Only Time will Tell

Many architects around the world dream of designing buildings that are flexible and adaptable to the changing needs of their users. As you can imagine, this is notoriously difficult since there’s no crystal ball to tell us for sure what will happen in the future!

This hasn’t stopped us from trying though. You may have visited the Centre Pompidou, a world-famous modern art museum in Paris, designed by British Architect Richard Rogers and Italian Architect Renzo Piano in 1977. They created an ‘inside-out’ building, where columns and beams that support the building are located on the outside, together with corridors, ducts, stairs, lifts and escalators all colour-coded in bright primary colours. This frees up the building’s interior for five levels of uncluttered open plan floor space for the museum. The building looks like a giant Lego model, and anyone can easily imagine how the ducts can be reconfigured, or how the escalators can be moved to the other side of the building when necessary.

Some say the idea and the reality of flexibility are two rather different concepts

Interestingly, the building hasn’t changed much since it opened its doors almost 40 years ago. As an architectural icon, its looks are now carefully kept and preserved. Some say the idea and the reality of flexibility are two rather different concepts. For the Centre Pompidou, I guess only time will tell!

A small, unassuming building down my street has certainly stood the test of time and proved that it is adaptable to changes. The Brick Lane Great Mosque is a three-storey brick building located in Spitalfields, an area just outside of the boundary of the historic City of London.

The building has been constantly adapting to changing demographics and cultural transience as waves of immigrants settled in the area. Built in the 18th century, the building was known as the Neuve Eglise (‘New Church’), originally used as a chapel for the Huguenot French Protestant community. Arriving in London in the late 17th century, they fled prosecution from France and settled in Spitalfields, making the area the centre of Britain’s silk-weaving industry.

By the early 19th century, Jewish refugees flooded Spitalfields as they escaped pogroms in Eastern Europe. The building enjoyed a brief spell as the headquarters of the Society for Propagating Christianity Amongst the Jews. This ‘propagation’ was obviously not too successful, as the building was transformed into the Spitalfields Great Synagogue in 1897. Overcrowded, the area slowly turned into a slum and the Jewish population had mostly moved on by the 1970s.

The next waves of immigrants were mainly Muslims coming from eastern India and Bangladesh in the 1970s, making Spitalfields the curry capital of the country. In 1976, the building was remodelled and opened as the London Great Mosque, renamed later as the Brick Lane Great Mosque we know today.

Spitalfields is now once again in transition. It has morphed into an area with a real creative buzz by students, artists and designers. Will this little brick building be transformed into something else in the future? I guess only time will tell!

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