Matilde Cassani is an architect and artist whose most recent exhibition Sacred Spaces in Profane Buildings is currently in its final week on view at Storefront for Art and Architecture. For this project, Cassani has 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 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. The exhibition closes this Saturday, so be sure to check it out soon. First, 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. –C.S.
How did Sacred Spaces in Profane Buildings come about?
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.
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.
How do you define what “sacred spaces in profane buildings” are?
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.
What do you think distinguishes New York City’s sacred spaces from similar environments you’ve studied in other cities?
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.
What do you think a city’s sacred spaces reveal about that city?
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.
So what’s more important for you, the spaces or how people use them?
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.
Tell me about the Spiritual Devices.
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.
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.
There seems to be a tension between the individual scale of the Spiritual Devices and the community scale of the documentation of Sacred Spaces in Profane Buildings.
Yes. Somehow, there is a kind of contradiction between these community places – which exist for small groups of people to come together at a particular point in a day – and the individual practice of one person building his or her own identity.
The exhibition at Storefront is the first time I have shown both of these projects together. They are related, of course, but I think it’s helpful to look at them separately, to look first at the research and then to experience the Spiritual Devices.
The research process for this exhibition began when I first arrived in New York. I decided that instead of looking for sacred spaces myself, I would ask citizens to report on where sacred spaces could be found. I built a very simple website and asked people to upload pictures and different stories about these sacred spaces. I received a lot of different kinds of material: from simple snapshots taken by passersby to fascinating stories about memories of particular buildings. Some of these memories explained how it used to be a bakery or a bank; others were personal stories about going to a place to pray or to see friends. One interesting case study is the synagogue on Crosby Street that used to be a flagship Gucci store. Another interesting case is an entire street that is full of temples; a huge, religious boulevard in Flushing, Queens called Bowne Street. In some ways the street is one enlarged, sacred space that is also differentiated: Catholic Korean churches, Catholic Chinese churches, Catholic South American churches, Hindu temples, Sai Baba temples… So many communities seem to have a point of reference there.
While people were submitting information about sacred spaces all over the city, I started to look closely at these places. Another example is one of my favorite places that I visited, the Sikh Center on Parsons Boulevard in Flushing. It’s in a formerly residential brick building, but the interior is amazingly transformed and truly beautiful. When you walk in the door you face a long corridor. At the end of the corridor is a place to store your shoes and a big box containing turbans to wear if you don’t have your own. The proper sacred space has a deep red carpeted floor that leads you to the altar, which is surrounded by musical instruments.
Downstairs you have the canteen with a huge kitchen that serves everybody who enters the temple. The third floor has rooms for some of the spiritual leaders of the congregation, and then you have another room that contains the sacred book, the Granth Sahib. In the Sikh religion, the sacred book is revered, so the way the book is treated is very important. The room where the book “lives” is actually the best, most precious and most recently refurbished room of the house. There are two beds, and it looks like a normal bedroom for humans — but it’s not for humans, it’s for the sacred books. Every day, one of the books is brought downstairs, read from beginning to end, and then taken back upstairs and put to bed.
So how did you represent your research in an exhibition context?
I produced five books; each one is a survey at a different scale. The first book maps the whole city and I’ve simply listed all the sacred spaces I found, in order to investigate the dimension of the phenomenon, the relative invisibility of the sacred spaces. The second book questions the profanity or the non-traditionality of the places. It includes information about the location and context of these places, with Google Maps images and their addresses. An address like Apartment #4N really tells you something about the architecture and original function of a particular place. The third book is a collection of stories and images submitted through the website. The fourth is a reflection on the different typologies and how the sacred is adapting in different ways. In some cases the sacred space is a small flat inside a commercial building; in others an entire residential building is transformed for various activities related to worship, like the temple’s canteen, the temple itself, the apartments of the monks or priests, communal spaces, storage, etc. And the fifth book is an in-depth case study of the Sikh Center on Parsons Boulevard that I described. For the exhibition, I mounted each of the books on a pedestal and arranged a series of the Spiritual Devices on the floor, in particular relationships to the wall, the street and the books. In this way, I tried to transform Storefront’s gallery into a kind of sacred space, a system that unveils something that is both sacred and not so sacred at the same time.
As an architect, what do you see as the contemporary role of architecture in religious practice?
It’s very difficult to say, because it’s contradictory in many ways: these places are outside of what we consider to be architecture; they are rarely designed by architects. Yet, I think architects must reflect on the fragmentation of religious space in cities. Religious spaces are no longer a big point of reference in the centers of neighborhoods. We need to consider what that means for our cities and communities. It’s not just about the small scale of transformed interiors; it’s an urban-scale phenomenon.
In complex environments like cities, architecture becomes a container of different things, and the same is happening to traditionally sacred spaces. I’ve seen examples of communities buying what used to be, say, an Orthodox church and converting it into a Hindu temple.
So what do you see as the role of the city in contemporary religious practice?
I think cities are only beginning to digest what the proliferation of all these sacred spaces means. On the one hand, the increased demand for religious spaces seems to show that there’s not enough space designated for these purposes. Cities, therefore, are in the role of enveloping sacred spaces that have emerged on their own inside of non-traditional buildings. On the other hand, the fragmentation and dispersal of sacred space is making the whole city more sacred in a way. It’s no longer secular.
I think this is one of the most interesting parts of the phenomenon. Because, as I’ve said, these spaces are more than just places of worship; they are community facilities, social spaces, but also the container of a certain kind of sacredness.
And each one is different. Some are very private; some are very public. Some open, some closed. And the interiors are totally fascinating: the materials and objects found inside are often quite cheap, yet there is so much care and attention paid to these environments. It’s really impressive and often very beautiful. And in some of the older sacred spaces, you can see the story of their gradual transformation and growth in the details.