Have Faith: Spiritual & Communal identity


Major changes in the global faith community has brought exciting new opportunities to express spiritual and communal identity, says Veronica Simpson.


We live in changing times – something the shifting tectonic plates of global and domestic politics in 2016 have demonstrated dramatically.

But, one of the most significant transformations of our lives in the West over the past 40 years is our attitude to religion. No longer can we regard church or faith as being a central aspect of people’s daily lives: according to a recent National Census, the number of people who say they have no religion (defined as ‘nones’) is escalating and significantly outweighs the Christian population in England and Wales.

The proportion of the UK population who describe themselves as Anglican has halved since 1983 – it was 44.5 per cent then, but in 2014 it was only 19 per cent. Those who identify as having no religion reached 48.5 per cent in 2014 and the Church of England has stated that it expects church attendance to continue falling for another 30 years. Not only are millennials spurning organised religion, but four out of 10 adults who were raised as Anglicans now define themselves as having no religion, while almost as many raised Catholic regard themselves as ‘nones’.

Jumma Mosque, DohaJumaa Mosque, Doha

However, in a global, multifaith context, adherence to religion is growing rather than decreasing, with Islam to the fore. The number of Muslims is predicted to grow more than twice as fast as the world’s population, from now until 2050 (according to the Pew Research Centre). It will outstrip Christianity in the second half of the 21st century. In 2010 Muslims were 23.2 per cent of the global population, but by 2050 they are predicted to represent 29.7 per cent, while Christianity (just over 31 per cent currently) will fall. Islam in the UK is experiencing a surge in vitality, as South Asian immigrants and their children find comfort in the belief systems of the past – about half of British Muslims are under 25, according to a report by the British Religion in Numbers (BRIN) organisation.

But other religions are also diluting the mix, as immigration and demographic change are leading to greater religious diversity, mixed marriages have become more common, and people are sampling a mixture of belief systems. And new forms of Christianity are emerging – Pentecostalism and the ‘New Church’ movement are on the rise.

Sydhaven New ChurchSydhaven New Church

But what does this mean for architecture and design? There are plenty of Christian groups pioneering an approach where the building itself doesn’t matter – declaring that evangelism can flourish in a wide variety of spaces and not just those burdened with stained glass windows and six-figure bills for roof repair. A 2016 Guardian article said: ‘There are warehouse churches, skate-park churches, bakery churches, garage prayer-rooms, churches that meet in pubs, that meet in houses.’ Fresh Expressions is the collective term for these places of prayer.

But there are increasing opportunities to bring new life to existing faith spaces, with a growing number of ‘festival churches’ – churches that have reinvented themselves as village halls, market spaces, and venues for music and dance classes or yoga.

Vajrasana Buddhist Retreat CentreVajrasana Buddhist Retreat Centre

The Churches Conservation Trust has recently helped St Paul’s Church in Bristol to relaunch itself as a venue for the Circomedia training school. 2016 saw 10 out of the Trust’s 394 buildings convert themselves to ‘champing’ sites (camping). St Mary-at-the-Quay in Ipswich, a Grade II listed medieval building, has just become a branch of Suffolk Mind, the mental health charity. In Portsmouth, St Cuthbert’s in Copnor holds a GP surgery and a pre-school. The article’s author, Tobias Jones (the author of A Place of Refuge) feels there is nothing particularly new or wrong in these reinventions. Even in medieval times priests were arguably bringing people to the church through literature, art and culture.

But, sometimes, the shifting demands of faith groups are translated into spectacular opportunities, which contemporary architects – regardless of denomination – are seizing with relish. For example, in the last year, John McAslan + Partners has opened not one but two significant new faith spaces outside of the UK.

Sacred Heart Cathedral Of KerichoSacred Heart Cathedral Of Kericho

In 2015, the practice completed a vast Catholic Cathedral, capable of accommodating 1,500 worshippers, in the tea plantation area of Kenya (see case study for The Sacred Heart Cathedral of Kericho). And, more recently, it has opened a stunning new mosque in the Msheireb Heritage Quarter area of Doha.

Project architect and director Hannah Lawson, who leads JMP’s culture and education team, says: ‘Working on a mosque and a religious building is an incredible opportunity.

It comes with a great responsibility. You feel the expectation and the requirement to deliver something truly moving and experiential as well as all the other functional things it needs.’

Lawson applied herself with great care while addressing the issue of: ‘How you create that moment in someone’s experience of being in a building in prayer?’

Luckily, in both cases, strong guidance came from the clients. In the case of the Kenyan Cathedral, the building is a focus and a resource for the entire diocese, and needed to establish itself as a part of the community’s everyday rituals (there is a small chapel within the compound for daily prayer) as well as big events. With the mosque, Lawson and her team were encouraged to introduce elements of modernity into a historic typology. ‘We immediately began to consider the role of a mosque, and began to look at the mosques in Qatar,’ she says. ‘They were very particular.

Bishop Edward King Chapel, CuddestonBishop Edward King Chapel, Cuddesdon

They have an extraordinary simplicity. And they had an incredible sequence – this kind of layering of experience. They were these beautiful, raw buildings, but with a sequence – a series of gateways, thresholds from the outer public space to the inner, most private one.

‘This idea of thresholds played a strong role, not just in housing the faith experience but in the wider community: people might have made a really long journey or pilgrimage to get there, so it was important to welcome them into the outer courtyard, and offer shelter and shade.

This very strong sense of thresholds ended up relating not just to uses [of the space] but creating an inner sanctuary within a very urban site. At each stage the adornment gets stronger. It starts quite austere and then it builds up so that, in the prayer hall, the decorative elements are far more significant.’

New faith spaces offer an opportunity for evolution – social and cultural. And one of the key moves Lawson’s team made was to put the women’s prayer hall in the upper level, on a mezzanine overlooking the main prayer hall.

As Lawson pointed out, women are often required to pray in separate rooms or even basements. She says: ‘We wanted to elevate and celebrate the role that women play. Qatar has had very strong female leaders, who have played pivotal roles in Msheireb. So, they were given a strong position in the mosque and we wanted them to equally benefit from that light that is cast on to them during prayer. It was about unity and equality.’

Of course Western architects have to be incredibly careful about imposing their own cultural norms on other nationalities, but of invaluable help in this respect was a female member of the Qatari client team. Says Lawson: ‘We were able to work with her on the women’s entrance. She was really supportive and pushing us at every step. We had to make a number of significant presentations and consultations with the religious body that manages the mosques across Qatar and the Imam was involved. So, it really was a fantastic process; really collaborative.’

One of the most uplifting aspects of the project was the freedom from imagery and iconography that typified the region’s mosques. Says Lawson: ‘It was incredible to find another way to express through light and form and geometry the same kind of presence.

Then look at the Roman Catholic cathedral and you take all those strands about the power of light and geometry and the cathedral is actually a wedge shape that gathers everyone together at its widest point. The whole form of the building has been about gathering people together, almost around a campfire.

Jumma Mosque, DohaJumaa Mosque, Doha

The building opens up its arms towards the altar. And it almost represents man on the cross in the plan. So, it’s really nice to be able to do the mosque…and then in Africa working with the local community on something much more handcrafted.’

The experience of designing these buildings has impacted on the JMP team in more ways than one, says Lawson: ‘One of the things that’s come from it is that whenever we’re doing masterplans, we think: where’s the building of faith? – never used to do. Where’s faith in the contemporary masterplan? It’s absent. But we site a school building, a retail area, and residential.

It’s interesting working with these countries where it’s still paramount. When you work in muslim countries, in every masterplan there’s a strategy for where you site the mosques.

With the increasing diversity, in London and elsewhere, how do we provide that space? if we don’t provide it in the masterplan, it ends up being located in secondary buildings or have existing buildings repurposed as mosques or churches. It’s not necessarily a negative. But there’s a missed opportunity.’

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