How life has transformed for the designer of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque courtyard

Briton Kevin Dean, who designed the Grand Mosque's impressive sahan, said it too more than 30 million pieces of marble to make designs.

British architectural designer Kevin Dean discusses his contribution during a tour of the Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. The mosque is the most popular tourist sight in the capital. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
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ABU DHABI // The artist who designed the intricate flowers and vines that adorn Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque said the project had transformed his life.

Before his work on the mosque, Englishman Kevin Dean was an acclaimed creator of botanic designs and illustrations, but had not worked on such a vast scale.

After sending in his portfolio, he was appointed by Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed, the former Deputy Prime Minister, who was responsible for the mosque’s construction, to design the walls and sahan, or courtyard, of the mosque, which was built between 1996 and 2007.

“Although I had worked on architectural design before, this was something quite different,” said Mr Dean, 56. “Also, the idea that it’s going to be here for many centuries to come, inshallah, has transformed my life.”

The designer, a graduate from the Royal College of Art in London, said he was regularly asked questions about the Grand Mosque in his home country.

“People have many misconceptions about Islam and mosques. I have explained to them that this was an international project and it didn’t matter that I was from the UK and I am not Muslim,” said Mr Dean.

Although the mosque has been finished for several years, he is still a regular visitor. This week, he returned to meet tour guides, students and visitors to discuss his work. “Because of my work at the Grand Mosque, I have work in the UAE and I have exhibitions in galleries here,” he said.

When he first arrived in Abu Dhabi in 2003, he was astounded by the size of the tract of desert that had been earmarked for the sahan, and equally amazed as he watched his designs turned into reality in the 17,600-square-metre plot.

Mr Dean believed the botanic designs reflected Founding President Sheikh Zayed’s love of nature.

“Sheikh Zayed had these concerns and I am always excited to hear about his conservation efforts,” he said.

During his talk at the mosque, he showed his audience pictures of the building while it was under construction.

Initially, Mr Dean suggested that the sahan should be blue, so the colours of the flowers would stand out. It was later decided, however, that white was a more suitable colour.

In total, 37 shades of marble are used in the sahan, originating from different parts of the world including Brazil and Italy.

For the flowers, he opted for irises, lilies, poppies, tulips, roses, jasmines and passifloras.

Members of the audience wished to know why certain flowers were used and if they reflected the Islamic vision of paradise. In fact, they are not symbols of Islam and are from places around the world.

Lorenzo Lotesto, the managing director of Fantini Mosaici, the company that created the designs in marble, was also present at the tour.

He said that the size of the sahan and time constraints were challenges.

“We had to hire 400 people in Abu Dhabi and, within a year, more than 30 million pieces of marble were numbered and put together to make designs,” he said.

Areej Mustafa, a 20-year-old Jordanian student on the tour, said she found it fascinating.

“Islam has five pillars and the jasmine depicted in the mosque has five petals,” said the environmental biology student at UAE University.

“The tour is a good way to know more that you would not know otherwise. All the information I heard today was new to me.”

Naama Al Shamsi, 20, an architecture engineering major at UAE University, was interested in “knowing how something was the inspiration and how it transformed into the form it took”.

“Mr Dean spoke about the jasmine flower and how it’s a theme. I found that very inspirational,” said the Emirati.