Architectural testaments: Celebrating Heritage & History through iconic buildings
Throughout history, black, Asian and ethnic minority people have had buildings that have meant special things to them, whether as places of worship, sanctuary or public record.
As we celebrate Black History Month here we look at several of these iconic buildings.
The Black Cultural Archives
The home of black British history, the Black Cultural Archives was established in 1981. Its current premises, at 1 Windrush Square, Brixton, were opened in 2014 by the then Prince of Wales.
Its mission is to collect, preserve and celebrate the histories of people of African and Caribbean descent in the UK. The Black Cultural Archives runs gallery exhibitions, educational programmes and public engagement events, and is a leading institutional voice for the Windrush generation. Its co-founder, the educationalist and historian Len Garrison, said this at the time: “We need our own archives where important acts and achievements of the past, which are now scattered or pushed into the margins of European history can be assembled; where facts now presented as negative, can be re-presented from our point of view, as positive factors in our liberation.”
DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center
Formerly known as the DuSable Museum of African American History, and originally known as the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art, the DuSable was opened in 1961. It was the first museum of its kind in the US to celebrate Black culture, at a time when the Civil Rights movement was at its height. The museum’s founders, Dr. Margaret Taylor Burroughs and her husband Charles, wanted there to be greater awareness of Black history, culture and art in America.
Over the course of more than 60 years, the museum has welcomed millions of visitors to its site in Chicago’s Washington Park and prides itself on powerful, innovative exhibitions about the experience of African Americans in the US. The DuSable continues to be a ‘beacon of strength and a refuge of reason’ in a nation where there is still intense division.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is one of the holiest sites in the Islamic faith. Located next to the instantly recognisable Dome of the Rock, with its golden dome, the mosque has stood on the plaza of Temple Mount since the 7th or 8th century. Known as ‘al-Haram al-Sharif’ or ‘Noble Sanctuary’, it marks the spot where Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. The mosque was rebuilt numerous times during its history, falling victim to war, fire and earthquakes.
In modern times the mosque has once again become the centre of tension between those of different faiths. After Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, the Plaza Complex saw tensions rise between Palestine and Israel, with Muslims and Jews clashing over the right to worship there. Al-Aqsa overlooks the Western Wall, a holy Jewish site, and while only those of the Muslim faith are permitted to worship on Temple Mount itself, increasingly these rules have been flouted.
Also known as the ‘Golden Temple’, Harmandir Sahib is the most significant site in the Sikh religion. It is located in the city of Amritsar in north-west India and is one of the most famous buildings on the Indian sub-continent. Possibly only the Taj Mahal is more well known.
It was built by Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru, in the early 17th century. The temple was destroyed and rebuilt several times, and the building people visit today was constructed in the 1830s by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This is when the exterior was given its gold foil overlay. Its other distinctive features are the man-made lake in which it sits, called the ‘Pool of Nectar’, and the four open entrances, signifying that it is a place of worship for people of all faiths. Harmandir Sahib, which means the ‘House of God’, is one of several buildings that are central to Sikh life.
Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha
Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha in Southall is the largest Sikh temple in London, opened in 2003. ‘Gurdwara’ means place of worship and assembly. When Indian Sikhs arrived in Southall in the 1950s they initially worshipped in people’s homes and a community centre, before the move to a purpose-built site in the 1960s. The Havelock Road site was bought in 1997 and building began on the present Gurdwara in 2000.
The lavishly decorated building was opened by the Prince of Wales and has been visited by prime ministers, the Archbishop of Canterbury and party political leaders. Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha Southall is the largest Sikh institute outside of India and has been instrumental in improving the rights of Sikhs in the UK. The Gurdwara building in Southall is the hub of the local community, both Sikh and non-Sikh, and the kitchen provides free food for local people and can serve up to 20,000 meals a week.
The Nubian people originate from what is now Sudan and have predominantly settled in southern Egypt. Their architecture is incredibly distinctive. Houses with brightly coloured stucco facades are decorated with symbols and pictures, often related to their owners or their way of life. Palm trees and crocodiles are common motifs. The most famous Nubian villages are on the banks of the Nile close to Aswan in Egypt. The houses here are humble but wonderfully varied in colour and decoration. They are like nothing you have ever seen before!
Some are all the colours of the rainbow; others have softer hues and dashes of colour. The Nubian people have kept their traditions and culture alive through their colourful buildings, and while they are fiercely protective of their customs and language, they are welcoming to visitors and tourists. Anyone visiting Egypt should try and take a boat tour down the Nile to see the Nubian villages.