21st century soul

For most of us churches are just for Christmas - so why do we say we want more of them? Jonathan Glancey has a much better idea

Build more places of worship: cathedrals, mosques, synagogues, churches, meeting houses and chapels. This is a plea that has been made many times during 1996 in the letters columns of newspapers, in speeches by the Prince of Wales and at meetings whenever people are gathered to discuss what we should do for the millennium. What proposals for the millennium lack, such people say, is a spiritual dimension, and spirituality can be best, or most readily, expressed in bricks and mortar dedicated to God, whichever name he (or she) goes by.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day see churches unusually and unnaturally crowded; these are the only days incumbents pray for naves and aisles to be extended by a bay or two. For the rest of the year, Britain has a surplus of churches; they are places for looking around, not for praying in, the stuff of Pevsner's architectural guides, tourist brochures, Merchant Ivory films and cosy television documentaries.

In fact, it is hard not to wonder if we really want the churches we already have, let alone whether we should be building more of them. A small fortune in heritage lottery funds has been making its way in recent months to shore up the ruins of our Christian past; it is not spirituality we are nursing with our millennial millions, but sentiment, nostalgia, architecture washed down with a teaspoon of guilt.

Our new cathedrals are air-conditioned shopping malls and superstores, theme parks, leisure centres, sports stadia, museums and art galleries. We have built almost no churches over the past 50 years to compare with those of the past 1,000 years, while those religions and cults that have prospered over the same period - whether Islam or Christian fundamentalist sects and schisms - have, as yet, built nothing of any real beauty. The Hindu temple on the North Circular Road, Neasden which has attracted so much attention over the past year is an impressive work of traditional Indian craftsmanship, but is not great architecture.

One can argue that we no longer need impressive settings in which to worship, and have not done so since the Reformation. This, however, does not explain the many couples planning to marry, the parents thinking of christening a new child or the families dreaming of an old-fashioned, picture-postcard Christmas, for whom a lovely old church is as important as the event itself: the quality of church architecture is high on their list of priorities.

Again, sentiment (and taste and prestige) plays a much greater part on these occasions than any new-found spirituality: after all, a child can be baptised under a kitchen tap, a couple can get married on a fishing boat and Midnight Mass can be terribly disappointing if you are expecting the full works (bells, smells, choirs, cherubim, etc) and find tambourines and cheesy modern hymns instead.

No, we do not need to build more churches or places of worship; our money is better spent elsewhere. What we might want to do, however, is to consider what use we could make of the thousands of underused or redundant churches that decorate these islands so richly and so woefully.

They can, of course, be deconsecrated, sold off and turned into fanciful middle-class homes. Or they can be re-addressed by artists, architects, local people and even the clergy working together on projects that will make people want to visit these lonely buildings and nourish the apparent need for a sense of spirituality lacking in so many lives, a latent spirituality that can never be satisfied by embarrassingly bad modern services, electric candles and hymns with lyrics that can make the soggiest and most sentimental liturgical liberal cringe.

This autumn, the abandoned and secret Oratorio di San Ludivico in Venice has been home to a beautiful, inventive and moving art installation created by Pierre d'Avoine, an architect living and working in London with the artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey. The installation, Host, was one part of a trilogy of exhibits going under that name in different parts of the city.

What d'Avoine and co gave shape to was a living, breathing representation of an elemental temple or church inside a redundant chapel. Visitors with sufficient guile to find the oratorio, tucked at one end of a passage no wider than Stella Tennant's shoulders and hung with washing from flats on either side, opened the creaky door and found themselves confronted by what appeared to be a primitive Greek temple made of wet and vibrantly green grass growing from the centre of the chapel and nearly filling it.

In the artists' imagination, the old oratorio was host to this mysterious organic architectural newcomer; it was as if the old place of worship, in rotting away, had given the last of its spiritual energy to sustain this new growth.

The result was powerful, a little shocking (as great church interiors often are) and uplifting at the same time. The grass temple was made of timber, covered in mud and planted with pre-germinated seed grass; watered every day, the sweet-smelling grass grew lustrously and this beautiful intrusion made its presence felt ever more strongly.

The temple was so designed that when people walked into the oratorio, they passed under its hollow, black-painted belly and only became aware of what had happened to the chapel as they explored its green edges. Host worked in much the same way as a grand religious procession through a church does, or a group of animated statuary in a Baroque chapel - it filled the sacred space in a numinous way, resurrecting its latent spirituality.

The fact that the design was also a reference to Palladio, to the nature of Venice and the origins of architecture may well have been lost on (or failed to have got across to) most visitors, but this hardly matters. What Host proved was that we can bring vigorous new spiritual life and new forms of architectural beauty to forgotten and abandoned places of worship.

By encouraging architects and artists to transform churches and chapels for brief periods, we might encourage very many people to visit them for whom they are little more than outmoded architectural curiosities.

The idea of the Host project would translate well to British churches, although bodies such as the PACA (Public Arts Commissions Agency), which commissioned d'Avoine so successfully, will have their work cut out uncovering artists and architects who can add spirit as well as art and cleverness to beautiful old buildings. This, however, would be a much more interesting and rewarding challenge than simply trying to add to the stock of a type of building we say we want but so few of us use.



Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower