Q&A: Sacred Spaces in Profane Buildings

| November 8, 2011 6:06 PM

Matilde Cassani is the architect and artist behind “Sacred Spaces in Profane Buildings.” For this project, she amassed an impressively comprehensive archive of sites of worship in the five boroughs that are located in residential, commercial or otherwise non-religious buildings, many of which serve recent immigrant populations whose demand for faith-based community facilities far outstrips supply.

The exterior may be unassuming but the Om Sai Mandir is a Hindu temple in Flushing Queens dedicated to Sai Baba of Shirdi, an Indian spiritual leader who died in 1918. Photo courtesy of Matilde Cassani.

The architectural improvisations that respond to this increased demand constitute one subject of Cassani’s detailed documentary study. But she’s equally interested in the urban-scale implications of this phenomenon: the distribution of religious activity throughout the city and how this maps onto a contemporary urban reality of displacement and adaptation.

She has produced a series of books that represent the archive and exhibited them alongside a set of “Spiritual Devices,” beguilingly simple sculptural installations that attempt to distill the elements of individual spiritual practice to the commonplace yet symbolic objects — prayer mats, icons, beads or candles — that help convert secular space into something both sacred and profound. Read on to hear Cassani’s thoughts on what a city’s sacred spaces reveal about the complex relationship of religious praxis, cultural identity and urban life.

Q: How did “Sacred Spaces in Profane Buildings” come about?

A: The idea for the project was born three years ago, when I started asking myself where recent immigrants to contemporary cities were praying. I started looking around Italy and the first place I started investigating was actually a small village called Novellara, in a rural part of Regio Emilia. This village is the home of a lot of recent immigrants to Italy who are increasingly doing agricultural work in Italian farms, especially in the dairy farms that produce the milk for parmesan cheese.

Matilde Cassani with one of the five books of the "Sacred Spaces" archive installed at Storefront for Art and Architecture. Photo courtesy of Urban Omnibus.

This village has a population of no more than 12,000 people, but I found many different sacred spaces. And every year, the village plays host to a huge Sikh harvest festival, the Vaisakhi feast. Sikhs from all over Central Europe congregate in Novellara for this event.

After documenting this festival and the sacred spaces of this village, I started doing similar research and documentation in Milan, Palermo, Barcelona, Stuttgart, and then I came to New York. These days, whenever I find myself in a new city, I immediately start looking around to find sacred spaces.

Q: How do you define what “sacred spaces in profane buildings” are?

A: For me, sacred spaces in profane buildings are places of worship in non-traditional sites, in buildings that have undergone a transformation of function. Many of these buildings are invisible from the outside. The interiors are what has been altered most to accommodate the needs of a particular religion’s worship practices. That improvised transformation fascinates me.

The word “profane” in this context refers the buildings being non-traditional or non-sacred. I was raised as a Roman Catholic with the idea that sacred space — the churches I would visit as a child — was always born as sacred, in a location that is precisely selected and central, with an architecture that makes it highly visible. “Profane” refers to sites not selected in this way.

The SoHo Synagogue in Manhattan opened in 2009 to serve the downtown Jewish community. Photo courtesy of Urban Omnibus.

Q: What do you think distinguishes New York City’s sacred spaces from similar environments you’ve studied in other cities?

A: At the beginning, I thought that since New York City has a completely different urban texture and a completely different immigrant story, its sacred spaces in profane buildings would be completely distinct from what I’ve found elsewhere. But actually the architecture of the places I found was very similar to what I found in Europe. The main difference is that in New York, there are so many more of these kinds of sacred spaces.

I’ve also noticed that New Yorkers seem more curious about their city than people are in other cities. I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from New Yorkers about this project. People here seem to be excited about seeing something they’ve never seen before. And the communities whose places of worship were documented in the project were happy to find someone deeply interested in their communities and cultural practices.

Congregants listen to a speech at the Sikh Center in Flushing, Queens. Every Sikh temple has an elaborately furnished room with a bed that is used to store the Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. Photo courtesy of Matilde Cassani.

Q: What do you think a city’s sacred spaces reveal about that city?

A: I think these spaces reveal the ways displaced people maintain their identity after moving from one country to another. Cultural identity is not only food and customs; religion builds identity in ways that make the sacred space a community’s common point of reference. So it’s not only religious space, it’s much more: a community center, a café, many different things together in one multi-layered space.

Q: So what’s more important for you, the spaces or how people use them?

A: Both. I think the spaces reflect what people are doing inside them in interesting ways. These places are sacred and profane at the same time, public and private spaces at the same time. They are religious places but also something else.

Q: Tell me about the “Spiritual Devices.”

A: The Spiritual Devices are foldable and transportable boxes that contain the kinds of objects I would find during my visits to sacred spaces all over New York: cheap clocks, tape on the floor to indicate the direction to Mecca, aluminum dishes, a camping stove.

For a 2010 exhibition in Germany Cassani developed "Spiritual Devices," four mobile modules that included prayer objects for Christianity, Islam, Sikhism and Buddhism. Photo courtesy of Matilde Cassani.

I started making the Spiritual Devices while doing an artist residency in Germany. The goal was to evoke the fact that sacred space is not necessarily stable. It’s temporary. It migrates along with the people who use it. The temporary nature of these places and the symbolic value of the objects that inhabit them — many of which are cheap, mass-produced objects you might find in a supermarket — reflect some of the displacement and exile of immigration.

Read the full post at Urban Omnibus.

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