Rethinking Sacred Space

Laura Moffatt on Pier Vittorio Aureli and Maria Sheherazade Guidici’s Rituals and Walls: The Architecture of Sacred Space

Pier Vittorio Aureli and Maria Sheherazade Giudici, eds. Rituals and Walls: The Architecture of Sacred Space. Architectural Association, 2016, 250 pp., illustrated, £30.00
Pier Vittorio Aureli and Maria Sheherazade Giudici, eds. Rituals and Walls: The Architecture of Sacred Space. Architectural Association, 2016, 250 pp., illustrated, £30.00

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that architectural history is the most inclusive of studies. Far from simply interpreting bricks and mortar, town plans and geographical data, the student of architectural history (and, indeed, of architectural practice) must be able to nimbly navigate social, political, and religious histories, to name but a few related disciplines. This view is amply demonstrated by the Architectural Association’s recent volume Rituals and Walls, in which, with remarkable incisiveness and elegance, architecture students explore moments when religious history (predominantly of the Abrahamic faiths) intersects with architectural history.

Since its beginnings in 1847 in London, the Architectural Association has been a global leader in architectural training. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that in recent decades its methods have been particularly marked by new developments in critical theory and new philosophical perspectives on the built environment. Rituals and Walls is the direct result of such developments being incorporated into AA’s innovative architectural training. Coupled with hypothetical architectural projects – like Philip Turner’s new terminus that would cater for and accommodate in single cells the vast numbers of tourists and pilgrims visiting Rome –, the authors’ careful readings of our shared architectural past are brought to bear on contemporary concerns and aesthetics, providing an exciting means to interpret the interplay between religious and architectural space.

Though many of the student projects featured in Rituals and Walls deal with large-scale interventions that could never reach a city planner’s desk, to criticize this element of the book too heavily is to miss the point of the exercise. Indeed, it is the hypothetical nature of many of the projects that gives students the creative freedom to imagine how they might approach the daunting task of redesigning key historical sites, such as the gardens of Christ Church Spitalfields. (Christopher C Bissett, for example, would demolish many of the exquisitely preserved early eighteenth-century Georgian housing in the adjacent Fournier Street, some of the most celebrated urban heritage in the United Kingdom.) In doing so, the projects featured in this book ask important questions, questions such as “should and could there be a place for sizeable swathes of urban fabric to be cast aside so that religions are given proper space and privacy to convene for worship and prayer?” In many parts of the world, to answer in the affirmative would mean to yield to an utopian possibility. This volume’s pages, however, allow students to consider such ideas, giving them broad horizons in which to dream, with surprising results.

To build religious spaces as communities might envision them, without taking note of metropolitan heritage regulations, planning laws, or economic constraints, would be an astonishing reversal of most American and European urban priorities (though, arguably, this is already happening in places where, for example, mega-churches exist, or where Islam is the majority faith). Crucially, the AA authors’ proposals do not overplay the dominance of such architecture nor attempt to bypass current regulations, but rather imagine redesigning sacred sites in such a way that they might enmesh into the existing fabric of a city.  For example, Hessa AlBader’s essay “Stone Faces and Transparent Veils: The Woman’s Veil as Spatial Construct between Islam and Modernity” is complemented by a proposal for an Islamic Women’s Centre in Paris. The block AlBader designs sits very well between neighbouring Hausmannian facades and within its triangular site, and yet it conceals an intricate scheme of small domestic spaces, as well as courtyards – an inversion, as the author describes, of the orientation of the Hausmannian housing schemes towards the street.

This attention to the peripheries of the proposed site – or, as it’s more simply put in the book’s title, the walls – is crucial to many of the designs, and its authors’ general affirmation of walls as the very structures which define architecture’s presence is appealing. Basmah Kaki’s essay on “Haptic Space: Old Cairo’s Citadel and the Architecture of the Coptic Church,” to give another example, reveals the inherent significance of small and enclosed physical places within this minority Christian sect and is particularly evocative in the challenge it offers to conventional church architecture:

Many Coptic churches were built in unusual locations such as caves or ancient temples, … [and are] valued more for their sheer presence than for their visual or aesthetic identity – a take on space very much at odds with the development of sacred architecture in Christianity, which placed increasing importance on the visual and monumental impact of buildings, at the expense of the sense of touch, or ‘haptic’ quality.

Kaki goes on to examine these densely phenomenological places and offers “the idea of involving the body in the experience of the sacred,” which she argues is “a possibility that still remains to be explored by contemporary architecture.” Though architecture, together with the material aspects of liturgical practices, has not been altogether void of a sensibility towards the tactile, it would certainly enhance many contemporary architectural schemes if this interest were enhanced. More to the point, however, Kaki’s scheme for the “Completion of the Coptic Cairo Citadel” interests in its positive reassertion of a walled structure, one that might at first glance seem retrograde in its associations with defense and insularity. Surprisingly, her reconstructed wall, “rather than being a confrontational barrier to keep out the rest of the city …, [is] a space for new programmes and a strategy for rethinking the existing built tissue.”

Conversely, Graham Baldwin’s proposal for a multi-faith school in Strasbourg challenges the definition of periphery by completely doing away with the walls of the existing cathedral at its center. Baldwin’s plan extends the columns of the cathedral throughout a much larger grid accommodating a “wide hall oriented to Mecca for the mosque; [and] a square, centrally planned space focused on the speaker host[ing] the Protestant and Jewish temple.” Again, the zones for each of four religious communities are enmeshed rather than set apart, forming “a continuum of spaces bordered by the classrooms of the school.” Baldwin’s accompanying essay underscores his reasoning by taking us on a canter through “Ascetic images: Subjectivity and Abstraction in Sacred Imagery after the Reformation.” It comes to its conclusion with an analysis of Barnett Newman’s Onement I, 1948, distinctively “zipped” with a light cadmium line down the center of a darker red background. While Baldwin heralds Newman’s painting as “a paradigm for the ascetic image,” an image in which “the construction of the image […] becomes the thing that matters most,” it is difficult to gauge whether he might be asserting a similar responsibility for architecture that strives to achieve the same level of significance through its “very means of construction,” or whether he is simply making an art historical point. Either way, there is much to be gained from having such essays – as well as the three introductory essays by the book’s editors and course tutors, Pier Vittorio Aureli and Maria Sheherazade Guidici with Hamed Khosravi – prefigure the architectural proposals that, by contrast, lighten the content and format of the book. The volume marries an informal paperback feel with that of more academic texts. Very occasionally a hint of color appears in one of the architectural drawings, but otherwise its black and white format – in all of its text and throughout the historical plates underlying each of the essays – wears its egalitarianism on its sleeve and is reassuringly non-flashy.

It is true that Turner’s Pilgrim’s Accommodation in Rome, “realised entirely in concrete” (what happened to building in sustainable materials?), resembles, in one CAD image, a prison with vast corridors of cells for single occupation aligned in a horseshoe plan around the central rail terminus, which might not be compatible with Rome’s greater historic topography. It is also true that Bissett’s horticultural ingression into London’s Spitalfields is disruptive to current notions of conservation. However, the forward-looking direction of Aureli and Guidici’s book of projects and short essays (and implicitly in the method of architectural education in London from which it stems) is something that ought to figure in much more prominently in architecture for religious communities. Setting aside practical concerns of planning permission, or the rights and wrongs of historical precedents, this interlude of hypotheses and wild imaginative conjecture is at the least refreshing and, more seriously, a lesson in new perspectives.

Laura Moffatt is Director of Art + Christianity Enquiry, a leading UK-based organization in the study and practice of visual arts and religion. She is also co-author of Contemporary Church Architecture (John Wiley, 2009) and a member of the Church Buildings Council for the Church of England.