Dr. Nazneen Ahmed
Our first workshop at Brentside High School took place in one of the school’s fantastic design studios in the autumnal light of a late afternoon on 1st October 2015. It was my first time visiting the school and there was evidence everywhere you looked that this is a school that prizes design and creativity in all its forms, and a perfect partner for us in this endeavour!
We had to spend some time in this session introducing ourselves, the wider project and the tasks and goals of the architecture project which I’ve informally titled “Ealing Building Faith”. We were conscious of not overloading our volunteers with too much so kept the opening presentations short and to the point. Santi from MangeraYvars Architects explained their role in the project and profiled some of their hugely inspiring, innovative work. David spoke about the aims of the architecture workshop, and what would be expected of the students and what they might get in return – design experience with a leading professional architect, visits to UCL and lots of CV-worthy skills. Natalie spoke about how students on their forthcoming field trip might want to think about how sound works in religious space and her own research interests in religious music and the way in which religious and other kinds of music feature in people’s everyday lives.
In trying to illustrate the wider aims of the project and why faith buildings are important sites for us to look at in terms of design and the ways people live their lives, but also to let students know a bit more about me, I spent a few minutes mapping the different religious sites that have meant something to me in my life, from childhood onwards. It was a really interesting exercise to do personally, because it showed me how both iconic and everyday religious buildings have featured in my life narrative – and it provided a model of the interactive mapping exercise that was to follow.
In the first of two interactive exercises in this workshop, we gave the students large A3 maps of the local area and pins and post it notes and asked them to map one space of worship in the area (or environs) that meant something to them. The responses to this were more mixed than I had perhaps expected. What was striking coming from focusing on religious spaces and the people that inhabit them on a daily basis, to working with a broader cross-section of students from a variety of ethnic and class backgrounds, was that faith played an important role for a few students in their present lives, but for many, had been much more a feature of their younger childhood years. Many had, to some extent, “grown out” of religion at this stage, or it had been displaced by other priorities. So it was the case that a couple of students pointed to places on the map, and said “I go here”, but the broader majority identified places they used to go with their families, or would go to on particular festive occasions. Some expressed that they don’t have faith (one declared herself as an “atheist, but interested in why others have faith”) and a few struggled to think of a place that meant anything to them at all. But in discussing their childhood places of worship, many in describing them to me, articulated a sense of pride and ownership of those spaces (that they no longer attended regularly). Some showed pictures on their phones of these spaces and talked about how beautiful they were and how they would love to go more often. Religious spaces continue to hold great emotional significance even if you’ve stopped attending – they trigger associated memories of festivals, family gatherings, of food, special clothes, of the journeys taken to get there.
The second exercise was more creative and asked students to begin to think like designers. The 18 students were split into small groups and given a set of craft materials – including coloured card, lolly sticks, polystyrene balls and foam sheets – and asked to work together to design a faith building – any faith building. The results were pretty amazing given the short amount of time they had – I certainly would have struggled to come up with anything at all. The designs ranged from the playful – a water slide with inbuilt whole-body air dryer:
to the conceptual – a circular, roofed structure without walls to act as a space of reflection and meditation for those of faith and none, inclusivity encourage by the wall-less design:
The designers of this structure wanted to incorporate a play area for children (represented by the pink pipe cleaner climbing frame), noting how difficult it was for parents with young children to pray without being distracted:
We had such a range of responses which were already engaging with notions of structure and space and also some key ideas. What makes a faith building welcoming? Could a religious space also be fun? How do children interact with religious buildings differently to adults – and could more be built into them for children? It was hugely promising for the bigger design tasks over the next few weeks.