Dreaming spires face minaret eclipse

July 4, 1997

CRITICS of a multi-million pound building planned for the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies want it to find a new site - perhaps facing the controversial new business school next to Oxford station.

They say the centre, designed by the leading architect Abdel Wahed al-Wakil, is too big for the proposed site next to Magdalen deer park.

It will also be on land earmarked in Oxford's local plan for undergraduate accommodation. Some academics say the centre is not entitled to it because it is not a part of the university. They have told the planning committee of Oxford City Council that they want a public inquiry into the Pounds 20 million building, which will be one of the most striking in the city.

Robert Gasser, bursar at Brasenose College, said: "It is a beautifully designed building and with the money they have you would expect them to build on a munificent scale, but it is too big for the site."

He said it dwarfed new buildings built by Brasenose and St Cross colleges and was out of keeping with the rural setting.

"We feel that because of the quality of the building they should consider another and better site. There is a substantial site coming on to the market opposite the proposed new business school and it would make a wonderful entrance to the city to have these two as a focal point."

But David Browning, registrar of the Islamic centre, said there was no question of moving the building. "Our intention is to continue with the building on the present site and through consultation to find a form which is acceptable. There are perhaps certain reductions to be made."

The Royal Fine Art Commission and English Heritage have both rejected the designs for being too big. A spokesman for English Heritage said: "They may wish to think about putting the buildings elsewhere. We have suggested there may be other sites in Oxford where it might be more appropriate."

Merton College, which owns the proposed site, has started legal proceedings to stop it being used for the new building. It is understood dons there object to the architectural plan, which incorporates an Islamic-style dome, minaret and prayer room.

Other critics object to the centre's unclear relationship with the university. Richard Gombrich, chairman of the faculty board of oriental studies at Oxford University, said: "There is a widespread misapprehension that this is part of Oxford. Awkward is putting it mildly. Universities aren't the kind of places that build mosques."

But the centre also has supporters. Anthony Smith, president of Magdalen College, said: "I think it's a fine building and the institution is focusing on one of the problems of the next century - understanding the Islamic world."

And Mr Browning said: "Within our society there is a degree of suspicion about things Islamic I We get on quietly with our work here but now we are talking about a permanent home the talk all seems to be about mosques and minarets."

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