The magnificent architect who built a mosque from bricks and sun

Photography: LOLA & PANI

Ellis Woodman: You seemed surprised that such a large crowd had turned up to hear you at the Barbican Centre last night. It was sold out.

Marina Tabassum: It was a good crowd! There has been a lot more international interest in my work over the last few years since we completed the mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

EW: This is the Bait Ur Rouf Mosque, a really wonderful building which a couple of years ago won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

MT: Correct. That award has made a big difference. There’s been more coverage of what I do, I get invited to give more lectures, and I’m working on new things like an exhibition with the artist Rana Begum at the Whitechapel Gallery.

EW: It does seem as though the rest of the world has caught up with what you do only quite recently. But you’ve been running your own architectural practice in Dhaka for 20 years.

MT: It’s also my hunch that people think women don’t design mosques, especially in places where women are not even allowed into them. So, when a woman comes with a design of a mosque and wins an award, I think that gets people’s attention.

EW: It is a very special building for a number of reasons, but not least the way that it came to be built.

MT: Yes, I lost my mother in 2002 and she was my grandmother’s first born. My grandmother and I were going through the same process of loss and I think she understood that very well. One day in 2005 she invited me over to her place where she had afternoon tea ready and explained that she wanted to donate a piece of her land for the construction of a mosque and asked me to design it. It became a process of healing for both of us before she passed away in 2006.

EW: After her death you found yourself not just the project’s architect but also its client, fundraiser and builder. You alluded to issues around women entering mosques in Bangladesh. Did that make the process more difficult?

MT: You are right, we do not have a culture of women going to mosque for prayer – although some larger mosques have made provision for women to pray. As I was involved in the project in many different capacities – client, fundraiser – an architect from my office tended to deal with the builder and site manager and the community only really knew me as the client. Every time I visited, they would tell me about the architect’s instructions for the project. It was only later that they discovered I was the boss of the architect!

Natural light streams into a corner of the Bait Ur Rouf Mosque through a variety of holes and slits in the thick, brick exterior. Image courtesy of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture / Rajesh Vora.

EW: The building is very basic, but that is also its strength. It really feels like it is made of three materials: brick, concrete and light.

MT: I have always been drawn to spaces where you don’t see the source of light, but you have a sense of it washing the walls and being reflected off the materials. It gives a very magical and spiritual feeling. It is a quality of the Parliament building in Dhaka, which was designed in the 1970s by the American architect Louis Khan, and also of some of the great historic mosques like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and the Mezquita in Cordoba. The moment you see the source of light, it is not interesting anymore.

EW: There are no doors or windows, so the places where you introduce light also let in air and water. It almost has the quality of a ruin.

MT: It does. There are no doors but there is a sense of entrance that draws one in. There is no window but the space has ample light washed off the brick surfaces to evoke the spirit of the place.

EW: And those choices have a spiritual significance for you?

MT: The focus was on looking within oneself and not without. It has a quality of ruin mainly because there is no glass. Glass on the facade dates a building.

EW: You mean it freezes it in a particular era?

MT: Exactly, so I quite often try to avoid that. When I need glass, I always attempt to hide it behind layers of brick; a primordial material with a strong presence, that casts shadow and creates depth. Glass, like most industrial materials, does not age gracefully. It tends to look old within a few years of installation, accelerated by the tropical monsoon. While brick, or even concrete, ages rather gracefully.

EW: And what happens when it rains?

MT: In Bangladesh, we are used to rain. Winter rain is not something nice, but summer rain is welcoming. You see people in the streets completely wet and they are not bothered about it. When you visit the mosque, you pray and the rain pours down on the sides of the prayer hall. You are absolutely in the elements.

EW: There are none of the features, such as a minaret, that conventionally signal that a building is a mosque. It feels as though light is playing that role instead.

MT: We tend to identify ourselves with symbols when it comes to religion and religious structures. I attempted to go back in history, posing the question: What is a mosque? The mosque was introduced to Islam as a humble structure where Muslims gathered in brotherhood for prayer and other communal and social engagements. Instead of symbols, I opted to focus on the multiple use of the space. People can go there five times a day and the light is different each time: it acts like a sun clock.