by Esmerelda Weatherwax (October 2012)
Regular readers may recall previous articles about the proposals for the land on the bank of the Channelsea River (part of the Bow backs system of the River Lea) near West Ham tube station currently owned by the Islamic organisation Tablighi Jamaat. Their current English name is the Riverine Centre, which I suspect is easier for their sensibilities than their previous name – Abbey Mills Mosque. They themselves call their current establishment the Masjid Ilyas.
Mary Jackson and I have been keeping an eye on the plans since 2007 when I wrote this. The grandiose plans of that scheme were rejected by the council, the London Borough of Newham, and the trustees fell out with the first firm of architects and their second replacements in any event.
The contamination of the site from its former use as a chemical works caused increasing concern and the council told the trustees that as their temporary planning permission for the former office block to be used as a mosque had expired (and some years ago) and the site was a health hazard they were to leave forthwith. The Mosque trustees stayed put and went to government appeal. The Government run Appeal Tribunal over-ruled the council decision. They heard arguments that the area lacks worship space for Muslims and decided that, unsatisfactory as the site was, it had better remain as a valuable public amenity. (This despite Mary and I being told at the open day on the site in 2009 that it was not to be a local mosque for worship by local people but an national training mosque with a catchment area of a 70 mile radius.) The trustees were told to have a new application with plans lodged within a year.
These were lodged recently and made public on LB Newham’s website on the 28th September. Comments must be lodged within 21 days. According to the trade website BD online the new architects are NRAP of Cambridge. They have also engaged the services of other experts and consultants including Hilson Moran of London, Abu Dhabi and Qatar and CgMs planning consultants specialising in advice regarding archaeology and historic buildings. The site is on the edge of the Three Mills conservation area and within sight of the new Olympic park.
BD online (free subscription required) says that the plans are for:
. . . a mosque, 2,000-capacity dining hall and Islamic library, plus a sports pavilion and playing fields for the wider community. There will also be children’s facilities, eight flats for imams and overnight visitors and 300 car parking spaces.
The mosque, which will include two 15m minarets, has been scaled back from original plans to accommodate 12,000 worshippers, but will still be roughly the size of Battersea Power Station. The materials will be dark brick with aluminium alloy screens treated with a shimmering copper finish. These will be used as cladding in some places and in others as perforated veils over glass.
NRAP director Richard Owers said it was a “genuinely West Ham mosque” because, aside from the minarets which were a key requirement of the client, the design involved a “subtle underplaying of traditional Islamic architecture”.
From the outside the roof appears flat but inside 35 coffers create a small dome.
He acknowledged there was local opposition to the mosque but said it was the only realistic option because the site, an old chemical works, would prove unviable for all but the richest developer because it is so contaminated and cut off by rail lines and sewers. “I can’t think of a better site to put the mosque on because it’s such a tricky site to develop,” he said.
Battersea Power Station famously appeared on the cover of an album by Pink Floyd. Below are some examples of the plans submitted.
An artist’s impression of the main way in.
The master plan, including tennis courts and other sporting facilities to encourage us to believe that this construction will be for ‘community use’.
This is an elevation of the long side of the main building and a cross section of the short end. The main mosque building is to be 6 floors tall, with a men’s gallery on the 3rd floor, a library and accommodation on the 4th floor, women’s gallery on the 5th and the Iman’s apartments on the 6th and top floor.
These are architects views of the proposals looking north, north-east and south.
I went to view the site now that the Olympics is over and the Olympic park is closed for the Olympic legacy work to begin. There is a lot of new accommodation being built, as well as the conversion of the Olympic village into homes. First I rode past on the tube to get a view of the site from the south where there is no longer any pedestrian or vehicular access.
This picture was taken across the space where the tennis courts are proposed.
Some security guards/workmen were lying down to rest by one of the back gates. The low building in the middle is the current prayer room. To face Mecca one looks across the District Line.
Then on foot. Pedestrian access to the Mosque is via the Greenway which is a path on top of the embankment containing London’s Northern Outfall Sewer (if you didn’t know you might think it was a disused railway line at first – the bridges over the roads are very similar). The turn off for the Riverine Centre is marked on both sides by several tall columns.
The only vehicular access is via the narrow Canning Road pictured here looking towards the Riverine centre which is behind the bushes in the centre. The problems of vastly increased traffic and parking requirements, disturbance to what was conceived as a haven for cyclists, walkers and joggers will form the basis of many of local people’s objections. Notices about the plans and the time period for comments were attached to lamposts all around.
This is the main entrance to the Riverine Centre. It bears a strong resemblance to Tablighi Jamaat’s current UKHQ (which this London site may be intended to replace) in Savile Town in Dewsbury. I will return to that later.
Landscaping work seems to be going on already. I noticed saplings had been planted earlier this year. That is the Orbit observation tower of the Olympic Park in the background.
Today men seemed to be working on tubs of sunflowers, when they were not throwing stones into the river, disturbing the birds on the island in the Channelsea. The island, a haven for wildlife and untouched for many years belongs to the Riverine Centre but does not seem to feature in the plans, so far as I can tell at this stage.
The opposition to Tablighi Jamaats plans for expansion has been co-ordinated so far by the organisation MegaMosque No Thanks led by Alan Craig former leader of the Christian People’s Alliance party which was once the opposition to the Labour Party on Newham Council, when they had an opposition. They took out a half page advertisement in the Newham recorder this week. The paper also printed an article in which Alan Craig said “Tablighi Jamaat is a fundamentalist sect that is hostile to all non-Muslim society so they shouldn’t be allowed to build this huge platform to promote their divisive anti-social ideology. They have a track record of deliberately creating Islamic enclaves around their mosques” Mr Craig said, giving Dewsbury in Yorkshire as an example. The article also included a description by Dr Jenny Taylor of publishers Lapido Media who has an interest in Tablighi Jamaat. She describes being allowed into the Markazi in Dewsbury but having to conduct her interview with her back turned to her interviewee. This isn't on-line - hence the scan from the paper copy.
Danny Lockwood in his book The Islamic Republic of Dewsbury describes an attempt to show the Dewsbury Savile Town Markazi to his lawyer.
“The Markazi’s mullahs don’t condemn those of their devotees who try to blow up American passenger planes or succeed in murdering ordinary users of the London transport system; they merely stand serene behind benign philosophical platitudes of upholding ‘peaceful’ religious goals – and they stand more literally behind concrete walls bearing all-seeing CCTV cameras, alongside dire warnings to passers-by that taking photographs of the Markazi mosque is expressly forbidden. . .
“I took our barrister . .. and parked opposite the markazi gates.. . I wanted to take a photograph as part of our evidence, to portray the kind of place Savile Town was. . . but the lawyer seemed worried about the forbidding signs so (we) rang the Chief Superintendant and asked his advice.
“Can we take photographs?’ He asked
“You can but I wouldn’t’
“It might cause a problem’
“What if we were attacked?”
“I would send a couple of officers out. Are you being attacked?”
“No – but we are certainly being watched!”
“I can’t do anything about that. Attacked yes, watched no.”
Walking around the site today another similarity struck me. Savile Town is bounded by the River Calder on one side and the Railway line on the other. The road through can and has been blocked (in particular during the ijtema pilgrimage of 1994) allowing no-one in or out. The buses have been stoned so many times the bus company has re-routed the service. I now firmly believe that gathering of tents and marquees I noticed in 1992 or 3 was the Riverine Centre hosting a similar ijtema. The West Ham site is bounded by the Channelsea River to the east, the District Line to the south and the Jubilee Line to the west. It too could be easily cut off and defended. Basically it is a fortress.
We were told during the open day that the London Markazi is a national teaching mosque and that on a Thursday evening 3000 men aged between 16 and 35 travel from all parts of London to hear lectures. My immediate thought was that is not a congregation; that is a regiment. It is therefore disingenuous of the trustees to claim that it is a resource for local Muslims who do not have enough places of worship. There are already 95 official mosques in LB of Newham. But of course Tablighi Jamaat are past masters of taqiyya. That was not the only lie we were told that day but to my mind it was the most important.
The council webpage for comments and objections is here. As Tablighi Jamaat said, it is a national institution, and its position so close to the Olympic site definitely makes it an institution of interest to all Londoners. I would ask anybody with an interest in or connection to London to consider registering their reasoned and reasonable objection.
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