The theme for this year’s Venice Biennale is largely an invitation for architects and designers to expand and think beyond architecture’s traditional frontiers and to respond to a wider range of challenges relating to human settlement. With news of political crises continuing to fill the headlines of late, Aravena’s theme challenges architects to respond. One such response comes from Lucas Boyd and Chad Greenlee from the Yale School of Architecture. They believe that:
While [places of worship] do not provide a basic need for an individual’s biological survival, they do represent a fundamental aspect of not only an individual’s life beyond utility, but an identity within the collective, a familiar place of being—and this is something that we consider synonymous with being human—a requirement for the persistence of culture.
The two students came up with proposal designs on churches, synagogues and mosques that can be quickly built as “Pop-Up Places of Worship” in refugee camps. By presenting immediately-recognizable sacred spaces that are transportable and affordable, Boyd and Greenlee highlight spaces for worship as an absolute necessity in any type of human settlement. Through this process, the students also determine what, for them, is “necessary” in a religious structure.
With limited resources as an assumed condition, the process of designing these pop-ups has been one of reduction. This process appears to be conveniently in line with the Boyd and Greenlee’s view that the architecture of religion is inherently excessive—diluted, exaggerated, and misinterpreted through the natural passing of time. In determining specific elements to remove from their structures, the designers were rather unapologetic about their subjectivity. They quote Rafael Moneo's thoughts on designing religious space from his essay in the book Constructing the Ineffable: Contemporary Sacred Architecture:
The architect cannot rely on a shared vision but must risk his or her own version of sacred space.
For Boyd and Greenlee, the absolute necessity for the project, perhaps above function itself, was iconography. They were guided by questions such as “what does a synagogue/chapel/mosque look like? What are the critical formal pieces that help to connect a religious structure to a particular faith and which of these elements could hypothetically be removed and [the building] still retains its reading?”
The first of Boyd and Greenlee’s subjective decisions was to determine the scope of religions for which they would design these structures: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. In recent years, multi-faith spaces have been the go-to typology in addressing the many different religious needs of the public; often, these spaces take on an abstract neutrality. The designers of Pop-Up Place of Worship admit that this direction “would shrink the scope of their project, and also lessen the risk of offending through cultural definition,” but a multi-faith space would not have been coherent with their views of cultural pluralism, as there are specific symbolic identifiers associated with every religion. In other words, the project rests on the idea that mosques, synagogues and chapels are identifiable because they look different from one another. But while the team has made the clear decision to design specific structures per faith, they have chosen not to differentiate between various sects within each religion; these structures would simultaneously accommodate Catholic and Protestant Christians or Sunni and Shia Muslims. So, while the reductive notions behind each structure are dependent on highlighting the religious differences between people, at a smaller scale, their architectural utopianism hopes that various religious sects will find unity in their similarities in these structures.
Largely looking at the historical developments for each typology, Boyd and Greenlee have come up with the following structures:
Resembling a basic gable roof tent with a cross-shaped framework, the Christian Chapel is perhaps the most successful iteration, for it is most recognizable. This ease of representation, according to Boyd and Greenlee, can be attributed to Christianity’s rich history of expressing their religious belief through architectural means. The question “what does a church look like” is perhaps the easiest to answer. If we compare with each other Brunelleschi’s basilicas, Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, SOM’s Air Force Academy Chapel and even Tadao Ando’s Church of the Light they all retain stereotypical familiarity with one another. For Boyd and Greenlee the gable shaped tent, which was been designed to be as tall as possible, communicates the historic vision of Christianity’s “home-church” as well as the faith’s desire to communicate ascendance unto the heavens. The large cross-shaped supports drive the message home.
If the chapel was the easiest to represent, the synagogue was much more of a challenge. Boyd and Greenlee explain how they found it difficult to identify a specific typology for a synagogue due to the regional differences between pre-existing examples, and with no contemporary model to look to, the pair looked towards the architectural lineage of the Israelites. But without an icon to take from, is the resulting design still iconic? Composed of taut fabric walls over a square base with various entry points and an opening over the centre, the pop-up Synagogue focuses on the interplay of the center and the perimeter which represents the layered and hierarchical rituals and rules pertaining to Judaic practice.
The functional requirements and the frequent daily use of the mosque when compared to the other typologies made the structure most difficult to design according to Boyd and Greenlee. They were conscious of the incredible reduction that they would be undertaking in a faith that had many rituals and whose structures thus took on particular forms due to these functions. While iconography remained the ultimate goal for the pop-up Mosque, there were many rules involved with the design such as symmetry, maintaining a longitudinal axis oriented with the Qibla, and a square or rectangular plan. Boyd and Greenlee accommodated for these requirements while creating an iconic look by arranging multiple modular bases with vaulted forms, as rectilinear shapes. Within a highly geometric design language, they have also adorned the floor surfaces with geometric designs.
The work of the architect concerns not only the product but also the packaging of each project—the way the idea is presented. For these pop-up structures, Boyd and Greenlee hope to deploy the structures as a building kit with a matching instruction pamphlet, which imply a do-it-yourself simplicity and a universality of application. These structures can be absorbed into the “kit-of-parts” that make up the UN’s protocol for designing refugee camps. These entertaining pamphlets also expose the long history of the typology of “Pop-Up Structures” as agents for spectacle. It could be argued that this project makes a spectacle out of camp living, like an extension on the theme of poverty fetishization. It could also be argued that, for the sake of the iconography which they have made central to the project, Boyd and Greenlee might also be guilty of exaggerating and misinterpreting religious architecture for the sake of an image—in direct contradiction to the principles which underlie the concept. However, both of these criticisms would be made at the risk of overshadowing this project’s potential. These pop-up structures are novel in their typology; they carry a message that, beyond emergency shelters, schools, medical and community centres, there is a new domain through which the architect can lend their benevolent hand to the people.
Encapsulating storied religious traditions within tents of middling sophistication demonstrates the ability of architecture to operate under well-informed pragmatism. While essentially offering a pared-down form of religious space, the designers hope to imbue the same community-building aspects that are associated with places of worship in sites which have greatest need for it. At its worst, the project can be seen as a collection of mildly sufficient ad-hoc structures that highlight the necessity of religious practice in human settlements at every level of sophistication. At the project’s best, these structures could serve as vehicles for people to connect with each other—people who, from a distance, would be lured by immediate visions of “home”, “salvation” and “hope” that is communicated by the iconic formal qualities of these pop-up tents.