LUCY O’REILLY
Religion and place in tower Hamlets
The Building Exploratory’s ‘Religion and Place in Tower Hamlets’ project engages a wide audience with the built environment of faith in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.
The ‘Religion and Place in Tower Hamlets’ project builds on the Building Exploratory’s innovative approach to built environment education. Funded by English Heritage and Arts Council England, it can be divided into two phases. The first phase involved giving local people the chance to take part in building visits, meetings with representatives of faith groups and an artist-led creative programme. Following this, five artists created a pair of ‘faith chests’, which responded to both the buildings and the project processes.
The second phase, or legacy, involved the presentation of the faith chests in a community exhibition at the Whitechapel Idea Store (designed by Adjaye Associates in 2004) in 2008. The Building Exploratory was very grateful to the IHBC, which generously sponsored the exhibition’s launch event. This phase also involved the creation of resources – a booklet accompanying the exhibition, a graphic map of the borough’s religious buildings and an interactive website, www.religionandplace.org.uk – which give the project a continuing life as model for built environment education and a community resource.
The project grew out of English Heritage’s research recording and studying 167 faith buildings in Tower Hamlets, a diverse inner-city borough. English Heritage invited the Building Exploratory to develop a project proposal to bring this information to the people of Tower Hamlets, and to help foster local interest in the richness and complexity of the history, manifestations and practices of the many faiths and faith buildings that form this community.
launched in 1996 and based in Hackney, east london, the Building Exploratory is recognised for its unique approach that puts communities in touch with the buildings and spaces that surround them. Innovative educational programmes are the touchstone of how the organisation and its permanent exhibition have developed. English Heritage, constant supporters of this work both as funders and as project partners, approached the Building Exploratory to develop ‘Religion and Place in Tower Hamlets’, creating a resource that has resonance and relevance to diverse audiences.
The project began with a unique experience for five artists and 150 Tower Hamlets secondary school pupils. Ten faith buildings were selected, representing a wide range of faiths, including different Christian denominations, Judaism, Islam and Sikhism, as well as a variety of ages, architectural styles, backgrounds and histories. The Building Exploratory worked with five classes from five local secondary schools. Each class of students visited two of the selected buildings with an artist, who was supported by Building Exploratory
At the launch of the exhibition
Two students with a model of the East London Mosque
staff members and English Heritage’s Peter Guillery. These visits gave the classes an opportunity to meet and work with members of faiths different to their own, experiencing the variety of different environments in which religious worship can take place and challenging their understanding of what faith means.
Among the buildings studied were St dunstan and All Saints, one of the oldest medieval churches in london; the Brick lane Jamme Masjid, built as
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A visit to St George in the East
a Huguenot chapel and used as a synagogue before becoming a mosque; and the Built on the Rock International Ministry, which occupies a former bed factory behind Bethnal Green Station.
Following the building visits, each artist led a series of creative workshops at school. Students could experiment with new creative skills, using techniques such as collage, photomontage and abstract model making to develop their artistic and personal responses to the buildings. The artists interpreted the students’ responses through the three-dimensional artworks, the faith chests. once completed, students were given the opportunity to comment on the artists’ work at a final evaluation session.
The project proposal involved a legacy in the form of resources that would continue to reach out and engage Tower Hamlets residents with the architecture of faith in their borough. The project was designed with replicability in mind, to be disseminated to education professionals as widely as possible.
The 10 faith chests provide a physical legacy. They were exhibited in the Whitechapel Idea Store for three weeks in February 2008, bringing the material right to the heart of the community. With a daily throughput of more than 2,000 people making use of the store’s varied services, the social and geographical context of this information hub was exactly suited to bringing the diversity of audience that both the Building Exploratory and the project funders hoped to reach. The audience also consisted of visitors from outside the borough who travelled specifically to explore the
project, and school and lifelong learning groups who took part in bespoke workshops using the faith chests as inspiration. The exhibition engaged more than 30,000 local people over its three-week run.
The Building Exploratory designed and produced two accompanying publications that celebrate the faith chests and encourage users to delve into the borough’s architectural diversity. The first of these is a portable folding map of the borough with a colour photograph of each building, with its location, contact details and a brief fact from its history. The second publication, a guide to the artworks themselves, takes the form of a small missal-like book containing information about the school project alongside photographs of the 10 faith chests. This book contains maps of Tower Hamlets, showing the distribution of the faith buildings
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in the borough in both 1930 and 2007.
The maps clearly show the changing demography of the area, provoking the reader to think about the history of the borough in an immediate and visual way. The publications were made available through the exhibition and through many of the faith buildings involved in the project. They were distributed to all the borough’s secondary school pupils, and have already been used in schools as a springboard to further exploration of the project themes.
The final legacy resource is the Religion and Place website, www.religionandplace.org.uk. This fully accessible web resource was designed to extend the dissemination process by providing an interactive version of the map, and allowing site visitors to upload their own knowledge and thoughts about the borough’s faith buildings. over time this will build into a community resource that captures the richness of faith in Tower Hamlets. In the future the website will host learning resources for teachers and education professionals, detailing the methodology and techniques used in the project and providing
ideas and inspiration for cross-curricular teaching and learning using the built environment.
After the exhibition in Whitechapel, the faith chests were returned to the Building Exploratory. There they currently form part of the permanent exhibition, acting as a continuing teaching resource for the education department.
The project publications continue to inspire and inform. The Building Exploratory has received many requests for these from a variety of organisations, both locally and nationally. Aspects of the ‘Religion and Place’ project model are also being applied to future work, with the possibility of a related project in Hackney launching later in 2008.
The Building Exploratory’s exhibition, including the faith chests and supporting material, is open to the public on Thursdays and Fridays 1pm – 5pm by appointment. Please phone 020 7275 8555 if you would to visit, if you would like further information about ‘Religion and Place’, or if you would like further copies of the publications, www.religionandplace.org. uk or www.thebuildingexploratory.org.uk.
Case study
Two buildings, two faiths
Religion and Place in Tower Hamlets was run in five schools with five different artists, each visiting two buildings and creating two faith chests each. The final pieces were varied, depending on the interests and media of the artists and their experiences with the students.
The Building Exploratory worked with a number of major local galleries and arts, including the Whitechapel Gallery and the Hothouse, to draw up a shortlist of artists who had experience of leading workshops and an interest in the built environment. only artists who had previously worked with young people and who were familiar with the process of using these experiences to develop their own practice were eligible for the project. Sarah Carne had worked extensively in education with both the Whitechapel and Tate Galleries. An enthusiastic and creative teacher, she was teamed with a group of year eight pupils from Sir John Cass school and their teachers Anne Townsend and Amar virk. It was a fruitful collaboration, a positive learning experience for all the students and a creative inspiration for teacher and artist alike.
This group visited the East london Mosque and St Paul’s Church, Bow Common. Although Sir John Cass is a Church of England school, up to 80 per cent of the students are Muslim. Several of those in the group were regular worshippers at the East london Mosque. led by Abida Peters from the london Muslim Centre, the tour took in all the major spaces of the mosque building. The class then visited St Paul’s, designed by Maguire and Murray, considered one of the most important post-war churches in the country. They were shown around by the Reverend duncan Ross, a charismatic vicar who is passionate about the building. The students were assigned tasks to be carried out in each building, for example taking photographs of 10 hand-held objects or drawing five architectural details. The students talked to the users of the buildings about their experiences and feelings about their particular place of worship, and they recorded this in their workbooks. This material was to form the basis of the three following sessions in the classroom.
Sarah Carne led the students in three classroom-based lessons, teaching them collage and montage techniques which allowed them to explore their experience of the two buildings.
Creating the faith chests: the Building Exploratory supplied the chest that would contain the artwork, an empty box fronted with a 1:20 scaled full-colour photograph of the building. Sarah Carne chose the position and size of the door into this frontage, and spent three weeks creating her artwork within it.
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