THE founder of Alqueria Rosales, Abdussamad Antonio Romero, is as much apart of the awesome landscape of the Segura mountains of Eastern Andalusia as are the unusual mosque and madrasa that he spent the last io years assembling in this far away corner of the province of Granada in southern Spain.
On returning to the town of his birth and childhood, after io years studying in the Islamic University in Mecca, he saw the need for a center which could serve as both a place of study for the nascent Muslim communities of western Europe and also provide a sanctuary from the increasing madness of modern life. He founded the Azagra Foundation and subsequently acquired his father’s farm – situated 5km from his home town of Puebla de Don Fadrique – as a site upon which to build his vision.
For his ancestors, this was a hard place in which to eke out a living but it was these mountains where the Moriscos survived for many centuries after being driven out of Granada in the years following 1492. There is much of this history still buried in the ground, in the families, the language and the customs and traditions of the people of this part of Spain.
The development of the mosque, the madrasa and the supporting buildings has evolved in an organic fashion as funding became available. The design of the building reflects this. Abdussamad approached me to help, as a friend of some years standing from the time that I lived in Granada in the early 1980s. Although the initial conceptual design for the mosque building was agreed upon at an early stage, the process of piecemeal building meant that different local architects had to come in and interpret the plans in their own fashion without my supervision. In spite of this the basic concepts of the building were adhered to and in some ways this mode of construction worked out for the best. The end result is very Spanish and its eccentricities have become almost endearing to me over time as a genuine expression of the local architectural tradition which I was initially unaware of.
The madrasa building reflects the character of the original farmhouse, now dismantled, with thick walls and traditional wooden fenestration with internal shutters to control the sun in summer and serve as insulation from the cold in winter. The inescapable hallmark of Andalusian architecture, the pantile roof, is as old as the olive trees dotting the Andalus landscape and dates back to Roman times if not earlier.
The use of stone in a crazy paving style as an outer cladding and as a surface covering was an unexpected surprise for me but appropriate considering its abundance in the surroundings. We were, after all, 4,000 feet up surrounded by rocky mountain bluffs. I was still angling for a kind of Moroccan minimalism, white walls and blue zilij tiles . . . but this construction had become quite spontaneously a uniquely Spanish architectural expression and that had to be respected – a kind of marriage of coolness from the north and southern Mediterranean spontaneity. This is the alchemical equation that has to be resolved whenever the sun seekers from the north come down south and engage with the Andalusians.
This is all relevant when one tries to piece together what the architecture is about. It is also important to grasp that this is not a mountain retreat cut off from the world like some kind of monastery in the Himalayas. Although there are quiet days, there is a steady flow of visitors and a very natural and healthy overlap of the Muslim and non-Muslim local community. There isn’t the sharply drawn distinction between communities that xou find in the U.K. or France which has made mosques into intimidating no-go areas. Rosales is much frequented by sightseers who suddenly come upon this minaret while driving up the valley with their families on a Sunday afternoon and whose curiosity gets the better of them. The tea shop and restaurant is often filled with non-Muslim guests especially in summer who love to wander around and look at the mosque and take in the view. The locals are both curious and rather proud that this place has put their village on the map.
It is supported by its own farm which rears sheep and grows olives, almonds and walnuts. But one of the ventures Abdussamad and his eldest son have initiated in order to give the madrasa some independence, in the face of dwindling support from traditional sources, is an internet infrastructure business providing a wireless broadband network to the region which was without any such service until now. After a year of teething problems it now works well and reaches many parts of the mountainous interior and the heavily populated coastal region.
This paradox of high-tech mixed with very traditional cultural surroundings is reflected in the Rosales buiìdings. Although I’m a great advocate of natural low-tech building in the tradition of Hasan Fatih among others, Rosales was limited by very low budgets and the conventional know-how of local builders and craftsmen. The arched and columnated construction of the mosque is really the model of a mosque style dictated by brick arch construction and the span and availability of wood, despite the fact that Rosales is entirely built in reinforced concrete, and built quickly and cheaply.
I irreverently call it Teseo construction because in the U.K., my native country, the Teseo supermarkets are built in this quick fashion but then “styled” into pseudo Greco-Roman or even mock Tudor facades.
Appalling, I know, but my options were limited here.
I don’t think it matters too much if the result is pleasing. After all you could construct a mosque in hand made bricks, using sacred geometry, ethically grown wooden beams, etc., and end up with a blot on the landscape. The intention and vision have to be right and then it has a good chance of being successful whichever method of construction you use.
We hope to explore and revive some of the traditional methods of building in the near future since I am convinced this is the way to have better insulated (in summer and winter), cheaper and more harmonious human habitations. But the general ignorance and pressure of money lenders and the building industry have put people and institutions under a lot of pressure to go the normal brick and reinforced concrete route.
This might seem like an apology, and in a way it is. I would like a better way to build and in time this will happen. The Alquería Rosales is an ongoing project and the mosque will be adapted again and again in its lifetime. Ten years in the life of a madrasa/ mosque is nothing when you consider the ? ,ooo-year-old institutions of Damascus and elsewhere. The present mihrab (donated from Morocco), not the original mihrab, may well be changed as it isn’t liked much and, further, buildings abutting the mosque may well change its appearance. You only have to examine the example we have of the Great Mosque of Cordoba and how it was repeatedly adapted and expanded in its time as a working mosque.
The choice of columnated floor space was an easy one to make. A large Ottoman style dome structure just isn’t in the vocabulary of Andalusian architecture and I wasn’t going to change that tradition. The different roof heights and axial symmetry give it a sense of order in which you can easily locate yourself and this also helps to give the space wonderful acoustic qualities – better than I ever hoped. The thin round supporting central columns also need an extra few centimeters of tile or plaster to fatten them up as they seem disproportionately small although structurally adequate. But I’ve even gotten used to that now.
I always advocated a courtyard, not just because it was a traditional element of a mosque where people could congregate after the prayers or expand into if short of space, but also because in this majestic environment you need enclosed outdoor space where you are focused inward with only glimpses through doors, arches or windows of the natural beauty beyond. The windows in the mosque were high placed to give the mosque privacy from outside but also to reduce distraction of the worshipers inside. The eightpointed star shaped-stained glass windows were an addition by the client but which I had – and still have – reservations about. But it does add some beautiful colored light to afternoons inside the mosque space.
The minaret as built was not in my original plan but was designed by a Spanish architect influenced by architectural styles from Seville and even further East. The Andalusian style always was a mish-mash, taking a bit from here and a bit from there, as the builder or designer fancied. This makes it much easier to mix the styles of different architects in one building once you understand the language. The upper part of the minaret works well but I’m not convinced by the open staircase leading up to the top floor. In time I think a crafty muezzin will brick the staircase in to keep out the freezing wind when it howls down the valley in the bleak mid-winter.
Inside the mosque, which is heated underfloor in winter, the tiled floor has hasira (reed) floor coverings from Morocco on which rugs are laid. It works, is colorful and can be kept clean. The idea of fitted carpets suggested by some for this mosque is anathema to the Spanish who believe cleanliness is washing floors and beating rugs. An argument which has a lot in its favor.
I’ve always wanted architecture to be like a glove on a hand rather than something imposed from on high upon the unsuspecting. For me Rosales comes close to this ideal but there is much we still need to learn. It demands that a lot of people cooperate with one another in arriving at architectural solutions and to have some kind of unified vision for their immediate environment. It means modifying the modern roles of architect, builder and client. The question remains: what impact will Islam have on the new European and North American landscape? Is it going to be a thing of luminous beauty as is much of the architectural legacy we see around us in Spain and North Africa? What will the dingy brick mosques of England’s industrial north tell us about those communities if they are still standing in 500 years time? In other words what are we leaving for our descendants? Once this madrasa here in the mountains starts to breathe with more students and residents and the next phase of building begins, (to include an arts facility, a shop and more residencies), it will, God willing, start to become a living community – not just a collection of buildings – and a place where future generations can find some fulfillment, tranquility and safety in surroundings which truly reflect their highest aspirations.