Beauty in bloom
The British architectural designer Kevin Dean shares the story of his Abu Dhabi mosaic masterpiece.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is not short of superlatives. It’s one of the largest mosques in the world, with room for more than 40,000 worshippers. It houses the biggest Swarovski crystal chandelier in the world, and the biggest hand-woven carpet – a 5,700m2 marvel made by 1,200 artisans. Also, its central courtyard, or sahan, may well be the world’s largest marble mosaic, incorporating some 30 million individual pieces.
Perhaps most surprising is the story behind that spectacular courtyard, with its colourful, swirling floral design, which is the work of Kevin Dean, a British artist and architectural designer. He was invited to send his portfolio to Sheikh Sultan (the son of Abu Dhabi’s late ruler, Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, after whom the mosque is named) in 2001. ‘The Sheikh liked what he saw,’ says Kevin, ‘and I was invited to go and visit the mosque. At that time it was a building site, and the courtyard floor was just a desert. Sheikh Sultan showed me a sketch of what he wanted – literally drawn on the back of an envelope – and it was very similar to work I had done as a textile designer.’
After graduating from London’s Royal College of Art in 1982, Kevin began his career in formal botanical illustration before moving into textile design for high street names including Marks & Spencer and John Lewis. But the Grand Mosque mosaic was a project on another scale entirely – a 17,000m2 blank canvas, to be exact. Rather than a traditional Islamic geometric design, the Sheikh’s vision was for an inclusive, international space that would bring together East and West, and welcome people of all faiths and cultures. A flower motif seemed the natural choice, but how to choose the precise kinds of flowers?
‘I come from a long line of gardeners and farmers, so it’s in my genes,’ says Kevin. ‘I felt it ought to be a fairly international line-up, so there are flowers that are recognisable from all over the world. A lot of them – tulips and roses and so forth – do actually grow in the Middle East, in the “fertile crescent” as it’s called. They were flowers I knew very well, and I thought they would resonate with visitors.’
As well as designing the central courtyard, Kevin worked on a number of other areas, such as internal walls, floors and archways. ‘In the south entrance I used flowers that can be found in the southern hemisphere, and in the north entrance flowers from the northern hemisphere,’ he explains. ‘And then in the main prayer hall, flowers from the Middle East.’ These include jasmine for the north entrance, red frangipani for the south entrance, and morning glories and a desert plant called Pergularia tomentosa in the main prayer hall. ‘The idea was that it should convey the fact that Islam is an international faith – and Sheikh Sultan liked that,’ says Kevin.
His intricate watercolour designs for the courtyard were transferred to marble by Italian mosaic specialists Fantini Mosaici. ‘I can’t claim all the glory – I just did the easy bit,’ he says, modestly. ‘I didn’t have to cut out all the marble and fit the jigsaw together.’ He did make several trips to Fantini Mosaici’s workshop in Tuscany, however, to see his vision brought to life. ‘It was very exciting,’ he recalls. ‘They would stack up the recurring elements, such as leaves or petals, then somehow bring them all together in 2m2 concrete base sections. These were shipped to Abu Dhabi to be put in place.’ At the height of construction in the courtyard, it took up to 400 workers at any one time to complete the mosaic by painstakingly filling the gaps with tiny white stones between the recurring sections.
Completed in 2007, the mosque has rapidly become Abu Dhabi’s most popular attraction. For Kevin Dean, it has been a career-defining project, and one that holds a special place in his heart. ‘It’s my 60th birthday this year,’ he reveals, ‘and my family have never been to the mosque. I’m hoping that we can all go there at some point this year. That will be pretty special.’