one end of the wall. “It kind of feels secretive,” says Stevens.
According to the planning application, the wall and the warehouse would be demolished.
In its place would be a new building of high-quality red brickwork, arches, windows and decorative gold balconies. A “kind of amalgam of Dublin Iveagh buildings, markets and mosques”, says Stevens.
That’s not a new blend. In planning documents, the architects draw similarities between George’s Street Arcade, the Iveagh buildings – like the Iveagh Market, baths and housing – the Smithfield fruit and vegetable markets, and the 17th century red-brick, colonnades and four-point archways of the Mughal empire.
It’s “a stretch to academically assert that the market buildings were based on Mughal architecture”, Stevens says. But they were “clearly influenced by them in shared materials and form”.
The proposed building won’t be historicist – copying the traditional mosques of the past, he says. But as an architect he’s “looking at traditional mosques, looking at Victorian Dublin and enjoying the similarities and working from that”.
In a traditional mosque, you come in first into a courtyard where there’s a fountain where you wash your feet, then you go into the mosque, says Stevens. “We’ve put that series of elements together slightly differently to suit the site.”
“You can walk in off the street into an open space. There’s a colonnade and it has a nice tree planted in it. It feels like an open, porous building and people know what’s going on,” he says.
Earlier designs also included a café, like the mosque in Clonskeagh, but that didn’t fit in the end.
When Stevens started the project he knew very little about Islam, he says. This feels like a big responsibility, he says, with a laugh.
According to his client Azhar Bari, it was the architect’s knowledge of Dublin’s built heritage and its shared colonial history – reflected perhaps in the influence of the early-modern Islamic architecture being discovered by the British in Pakistan and India – that won him over to Stevens’ proposal.
The site is owned by Independent Clothing Holdings, a company run by the Bari family who are from Pakistan, and moved to Navan from the UK in the early 1970s.
“I was astonished [at] this Islamic culture and architecture that has been borrowed and redone here in Dublin,” says Bari. The new mosque is, in a way, an extension of this, he says.
For the building’s interior, Stevens and Bari sought input from the Clonskeagh mosque, which is Ireland’s main cultural Islamic centre, says Bari.
Like Clonskeagh and the mosque on South Circular Road, Bari says he hopes that the Blackpitts Mosque will also be a cultural and community centre – a place where anyone can come in to learn about Islam and culture. Right now, he isn’t sure what the new space will be called, but he’s toying with calling it “Blackpitts Islamic Cultural Centre”, he says.
The plans for the mosque itself include a high-ceilinged prayer hall, with a mezzanine around the edge. On the first floor, a female-only prayer area would also serve as a teaching space for those wanting to learn Arabic or about the Quran.
“We believe knowledge is everything. That’s why I think informing people of what Islam is, what it does and what it means is of paramount importance,” says Bari.
Serving the Community
Over the years, the Muslim community in the neighbourhood has grown alongside the mosque in the warehouse, which was originally a distribution centre for the International Clothing Holding’s retail operations close to 30 years ago.
It served more than 6o women’s clothing shops – the likes of Japan, Morgan and Angel – all over the country at one point, said Bari. “So in this place, we had a lot of workers, including our large family as well. We needed a place to pray.”
They started to pray upstairs in the large shed that’s there now, he says. Others in the area got to know about it.
“They started coming as well,” says Bari. “So over 25 years ago, it started to develop into something like a mosque.”
Much of the Muslim community in the area is from Pakistan, though in the early days of the mosque in the warehouse, many of the company’s staff were Muslim Bosnian refugees fleeing the war in Yugoslavia.
That local community is what’s currently shaping the new plans, Bari says. In 2003, the company’s operations moved to Ballymount. The building was left to the community as a place to gather and pray.
An earlier version of the building plans included student accommodation above the mosque, rather than residential apartments. Local residents didn’t want that, though. The feedback was that too much student accommodation was going up, says Bari.
Bari didn’t want to work against local residents, who he says always supported the congregation, he says. So, in the midst of a housing crisis, he opted for residential apartments instead.
The proposed building includes storage and bike parking spaces for residents. It also includes a preparation area for Muslims who pass away.
“When somebody goes in our religion, they have to have what’s called an ablution area for their body to be washed and prepared for burial. That has to have a cold room,” says Bari. It’s another way the centre hopes to serve the community, he says.
Right now, there’s just one ablution area for Muslims in Dublin, in Clonskeagh. “It’s not lost on us, currently with this Covid-19 how many elderly people are passing away, and how much pressure that puts on them,” he says.
Building a City
Dublin is in an interesting and tricky moment, says Stevens, the architect.
There are “a lot of very large buildings being built and there’s a recognition that the scale of places will be changing,” he says. “We have to make a compact city.”
The apartments above the mosque would be unusual in this city as they’re designed over two stories, to give the feeling of living in a house, he says.
“Good architecture is built ideas”, says Stevens. “You analyse the physical context and the cultural context and you make a thesis.”
The testing of that thesis is making a building, he says. “In architecture everything you do is an experiment, a one off-piece.”
The planning documents are available to view on the Dublin City Council website, for those who want to weigh in on the application.
Stevens seems optimistic about the response. An earlier iteration of the building met with some concern over its size as it’s taller than neighbours, says Stevens.
But working on other projects that met with resistance, it was often that “people are scared of new things in their area”, rather than the size of the building, he says.
“We’ve been working on this project in one way or another for about four years, in earlier manifestations. These things take an awfully long time,” he says.
Once it has gotten through the planning process, Stevens hopes that work on the site may begin within a year, he says.
There’s some urgency to this. Bari’s father, Ghulam Bari, is 91 years old, and the main driving force of the project.
For 30 years, he was elected president of the Pakistani community in Ireland. At 87 years old, he retired.
He spent years travelling to Muslim communities around Ireland, helping them build mosques. For years, he dreamed of transforming his Blackpitts warehouse into a more suitable place of worship for his community, says Azhar Bari, of his father.
“Hopefully during his lifetime he’ll be able to see the centre complete and is able to open it for us officially,” says Bari.