Currently showing at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture, Sacred Spaces in Profane Buildings is the brainchild of Italian artist Matilde Cassani, who began research on the project two years ago. She explores how religious architecture manifests itself in contemporary, urban and unconventional spaces. For instance, there’s a storage room turned into a synagogue and a five-storey office building transformed into a mosque.
Intrigued by how immigrants were re-inventing spiritual environments when their new communities lacked the necessary religious spaces, Cassani began searching for these examples of altered architecture. “I’m interested in the transformation of function,” she says, “and trying to understand how sacred places are digested.”
Her fascination began when she learned about the small village Novellara, in northern Italy, which is home to the second largest Sikh community in Europe. She embarked on a trip across the continent and has now moved on to New York City, uncovering hundreds of spiritual territories along the way.
In her latest exhibit, on display until November 5, she focuses solely on New York. Organized as a public archive, the exhibit comprises Cassani’s research, as well as entries from an open call. The public was invited to submit stories or memories of a visit, a sketch of a known place, a photograph of a street sign, a location on a map, essentially anything that would aid in constructing a comprehensive guide to New York’s sacred spaces.
The exhibition features books containing the submissions, symbolic objects donated by different religious communities in New York and four spiritual devices – each providing the amenities for four different religious observances. Riffing on the idea that sacred spaces can exist anywhere, Cassani has designed a quartet of mobile, transportable and foldable pray rooms that contain the minimum elements necessary for individual rituals in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Sikhism. As Cassani explains, “It’s this idea that a sacred space is not like a traditional space. Improvised objects can become sacred in the moment.”
There’s an illusion that urban centres are becoming more secular, that religious places are diminishing and disappearing. Sacred Spaces in Profane Buildings demonstrates how these places are not vanishing, but instead, are being absorbed into other architectural forms.