Virtual Assembly

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Entrance to Old Kent Road Mosque closed prior to demolition as part of the redevelopment project.

Old Kent Road Mosque, home to the largest Nigerian population in Britain was housed in a former Victorian pub in Southwark. The Duke of York on Old Kent Road was purchased in 1999 after years of fundraising by the Muslim Association of Nigeria, which was established in 1961 by a group of students living in London. On Monday 31st May 2021 Old Kent Road Mosque was closed for good to enable the commencement of the redevelopment project, a new purpose-built mosque to be constructed on the original site

Main prayer hall in Old Kent Road Mosque in preparation for demolition. The prayer carpet was removed and retained for future use. Mihrab and Minbar have been removed.

In 2018, approval was granted for a six-storey mosque, incorporating three-storey arched windows and an abstracted minaret-like structure. Building a new mosque is both an act of devotion and the practical response of a growing community. Banners within the mosque quote a passage from the Prophet Muhammad that reads: “Whoever builds a mosque for Allah, then Allah will build him a house like it in paradise”. 

In August 2021 the Mosque building was demolished.

Terrestrial or Close-range Photogrammetry was used to generate an image-based 3D model of the mosque exterior. Hundreds of images are processed and then aligned to create a point cloud which generates a mesh of the mosque, for which the textures are built onto. In the computer vision community, this type of photogrammetry is sometimes called Image-Based Modeling. As it was not possible to obtain ariel photos of the roof of the building a flat plane was added in 3D modelling software to complete the model.

3d interactive model of Old Kent Road Mosque building exterior

Guy Sinclair from Fab Lab at University of Westminster scanning the interior of the main prayer hall.

3D Laser Scanning / LiDAR

A laser scanner utilizes infrared light, which bounces off objects and returns to a sensor. Based upon either the time of flight or the phase shift between the emission of the light and its return to the sensor, points of measurements are collected at the face of the object. A collection of these points is known as a point cloud and creates a visualization that represents the objects being observed, allowing for the accurate measurement between points.

Laser scanners collect millions of 3D points per second while performing 360-degree scans. Distances to all 3D points are collected to +/- 2mm accuracy. Scanners also provide rich panoramic colour photographs of all scanned areas, creating rich point cloud data.

Shahed Saleem and I commissioned a series of LiDAR scans of Old Kent Road Mosque representing the historical layering and adaptations of the interior of the building. The scans were made by Guy Sinclair from Fab Lab at The University of Westminster. The scans will enter the V&A collection as permanent digital artefacts to create an archived record of sometimes ephemeral and undocumented religious buildings as socially constructed places of worship.

Exterior scans of Old Kent Road Mosque. Without these scans, a significant period in the informal architectural history of religious architecture in Britain would have disappeared without trace.

An AR film of the original interior re-inserts the mihrab and minbar into the main prayer space for congregation members to re-experience.

In the last few days before the building was due to be demolished we interviewed members of the mosque about their thoughts and feelings and memories of the building and their hopes for the new purpose built space.

See above, stills from interviews conducted with congregation members in main prayer hall on the final day before demolision

Faith on Film Talk

In October 2021 I was asked to present Assembly as part of the series ‘Faith on Film’ organised by Art & Christianity. For the panel discussion I was joined by the architect and writer Shahed Saleem and Hassan Vawda, researcher at Tate and Goldsmiths and Rashidat Hassan and Olawlde Hassan who talked about the direct involvement with the project as Old Kent Road Mosque congregation members. 

This event considered the multifaceted relationship between Islamic sites of worship and their communities through artistic research. It also touched upon how British art institutions frame Islamic faith and how Assembly attempts to move away from problematic ethnological perspectives by working within a site-specific, collaborative context. The panel discussion highlighted the multi-dimensional nature of Assembly, offering dialogue and scholarly exchange between multiple parties and perspectives. Most importantly it provided an opportunity for members of the faith community to have a voice and share their wisdom and valuable insights into the project. 

During the panel discussion it became apparent that the proposed Virtual Assembly could do more than act as an archive, it could also act as a space to continue connection. As a member of the congregation describes, “Now that the mosque building itself has been pulled down. We’ve lost everything, every record of it. When I first heard about Virtual Assembly, I was actually very touched, outside of the building, we’re continuing as a community, and this platform will help maintain a very good virtual connection.” 

Faith on Film panel discussion: Julie Marsh, Shahed Saleem, Rashidat Hassan, Olawlde Hassan and Hassan Vawda

After this talk, I was invited to present Virtual Assembly to the congregation via ‘Oh You Who Believe’ a weekly online event. The project was well received, and I was subsequently invited to a number of community events to present the project such as women’s fundraising and youth group to gain ideas and perspectives on what this virtual site could be for the community. The development of Virtual Assembly will also be open to review at strategic points through engagement with the wider congregation, via the ‘O You Who Believe’ web platform organised and run by the Old Kent Road Mosque. This online collective was set-up at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and is now an important part of the community’s conversation stream and an excellent platform to present the outcomes of the project for feedback from the Old Kent Road Mosque community.

See above, the women’s fundraising event for the new mosque provided an ideal opportunity to share stories and memories with the female congregation. Virtual Assembly heavily relies on the continued commitment of the community to participate in the co-production and co-creation of the outcomes. A Steering Group, with OKRM representatives from the women, men’s, youth, elders and madrasah will be responsible for, and work directly with congregation members to maintain focus and momentum throughout. The Steering Group will also gather feedback from the congregation at strategic points to ensure functionality and appropriate representation of the community and its diversity.

Interactive Content  

Personal stories, histories, objects, and practices will be generated and curated by the mosque congregation in an attempt to virtually ‘perform’ the mosque. We plan to develop a series of workshops to provide this interactive content (could be hand drawn sketches, photographs, videos, 3d scans of significant small to medium scale objects). A 3D environment will be collaboratively imagined and designed, based on outcomes of the workshops and architectural plans for the new building. This process of production will provide a space for the community to reflect on the past, develop future imaginaries and maintain a sense of identity and belonging. Navigation around the virtual space can be autonomous or pre-determined, through either screen based or VR interface. Sustained technical research will be carried out to engender the experimental nature of the archive through interaction and embodiment. 

Pre-recorded films of congregational prayer will be placed within the interactive virtual site. These films will move from the entrance to the mihrab replicating the method of filming producing a moving floor projection from above. The LiDAR scan will allow the films of prayer to merge with the architectural structure of the original site. The moving films will be set within the context of a collection of stories and personal accounts from the congregation members themselves.

Below, a prototype of how the oral histories and stories may be embedded into the site, curated by the congregation. Drawing on theories of space, place and identity, this research examines processes of constructing and disseminating narratives shared among the congregation. In the age of globalization where people have become ‘disembedded’ from concrete space and time’ localities can be imagined as articulated movements in networks of social relations and understandings (Massey 1994, 325). Locality is not static and Virtual Assembly uses technology to mobilize and reconfigure time, space and place.