Matilde Cassani

Sacred Interiors in Profane Buildings

Imagine the city as a continuous system of inner spaces: a succession of places where people eat, sleep, work, park their car, practice sport, or pray. Imagine, too, the passing of time and the natural mutations of type: factories become houses, houses become offices, offices become shops, stations become art galleries, garages and empty buildings become places of worship for immigrants, and so on.

In the past, in Europe, the Christian majority always absorbed, harmonized and sometimes erased differences, leaving the continent with a homogeneous cultural image. More recently, migration from other countries (former colonies, ex-Soviet republics, countries afflicted by war or poverty) have profoundly changed that uniform cultural pattern. This has raised the necessity of tackling religious pluralism from both a social and urban perspective. In today’s built spaces, cultural differences are expressed in unprecedented ways. Until a few years ago, it was thought that the link between public and religious places would gradually disappear as societies gave way to secularity. In reality, things have gone differently. Demand for religious spaces has not dwindled, it has simply altered. The city’s surfaces do no yet show it, but if we look inside buildings we can notice the change.

In the absence of precise legislation, the sacred becomes space through a microcosm of evolving informal actions. From a legislative viewpoint, in many countries the border is not clear: the construction of holy buildings depends on the economic strengths of a community, on the availability of urban voids, and partly on political deals. Without fixed procedures, each particular situation is managed ad hoc.

Maintaining the identity of an immigrant community in a new country necessarily involves that community’s place of worship, which becomes a safe and protected site, the faithful container of its traditions.

Every religion’s system of beliefs and practices results in complex urban structures linked to the sacred and to ceremonies: squares, streets, and cemeteries. The new communities that have settled in Europe have not yet left evident signs of their religious presence, as once happened with a minaret or a bell tower. On the contrary, a shed, a cellar, or a rented flat can often become the new focus of holiness for large groups of people. An interior is an immediate answer to the need for religious absorption and does not require recognition from the whole local community or the authorities. In this logic, the sacred building is built in a private space, while preparing to become public in the future. Sacred architecture thus constitutes a form of interior design, its ritual instruments and decorations being mass-produced objects, rendered holy for the occasion.

The boundary between sacred and profane is whittled down to mere convention. Trade, leisure, and religious observance coexist in the same places, with minimal sacred characteristics: a space of preparation for worship, a room for prayer, a kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom and a meeting room, with just a few memory symbols.

The places can not be typologically defined: they are neither theatres, nor churches, nor restaurants. Tolerated by private and public bodies and lacking clarity, they sidestep regulations and technical controls of emergency exits, dimensions, ventilation, and end-purposes.

A place of worship is officially only a cultural association, a community’s temporary meeting place. The same temporariness of cultural overlappings is also created in airports, schools, prisons, and holiday villages, as sudden necessity for holy spaces arises. Cities are depositaries of stratification in time. The phenomenon varies in intensity with each country, depending on its government system, history, and population densities.

London is home to Europe’ s oldest Sikh temple. In Barcelona there are 220 places of worship in apartments, shops, and schools. In Paris Neuilly, various religious confessions share a prayer center during the week. In Palermo, the Garage Europe, located on a second basement level, accommodates a Hindu temple; the Church of Paolino dei Giardinieri is now a mosque, while Buddhists recently celebrated the Vesak festival by constructing a stupa in the parking lot opposite a Catholic church in the historic center.

In Novellara, a rural town in the Po Valley, the Sikh community from Central Europe prays in a temple built in the middle of an industrial zone. And on April 18 each year, believers celebrate Baisakhi, a ceremony dedicated to the arrival of spring. Thousands of people pour into the streets and sports ground, gathering for the Gurdwara (prayer centre) situated in the town’s industrial zone. In Barcelona, La Rambla is usually leased for these celebrations.

As a visible manifestation of the temporary appropriation of public space, at present only the ceremonies emerge, leaving no permanent trace. The infiltration of spaces of worship into European cities therefore occurs spontaneously and, for the most part, with no precise legislation. It will be up to the various countries to continue the debate on how to deal with this issue in a mature, open, and transparent way.

Halfway between multiculturalism and integration, the sacred is often hidden behind the sign of a clothes shop, waiting for the time when settled immigrant communities are large enough to acquire rights. And space.

Graphic concept and design: Demian Bern, EXP.edition

See also Michael Guggenheim’s essay, Travelling Types and the Law: Minarets and Suicide Hospices.

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