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Prayer and property development: AF exhibition explores the spaces of spirituality

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The Architecture Foundation has curated an intelligent cut through contemporary spaces of spiritual worship, assembly and memorial – and the need to balance the mystic with mammon, says Rob Wilson 

The Architecture Foundation’s Congregation exhibition explores the spaces of spirituality today – and how the sacred and the secular are now intimately bound up. The 23 projects on show range from retrofits and renovations that enable new ways to populate and pay for the upkeep of existing buildings – particularly old churches, which are often costly to maintain and underused – to a rich variety of new-build places of worship, which are accommodating and representing the changing or growing faith communities of the UK. 

Jointly curated by foundation director Ellis Woodman and assistant curator of public programmes Rosie Gibbs-Stevenson, the exhibition includes Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist faith-spaces and ones for more niche faiths like the spiritual organisation White Eagle Lodge.  Altogether it presents a useful overview of the different forms in which spiritual architecture is both evolving and adapting in the UK. ‘We were interested in the changing nature of religious buildings today and how it’s being changed by new socio-economic pressures’, says Woodman. 



Source: Chris Cooper

Appropriately, the exhibition is being held in the crypt of Dow Jones’ recent refurbishment and extension to St Mary Magdalene Paddington, a Grade I-listed church designed by GE Street, which is itself a case study in imaginative adaptive use. Having seen its regular congregation dwindle to a handful, the supplementary spaces and improved accessibility that the new building provides have seen the church reinvent itself as Grand Junction, a community, arts and culture venue, accommodating events from baby yoga and a women’s theatre group to creative writing evening classes for the over-50s.

The Grand Junction project is included in the first section of the exhibition which focuses on conversion and extension of existing structures. This also includes examples such as Matthew Lloyd Architects’ St Mary of Eton in Hackney (2014) scheme, the full-throated brick-patterning of its new housing blocks echoing the patterning on the 19th-century GF Bodley church they surround. 

St mary of eton matthew lloyd

St mary of eton matthew lloyd

Source: Matthew Lloyd Architects

St Mary of Eton by Matthew Lloyd Architects

The next section considers new-build examples that creatively mix uses to help support and deliver faith spaces, from Gatti Routh Rhodes’ quietly impressive Bethnal Green Mission Church (2018), which combines the church with key-worker housing and co-working spaces to Denizen Works’ upcoming ‘floating church’-cum-community space, designed to be moored in newly-developed areas that lack an existing church. 

One section explores new buildings creating focuses and urban identities for faith communities in cities. It shows how the architectural language shifts between traditional forms and contemporary references and materials – from the abstractly tree-like glulam columns of Marks Barfield’s Mosque in Cambridge to the tiny timber Belarussian Chapel designed by Spheron Architects in North Finchley (2017). 

Cambridge central mosque marks barfield morley von sternberg 2

Cambridge central mosque marks barfield morley von sternberg 2

Source: Morley von Sternberg

Cambridge Central Mosque by Marks Barfield Architects

A focus is the idea of the retreat, including recent projects like Walters & Cohen’s fine near-monastic Vajrasana Buddhist Retreat in Suffolk (2016) and the spiritualist complex being built in Hampshire by James Gorst Architects for the White Eagle Lodge. The latter’s severe Neoclassical geometries and scale suggest nothing so much as a Renaissance painting of an Ideal City – one project for which money seems less of an object than for other schemes. 

The exhibition comes to a fitting close with a section on spaces of memorial and burial. This includes Waugh Thistleton’s satisfyingly grounded and tactile project for the Jewish Cemetery in Bushey (2017) and Patrick Lynch’s austere garden of remembrance at Westminster Coroner’s Court, completed in 2018 for the first anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire. A final project is included that is free of formal faith: a burial barrow designed by the Sacred Stones, a company ’dedicated to creating meaningful resting places’ – although of course for a fee.  

Bushey jewish cemetery waugh thistleton blake ezra

Bushey jewish cemetery waugh thistleton blake ezra

Source: Blake Ezra

Bushey Jewish Cemetery by Waugh Thistleton

It’s an eclectic thoughtful mix of projects that highlight the surprising volume of faith-spaces still being designed in the UK today, all nicely brought together in a light-touch installation design by Simon Jones Studio.  

The exhibition is open until this Saturday 7 March.

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