Professor David Gilbert
March 11th 2016 saw Making Suburban Faith hold our first symposium, on the theme of Architecture, Creativity and the Spaces of Everyday Faith. It was an unseasonably warm and sunny day, and also a big day for the project, with a presentation of the Architecture project with Brentside School and Mangera Yvars to follow in an event that evening. The Symposium took place in the grand surroundings of Royal Holloway’s centre in Bloomsbury, a recently refurbished town-house in Bedford Square.
The symposium brought together different perspectives on the relationship between built form and the characteristics of faith and worship. While our project is focused on suburbia, the symposium broadened out to discuss other perspectives on the spaces of everyday faith. This included academics with an interest in design and architectural history; other academics and practitioners involved in the planning and conservation of religious buildings; practicing architects with experience in the making of new faith spaces or the conversion of other buildings; and faith leaders and worshippers of different faiths, theological positions and liturgical traditions. Please click through for copies of the programme and abstracts.
Claire Dwyer (PI, UCL) and David Gilbert welcomed the participants, and opened the day by introducing the main elements of the project, but particularly setting it in some key contexts: the revival of geographies of religion; work on the relationships between migration, diasporic faiths and suburbia; new thinking about buildings as assemblages and as ‘more-than-architecture’; recent approaches to material religion and ‘everyday’ religious practices; and the ‘creative’ turn in cultural geography. They also set out some key themes for the day, drawn from the published work of the participants. These included:
thinking about the significance of different styles of building in different places and at different times; the issue of agency in relation to faith buildings, particularly the complex relationships between architects, religious authorities, local faith leaders, worshippers, politicians, planners and wider publics; and the social and geographic contexts of faith buildings.
The day was divided into three sessions, broadly themed as ‘Histories’, ‘Designs’ and ‘Governance, planning and communities’. The first session opening with Robert Proctor (Bath University) discussing the Catholic church architecture of the company of Reynolds & Scott. Reynolds and Scott were based in Manchester, and maintained a traditional approach in the face of architectural modernism and changes in liturgical approaches. Robert discussed the ways that these supposedly ordinary or even mundane buildings contained design elements of quality and beauty, and responded to their suburban settings. The session stayed in Manchester for Angela Connelly’s paper (Manchester University). Angela examined religious planning for the suburbs in the 1945 City of Manchester Plan, contrasting planned and unplanned religious building in the post-war city. Clare Canning (Leicester University) gave the final paper in the morning session looking at the formation and development of gurdwaras in the UK. Clare’s innovative work involving in-depth walking interviews with Sangat (congregation) members revealed the skills and creativity involved in both conversions and newly-build gurdwaras.
The focus after lunch turned to thinking about design. One of the highlights of the day came from architect and academic Shahed Saleem in his paper ‘We don’t want a multicultural minaret, we want an Islamic minaret’: tradition and symbol in the making of Muslim architecture in Britain. This worked carefully through the design process for a new Mosque in the East End of London, where Saleem was the architect. It looked at the aspirations for the mosque and tensions between architectural ambition and the community’s desires for a more ‘historic’ design. Katerina Alexiou and Theodore Zamenopoulos (Open University) then discussed their current AHRC project that is attempting to empower faith community design practices, seeking to improve wider connections and to address social needs. The final paper of the session was given by Stephen Foley of Mangera Yvars Architects, a key player in Making Suburban Faith’s architectural project. Stephen talked through the principles and approaches of MYAA in their work, including very different Islamic buildings in Harrow and Qatar.
The final session turned to issues of politics, governance and planning. Richard Gale (Cardiff University) examined the changing socio-demographic characteristics of British cities, presenting new work from Cardiff. Richard highlighted the ways that while diversity, while diversity was viewed as a normative ‘good’ in many localities, that are limits to interaction and mixing beyond certain kinds of mundane encounter. Richard talked about an emerging ethics of acceptance, and the potential of spaces and practices leading to a culture of what he described as ‘mundane mutuality’. In the final paper, Nazneen Ahmed (UCL) from the Making Suburban Faith project looked at the planning processes and culture for religious building in contemporary West London. Looking particularly at examples from Ealing, Naz showed both the ways that the local state’s commitment to religious diversity was being degraded by austerity politics, but also how different faith groups work the system through significant expertise in architecture, planning and local politics.
An extensive final discussion covered some of the key themes of the day, and allowed some of those who had not given formal papers to express their ideas. Father Robert Chapman, vicar of St. Thomas’ Hanwell, one of the Making Suburban Faith case studies, develops his thoughts about some of the issues raised in the symposium in a blog post here. David Gilbert in wrapping up returned to themes of style, agency and discussed the way that the day had opened up new perspectives on supposedly ordinary religious spaces in supposedly mundane contexts. There was he suggested also a strong theme running through the day about craft, materials and the role of religion in the beautification of places and spaces, whether seen theologically as sacred, or merely separate and apart.