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“Desacralized,” an exhibition held this April during Milan Design Week, was meant to explore the decline of religiosity in our contemporary culture. More than 20 designers contributed pieces displayed inside San Vittore e 40 Martiri, a deconsecrated church in central Milan. Morghen Studio created a chandelier composed of thin strands of light, a minimalist take on a once-ornate form. Andrés Monnier made a candelabrum that obliquely references the Holy Trinity. Rick Owens built a chair adorned with a moose antler — an artifact, perhaps, of a long-forgotten pagan cosmology. 

A candelabra carved out of marble is hit with a beam of light inside of an old church.
Photo by Maison Mouton Noir, courtesy of Galerie Philia

There was no ambiguity about the exhibition’s theme: It was right there in the title. Yet when visitors entered this desacralized space, they responded with displays of religious reverence. They removed their hats and made the sign of the cross. One elderly woman knelt down and prayed. Their reactions suggest that our relationship with religion is perhaps more vexed than the word “desacralized” would imply. Few of us attend weekly worship, but we still recognize the sacred when we see it — and we still, occasionally, make space for it in our lives.

Religion isn’t dying. It’s retreating, perhaps, and changing, for sure. Legacy institutions are in decline, but charismatic and syncretic religious practices are still ubiquitous. Immigration and multiculturalism have diversified the West, creating a tapestry of religious observances in a world where Roman Catholicism and mainline Protestantism once predominated. Houses of worship may sit empty more often than they used to, but they remain among the most storied architectural monuments in any city — and some designers are engaging with that heritage in bold new ways. Here, four speakers respond to the complexity of religion in the 21st century.

An architectural rendering depicting modern religious design by showing a community featuring trees and people walking in front of a building with a cross on it.

Bruno Weber, a partner at KPMB Architects, has worked with Markee Developments to design a new affordable residential community, Tyndale Green, on the property surrounding Tyndale University, an inter-denominational seminary in North Toronto with a modernist cathedral at its centre.

When you began working with Tyndale, it was in a familiar crisis experienced by many of today’s religious organizations.

Bruno Weber

Yes. The owners of the university had a building in need of continuous repairs. They’d also seen a reduction in the number of people wanting to pursue seminary studies. So they had an amazing property, but they lacked the monetary influx needed to support it. This is a common predicament.

Your solution was to build a planned neighbourhood around the university. How do you ensure that Tyndale scholars don’t feel displaced by the secular residents?  

It’s all about alignment. The original Catholic sisterhood that founded Tyndale, before it became inter-denomi­national, believed deeply in community outreach. So our goal of creating affordable housing fits within Tyndale’s historical mission.

The residential and religious communities at the site won’t always overlap, but community residents will use Tyndale’s amazing gym or library. And Tyndale, despite its drop in attendance, will once again be at the centre of a vibrant community.

A small red-brick synagogue featuring an angular shape reflecting modern religious design.
Photo by Doublespace Photography

Angie Michail is a senior associate at LGA Architectural Partners and the project architect on the renovation of First Narayever Congregation, a 130-year-old synagogue in Toronto’s Harbord Village neighbourhood.

What does this renovation tell us about the importance of upholding tradition?

Angie Michail

The congregation is very attached to its building, but it needed to be made accessible. We wanted to ensure that everybody was able to come and go from the same entrance, which required us to locate an elevator and stairs in the front vestibule, where there was limited space.

To accommodate those objects, we moved and rebuilt the entire sanctuary to the east, still within the footprint of the previous building.

How did you ensure that the rebuilt sanctuary felt like the original one?

We maintained its general design characteristics — the size, the proportions, the ceiling profile and the materials. The construction manager did a 3D scan of all the wooden elements, like the arc and the wall panelling. We then worked to salvage what we could of these pieces. For the parts we couldn’t salvage, we built exact replicas.

The primary heritage value is rooted in the people more than the building itself. The key was to support the community while modernizing the building to ensure its longevity.

An aerial view of a basketball player dribbling on a court decorated with a mural featuring traditional Islamic patterns.
Photo by Shafi Tarin

Mehedi Khan is an urban planner and the founder of Muslims in Public Space (MiPs), a Toronto non-profit that seeks to embed motifs from Islamic art in the cityscape.

Why did you found MiPs?

Mehedi Khan

Because representation matters. Back in Dhaka, Bangladesh, my parents loved visiting public spaces. When they moved to Toronto, they explored the city. But there was a time, around 2001, when many Muslims in Toronto feared being out in public. My goal is to fight that fear.

When people from diverse backgrounds see their identities reflected in public spaces, it fosters a sense of belonging. Public art humanizes the built environment.

The city rejected your proposal to paint an electrical box in zellij iconography. How do you respond to setbacks like this?

The City of Toronto has insidious ways of saying no. We had a plan to paint a basketball court in Islamic geometric motifs, and the Parks, Forestry & Recreation department said we’d have to pay the city $80,000 for them to do it. That’s an amount that we, like many community organizations, cannot afford.

Last summer, we ran a pilot project in Leonard Linton Park [an East Toronto green space] where community members painted a temporary Islamic mural on the basketball court using stencils and washable chalk spray. It cost us $200. We documented the event and sent the images to the city to show that people have a serious interest in our project. This type of art shouldn’t be foreign to the city. A permanent version of this initiative shouldn’t be so difficult — and expensive — to do.

A display of modern design objects inside of a religious church. At the centre is a chandelier featuring thin draped loops of light.
Photo by Maison Mouton Noir, courtesy of Galerie Philia

Ygaël Attali is the founder of Galerie Philia, whose recent exhibition at Milan Design Week, “Desacralized,” featured more than 20 objects displayed in the ruins of a historic Catholic church.

In theory, there’s nothing sacred going on in this exhibition. Yet the ambience feels…hallowed? Dare I say, sacred? 

Ygaël Attali

Very often, when we talk about desacralization, what we’re talking about is the reinterpretation, or metamorphosis, of the sacred. Even when we go out of it, we’re still in it. The music we chose for the exhibition was Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, but it was 600 per cent slower than usual. When people entered, they didn’t instantly recognize the requiem, but they knew it from somewhere.

We’re still receptive to religious experiences — and we want to experience them, don’t we? 

When Nietzsche said that God is dead, he wasn’t just being provocative. He knew how important a kind of religiosity was in order to live. The sacred used to structure our societies, and those partly desacralized societies can feel empty today. There is a kind of sorrow, which we were trying to evoke in our exhibition. Visitors recognized this tension, which is why they responded the way they did. When people entered, they could feel vibrations reminding them of a sacred that is both disappearing and still paradoxically present.

Roundtable: How Religion Continues to Influence Design

A planner, an architect, an activist and a gallerist share their spirited outlooks.

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