For Islamic communities, mosques are more than places of worship. These buildings have always been spiritual hubs, and the urban mosque was historically also the foundation for public health and education (through attached clinics and madrassas), the birthplace of the idea of the university, and the locus of civic waterworks (obligatory ablutions for worship meant Islamic cities had potable water when medieval European towns had no clean water, drinking weak wine and beer to cut bacteria).
The squares in front of large mosques served to focus both political expression and commercial vitality, with endless souks ranging around them. To visit the Masjid Al-Jami in Old Delhi, the Great Mosque of Aleppo in Syria, or the architect Sinan's intimate Sokullu Mehmet Pasha in Istanbul is to see a religious building in organic unity with its urban context.
Two new Lower Mainland mosques by the Vancouver architectural firm of Studio Senbel demonstrate a new confidence in the place of the mosque in Canadian cities, and an emerging conviction that these are now institutions at ease with the diverse neighbourhoods in which they sit.
What is intriguing is that one of the two Studio Senbel mosques reaches out to nature, while the other speaks quietly to the polyglot streets around it.
On a tour of Burnaby's Masjid Al-Salaam with Sharif Senbel, I was intrigued by how his design balances engagement with the city's Canada Way-linked civic centre on one side, and on the other ties to a range of municipal parkland.
With a noble courtyard facing onto the city and a buff-coloured, curving brick wall along the main avenue, the mosque enters the orbit of other important public buildings in Vancouver's most architecturally interesting suburb, a presence that will be even more evident when the mosque's minaret is completed.
But the real surprise is on its other, park side. The mosque's main prayer hall has large windows looking out to the changing seasons of the park behind it. There are theological reasons for this aspect of the Senbel design. The Koran is filled with passages describing human ambition humbled before the power of nature - manifestations of the will of Allah - and many of its Suras (sections) are named after animals, giving the messages universal resonance.
Islam, it should also be noted, describes paradise as a garden. It is no accident that the colour green appears on the flags of many countries where Muslims predominate.
The second Studio Senbel building can be found in Port Coquitlam, where the corner of Kingsway and Jane has to be one of the most unlikely sites imaginable for a bold new mosque drawing on a wide range of Islamic architectural traditions.
On one side of Al-Hidayah Mosque and Islamic Cultural Centre is a church and Christian daycare, on another a string of auto-repair joints, on the third newish condos, and on the fourth, an industrial zone. In this heterogeneous setting, the new mosque is quietly assertive in its rich historical references and splendid small garden, an island of architectural integrity in a sea of suburban banality.
Mr. Senbel's design (winner of a 2004 Faith and Form Religious Architecture Award) here marks a certain maturing of the place of mosques in the neighbourhoods of the Lower Mainland. No one driving along Kingsway could miss the building, and none could miss the symbols and shapes that denote it as a place of Islamic worship. The Cairo-born architect says he had the support of local planners, politicians and most neighbours at every stage of the rezoning and construction process, and wanted a mosque that did not hide or apologize for its presence.
The quiet confidence of the Studio Senbel design (the firm includes his architect father, Wagdy, and brother Maged, a professor of urban design) and its intimate insertion between commercial strip and residential zone demonstrate rising confidence among Muslims, even in a place like Port Coquitlam, where they are a small minority.
Many mosques in the Lower Mainland are subdued to the point of invisibility. Some are in converted halls or former Vancouver churches, such as the one on 8th Avenue west of Cambie; aside from the period just after Friday prayers, few realize the mosque is there. Richmond granted exemptions to Agricultural Land Reserve restrictions for religious buildings, and a number of mosques and related schools moved there. But these religious buildings are far from Richmond's daily life, all but invisible to their host communities save for quick glimpses from Highway 99.
Vancouver's Ismaili community is responsible for two of the most architecturally ambitious Islamic religious buildings in the area. The North Shore Jamatkhana (which means both community and place of prayer) is a conversion by architect Farouk Noormohamed of a former West Vancouver tennis club into a splendidly detailed, architecturally focused centre of worship.
Because it is a conversion surrounded by a parking lot, little of the splendour within is evident from the street.
Following on the Ismaili Centre near the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England, Burnaby is home to the second of the major Jamatkhanas to be built in Western countries under the direction of the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world's Ismaili community. Now known as the Darkhana Jamatkhana, it was designed by Telus Science Centre architect Bruno Freschi and completed in 1984. The Burnaby prayer hall is one of the most splendid contemporary interiors in British Columbia, with a powerfully expressed cast-concrete structure and richly ornamented window surrounds.
The exterior, however, is low key to a fault, lacking the urban presence one might expect for a key Canadian building for this branch of Shia Islam. Reflecting on his design, Mr. Freschi is frank in opining that he may have "toned down" too many of the more assertive exterior architectural features, anticipating a reaction by residents of nearby neighbourhoods that never really gathered steam. His design was even "sunk" somewhat to reduce its profile and visual impact on local residents.
But Canada's Ismaili community is now much more secure and architecturally assertive, as demonstrated by the next of these hub Jamatkhanas, now under construction in Toronto and designed by India's most prominent architect, Charles Correa of Mumbai.
For the Port Coquitlam mosque, Sharif Senbel had a fraction of the per-square-foot budget of Lower Mainland Jamatkhanas, or even some of the Richmond mosques.
Attitudes about the Islamic fact of the new Canada have evolved substantially in the past quarter-century. I, for one, am proud that a bold mosque with a tall, gold-topped minaret can now take its place beside auto-body shops, stucco condos and a good-neighbour Christian church.