Buddhas of Suburbia: faith, migration and suburban change in London
By zclfg58, on 11 March 2014
If there’s one thing to take home from American film culture, from The Virgin Suicides to American Beauty, it’s that the suburbs are a place to be avoided at all costs. Replete with murderous instincts and repressed sexual desires, they are to be treated with scorn by urbanites and the few suburban refugees who manage to escape.
Perhaps this unfair reputation stems from the suburban aesthetic: when the soul is furnished by identikit architecture that presumably houses conservative cultural habits, it is unsurprising that we see the suburban subject as living a boring life, unworthy of academic reflection or investigation.
In her Lunch Hour Lecture, Dr. Claire Dwyer (UCL Geography) rescued suburbia from this prejudicial inertia, demonstrating through an architectural, geographical and cultural comparative analysis of faith loci in Greater London that the suburbs can be a place of dynamic modernity where space is contested, deconstructed and re-mapped.
The first half of Dr. Dwyer’s lecture focused on newly developed or proposed institutions such as the Jain Temple in Potter’s Bar, Hertfordshire and the Salaam Centre in Harrow, which show how the suburbs are on the forefront of cultural innovation.
In the gardens of the Salaam Centre, architect Ali Mangera’s design embraces colonial horticulture, thus embodying the hybridity of British post-colonial experience. Here, we see the elusive spectre of multiculturalism—ever the political plaything of cynical politicians—realised in all its aesthetic splendour.
The second half concentrated on Dr Dwyer’s own research into suburbs and faith in Ealing, west London.
With funding from UCL’s Public Engagement Unit, Dwyer embarked on a project that explored the relationship between faiths and their built environment through photographs taken by local volunteers from St. Thomas the Apostle Church, the Shri Kanaga Thurkkai Amman Hindu Temple and the Ealing Liberal Synagogue among others.
She explained how faith communities re-appropriate each other’s buildings: what was once a church becomes a place of Hindu worship; what was once a Christian meeting hall becomes a Sikh centre and so on.
In an amusing aside, she noted how a Pentecostal Church occupies the position of what was once an art deco cinema. That is to say, the locus of apparent moral decline, lamented by conservative critics last century, turns into a church, the ideological backbone that held-up those very critics’ charges!
The St. Thomas the Apostle Church too conceals an exciting modernity. While we may associate suburban Anglican architecture as the epitome of the anodyne, St. Thomas’ boasts a sculpture on its exterior by Eric Gill, the arch-modernist whose typefaces adorn the covers of Penguin Books.
What made the project even more interesting, however, were the photographs taken by volunteers at St. Thomas’.
Instead of photographing the sculptures and architecture, they photographed the prayer mats that line the pews. These prayer mats are designed by the church goers themselves and function as a kind of handmade history of the church, depicting previous vicars and the like.
This revealed the personal, social impulse that transcends the objectivity of bricks and mortar. By analysing both geography and human interactions, the lecture highlighted the fragile nature of the relations that we all sustain.
The project also managed to foster the kind of inter-ethnic community spirit that it was designed to document. The volunteers experienced places of worship other than their own, and fraternised with their co-religionist neighbours.
Dr Dwyer’s initiative used photography as a means of strengthening community, as the photos taken by volunteered were exhibited in local museums and at UCL.
It is pleasingly ironic that religion—derision for which has reached dizzying heights among many young, intelligent people in Britain—continues to be a decisive agent in forging the modern landscape and identities therein.
Dr Dwyer’s lecture reminded us of the aesthetic and social role that religion plays in our suburbs. It wouldn’t hurt if we, the ever so modern humanist-urbanists at UCL, realised religion in Britain is still worthy of our attention.
Image: Hindu goddess at the Shri Kanaga Thurkkai Amman Hindu Temple
Credit: Faith in Suburbia/UCL
Watch the lecture below: