13 December, 2009 | Ted Jeory
A DECISION to build a huge rocket-shaped minaret and two giant arches in the style of Muslim headscarves on one of Britain’s most historic streets is sparking outrage and risks escalating racial tension, according to community leaders.
The odd looking minaret has just been put up outside London’s most famous mosque, a building whose appearance until now has remained unchanged during previous spells as a Huguenot church, a Methodist chapel and as a Jewish synagogue.
The structure will be joined soon at either end of the street by two arches that have been designed to look like Muslim hijabs.
All three symbols are costing some £2.5million of public money.
They are part of a town hall drive to transform the street, already famous as London’s “curry capital”, into a “Banglatown” cultural trail, a Bangladeshi version of the successful Chinatown in the capital’s West End.
It is intended as a celebration of how successive generations of immigrants have settled in the area, including the Huguenot weavers of the Eighteenth century, and the German Jews and Irish navvies of Victorian and later times.
However, many fear it will be biased overwhelmingly in favour of the street’s latest custodians, the Bangladeshi Muslims who arrived during the last century.
Their concerns centre on the moderate Brick Lane Jamme Masjid mosque, a religious Grade II listed building that more than any other symbolises the changing character of the area.
Built as a Huguenot church in 1743, it was later a Methodist chapel, a synagogue and converted into a mosque in 1976.
Throughout that time its external appearance never changed.
However, last week that tradition was destroyed when workers started to put up a 90ft illuminated, stainless steel minaret on the building’s doorstep.
Its aesthetics have divided opinion in an area that is also home to trendy bars, boutique shops and artists Tracey Emin and Gilbert and George.
Some consider it “cool”, while others have likened to a tower of washing machine drums.
However, it is the symbolism of the minaret and the arches that has upset others.
They believe it is disrespectful to Brick Lane’s history, with Clive Bettington, who runs the Jewish East End Celebration Society, going further.
“It shows absolute contempt for other religions,” he said.
“The trail was meant to be a wonderful thing that reflects the ethnic groups who have come to the area. People who come on my tours to respect what used to be a synagogue will be outraged.
“The arches are clearly meant to be Muslim in character and we are now objecting in the strongest possible terms.”
A senior opposition councillor in the area said they were “utterly appalled” by the decisions, adding: “Things like this damage community cohesion.”
While Mr Bettington and several other groups, including Save Britain’s heritage and the Spitalfields Society, are lodging formal protests against the proposed arches, there is also a question mark over the legitimacy of the minaret.
While Tower Hamlets Council granted planning permission for the minaret in September 2004, that authority was given to the mosque itself.
Years later the mosque realised it did not have enough money and persuaded the council to underwrite the £510,000 project with the huge £8m “planning gain” windfall it received from the nearby Spitalfields Market development.
However, the council was unable to say last Friday whether such money, known as “section 106” cash, was permitted to be spent on religious buildings.
All the people who could answer that question were celebrating their office Christmas lunches, a spokeswoman said last Friday afternoon.
Meanwhile architect David Gallagher who was responsible for designing the minaret and arches defended the project.
He said: “We were briefed to design something that celebrates the demographic changes of the area.
“The arches were not designed to look like hijabs. Huguenot and Jewish women wore headscarves. The arches are just modern curves and they will have symbols on them reflecting the different immigrant communities. Having the Star of David on them is one option we have considered, but no decision has been made yet.”
A Tower Hamlets Council spokeswoman said the minaret was part of the cultural trail and added: “The minaret is very much a cultural symbol providing a strong cultural clue to the area and endorsing our belief that the local Muslim community is now an integral part, not just of Tower Hamlets, but London and further afield.
“The cultural trail has gone through all of the Council's relevant planning and financial due diligence.”