In the modern city, God is found in the most unlikely places, from warehouses to bingo halls. These new religious buildings add fascinating layers to the urban experience, finds Eddie Blake
London is changing. Precarious and tender pieces of the polis are being quietly added and adapted, away from the rush of transport infrastructure and housing developments. It’s here in these small changes – an adjusted shopfront or a reused railway arch – that we find the city’s shifting identity.
Sometimes the temporary, ephemeral nature of the architecture is the point. In making temporary buildings there is a buzzing collision of the symbolic and the pragmatic. The sukkot [singlar: sukkah] of Stamford Hill are perfect examples of additions bringing new life to old buildings. These are temporary booths set up for the week-long Sukkot festival, celebrating the harvest and reminding Jews of the wilderness. One of the key aspects of the festival is the time spent dwelling in these temporary booths – they sometimes appear ten floors up on tower block balconies, or in the front gardens of Victorian terraces.
These objects are often the product of a family effort. ‘I would say we grew up decorating the sukkot rather than making them – that was a job mostly left to the adults,’ says architect David Neustein. ‘We’d make drawings or paper chains that would hang inside them, and as we grew up we’d start helping to fix tarpaulin to the outside to keep out wind and rain, or lifting palm branches onto the roof, or stringing up the party lights.’
Sometimes prefab steel kits are used: 2m wide, 3m long and 1.9m tall portions of temporary city, reaching back through thousands of years of tradition, for one week only. The act of building the sukkah is one of the 613 mitzvot – good deeds – and it is customary to start erecting it immediately after ending the fast for Yom Kippur, which is the holiest day of the Jewish year.
Neustein, reminiscing about his own childhood sukkah, says, ‘In my recollection, it seemed to always rain heavily during the month of October and so there would be days when the weather was simply too miserable to go outside. We would eat dinner in the sukkah while curious passers-by poked their heads over the gate to inspect the funny tiki-bar style structure with tropical fruit lights that had suddenly materialised in the front courtyard of my dad’s newly built pomo suburban house. By the time I became an adolescent I found this weird display – we were one of the only Jewish families in our neighbourhood, and certainly the only one with a sukkah – excruciatingly embarrassing.’
Shopfront mosques are another prominent, if relatively new example of London’s vital contemporary world of architecture made without architects (see Icon 183). They exist due to a particular combination of economic and social drivers: the struggling high street, the requirements of Muslim congregations, and the state of the UK land economy. If religious buildings represent prayers recast as stone, then these prayers must be a direct line to God.
At a grander scale, perhaps due to the historic importance of Christianity in the UK, are contemporary churches. There is a current trend for Pentecostal and evangelical churches reusing large derelict buildings in UK inner cities. Despite the overall decline in church-going across the country, London’s evangelical churches are thriving. The biggest have over 2,000 worshippers every Sunday, filling former cinema seats with believers. The buildings themselves tell a story about the different ways we have come together over time.
In the early 20th century, mass entertainment came to the high street. Cinema was a communal experience with radical potential, housed in purpose-built often art deco or moderne architecture. These buildings are a fixture in the UK’s towns and cities. For a while bingo halls and pubs took over: the Coronet on London’s Holloway Road, or Cosmo Bingo in Eccles. This represented a shift away from cinema to TV as the entertainment of choice. But in recent years there has been another trend, from pubs or bingo halls to churches.
As the function superficially changed, some components of the use remained. The bingo caller replaced the silver screen, and was in turn replaced by the pastor. The audience is always in rapture. These spaces are being repurposed essentially because they provide enough seating for an audience or congregation.
New churches aren’t all megachurches in former bingo halls. Many are found on industrial estates, in converted warehouses, bringing new life to corners of the city that are under-developed. Some have taken over open-plan offices. Christianity has an uneasy relationship with money; architecture brings this tension to the surface. Suspended ceiling tiles, the ultimate artefact of late 20th-century commercial office space, now float about worshippers. They once represented money; not money in a opulent sense, but the dull hum of business. Planning plays a key role in how these buildings change. Converting them from use class D2 (assembly and leisure) to D1 (non-residential) is an easy step.
Out in the suburbs, there are other artefacts of these negotiations. Best seen at night, South Asian wedding lights are an astonishing contribution to the streetscape. They also have the uncanny ability to change the shape of buildings, the pattern of the lights strung up around a building negating the existing architecture through superimposition.
South Asian wedding lights have a parallel in the newer tradition of extreme Christmas lights. These are displays of commitment, perhaps not to the birth of Christ, but to the spirit of Christmas. Father Christmas climbing down the fake chimney; baby Jesus in the manger on the front lawn; ‘Merry Christmas’ picked out in incandescent lightbulb letters visible from space.
Construction itself – the way stuff is arranged, how wall meets floor, insulation, membranes and lintels – is not just a practical, inevitable way of making a building. It is an expression of cultural beliefs. The inexpressible is contained within the expressed building. The organisation of structure or drainage is more than simply the arrangement of components, it encodes a belief system into the fabric of architecture. So it’s not only the symbolic content of the elements of the mosque or sukkah, church or wedding celebration lights which hold significance about the religious belief, but the way the elements are compiled.
For those who can remember a time before the 1990s, the changes to the once-familiar fabric of British cities can feel unsettling. But all of these new components of the city are valuable. They sit in a different category to most of the other manifestations of London’s growth – they do not represent international finance or deregulated housing. They carve out a little space for community, and a genuine new London vernacular.