Making Suburban Faith: The First Year

Making Suburban Faith

The project so far…

Making Suburban Faith has had a very busy and productive first year for the project. This is a quick update of some of the highlights – do follow the links for more details.

January saw the launch of our project and the start date for Dr. Nazneen Ahmed, the project research associate, new PhD students Natalie Hyacinth and Laura Cuch and part-time administrator Christian Sayer. This first year on the project has been characterised by in-depth work with our case studies in Ealing but also lots of early opportunities to present our work-in-progress to diverse audiences. In the first month of the project we notched up two presentations, with Natalie and David presenting a first paper reflecting on the role of music and creativity in suburban faith communities at Southbank and Naz presenting at the Everyday Muslim Symposium and reflecting on the links between her work on Muslim communities and archives in East and West London.
The key focus for this first phase of the research project, led by Nazneen’s research, is to compile an in-depth understanding about the architectural and design history of our case study buildings. Thus Naz has spent many hours exploring the miscellaneous archives of the faith communities themselves, who have generously shared their records with us, as well as time at Ealing planning department and the archives of architects and artists. She’s also undertaken interviews with faith leaders, planners, architects, stained glass artists and sculptors. This work has already generated some early papers. In June Nazneen presented ‘Behind the Stained Glass: Gender, Design Processes and the Crafting of Sacred Space’ at the School of Architecture at the University of Canterbury reflecting on the significance of women stained glass artists while ‘Religious Objects in Motion: three Ealing case studies’ at the University of Cambridge drew a comparative perspective on the importance of travelling religious objects in the shaping of sacred spaces. We also have two co-written papers reflecting on the making of suburban congregational spaces. ‘Building the Sacred in Suburbia’ draws on the Ealing case studies to argue that improvisation, reinvention and innovation characterise the creation of places of worship in the suburbs. A forthcoming paper in Interiors: Design/Architecture/Culture ‘The Sacred and the Suburban: Atmospherics, numinosity and 1930s interiors in Ealing, London’ compares the architectural space of Edward Maufe’s St Thomas the Apostle Anglican Church with the atmospheric ‘Spanish City’ 1930s cinema now used by the Elim Pentecostal Church in a co-written piece which includes a photo essay by Laura Cuch.
Aided by an additional grant from the Connected Communities Festival 2015 we were able to develop some additional public engagement activities related to this phase of the research. Prompted by the challenges for faith communities in maintaining their archives we held a ‘Sharing Memories’ Coffee Morning at Our Lady and St Joseph’s Church inviting parishioners to share photos and reminiscences of church life. We hope to share the materials we collected with the church and carry out similar events at the other case study venues. We also held a stall at the Hanwell Carnival as a means to promote the project and generate new audiences through interactive kids’ activities and a local mapping exercise which has shaped our project map. Participation in the annual ‘Beating the Bounds’ walk before the Carnival prompted some early thinking about public space and suburban faith, thinking particularly about processions and linking the parochial practice of ‘Beating the Bounds’ with new street processions like the Chariot Festival at the Hindu temple.

Our major collaborative project this year has been our student architecture project Architectures of Shared Space. Working with our partners at the award winning international architectural firm, MangeraYvars, we developed a ten week project with Year 12 and Year 13 students at Brentside High School in Ealing. Students were challenged to design a new faith space for Ealing, imagined as a space which would allow diverse faith communities to meet and to worship. The workshops and designs at different stages of the project are outlined on our website and involved students in field trips to our case study places of worship, visits to UCL Bartlett Architecture School and a final presentation at Royal Holloway (Bedford Square) to an architect’s jury. The designs will be taken forward by Mangera Yvars and form part of an exhibition which opens in spring 2016 at UCL, Royal Holloway and venues in Ealing.
Alongside our work on the buildings we’ve also been working with the faith communities themselves to develop preliminary insights into the material culture and creative life of religion. At St Thomas’ the Apostle, Claire has been interviewing older members of the congregation about the making of the distinctive kneelers in the church and presented ‘‘Sacred stitching: intersections of domesticity, femininity and religious labour in the making of the interwar suburban church’ at Historical Geographers Annual Conference in London in July while Nazneen’s reflections on the devotional creativity at the Hindu temple formed the basis for a co-written paper with David and Claire for a session on the Geographies of Amateur Creativities at the Annual Conference of the RGS-IBG in Exeter in September subsequently developed at an invited symposium at the University of Warwick.
The project PhD students have both already made a substantive contribution to the wider project and it’s exciting to see their individual projects begin to emerge. Natalie was recruited to the project to undertake a PhD project based in Geography at Royal Holloway, with a second supervisor Henry Stobart from music. Natalie has already developed the conceptual and theoretical ideas for her project on the significance of music in suburban faith communities presenting at both the Singing from the same hymn sheet symposium in January and at a related session at the Emotional Geographies Conference in July. She has also begun in-depth ethnographic research within the faith communities themselves; working with the music producers and recording artists at Ealing Christian Centre; working with Tamil musicians at the Shri Kanaga Amman Hindu Temple and at a Tamil School where she is learning the traditional instrument the Veena and singing with the choir of St Thomas’ Church. Natalie is also exploring innovative ideas for collaboration and composition bringing together the different faith communities with whom she is working.
Laura was appointed to undertake at PhD at UCL focusing on faith and material cultures of the home. As an established photographer, Laura has elected to undertake a practice-led PhD using photography as her main methodology and Dryden Goodwin from UCL Slade has joined her supervisory team. Laura has given some initial conference presentations which have drawn connections between her theoretical work on geographies of home and religion and her previous photographic work, speaking at the Geffrye Museum symposium on Home and art: creating, performing and researching home in May and at the Emotional Geographies Conference in Edinburgh in July. She also gave a presentation at the postgraduate research day at the Centre for the Study of the Home (Geffrye Museum) in October setting out a preliminary practice-led project on the ‘domestic’ work done in congregational spaces. In the last two months Laura has begun to document some of the cooking, cleaning and maintenance work undertaken in different places of worship including cooking for events at the mosque, the Hindu temple, ECC and church cleaning and preparing food for the homeless at Our Lady and St Joseph’s.
We look forward to further public engagement events in 2016. We’ve enjoyed invitations to speak both within seminar series at UCL and Royal Holloway, as discussant at Middlesex University as well as guest lectures at the University of Manchester (Department of Theology and Religious Studies and CODE), a keynote talk at the Faith and Place Symposium at Roehampton and at the University of Sussex and a symposium on Religion and the Global City at the University of Kent.
We are grateful for the support and interaction we have had so far on the project and look forward to developing it further over the coming year.