Symposium explores urban centers and religion

On Jan. 21 and 22, the Yale School of Architecture will co-host its first Symposium of 2011, titled “Middle Ground/Middle East: Religious Sites in Urban Context.” The event, also sponsored by the divinity school, the Institute for Sacred Music and the Yale Center for Middle East Studies, will explore the effects of religious centers on the surrounding urban fabric, focusing on Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Karla Britton, architecture lecturer and coordinator of the event, spoke with the News Monday night.

Q Tell me about the upcoming symposium at the School of Architecture.

Yale University

A The focus of the symposium is on the role of religious sites representing the three Abrahamic traditions and their role in shaping contemporary urban environments in the Middle East. The symposium basically addresses the relationship between religious sites and urban form. We are focusing on urban centers of the Middle East because that’s a part of the world where the intersection of religious traditions has always been at heart of cultural identity and conflict. It is a region where the importance of religious sites in shaping social life has always been critical and remains very pronounced.

Q Can we relate the religious urban context in the Middle East to our own society?

A I think that the symposium comes at a very opportune moment. One thinks of the recent events in Alexandria or Cairo regarding the Coptic community, or the tensions in Beirut, or the discussion about a year ago regarding Swiss referendum about minarets, or even in New York, the discussions around Islamic center. All of these issues deal with this concern about religious sites their relationships to our urban environments today.

Q Who can our readers expect to see at the symposium this weekend?

A Well I’d like to pull attention to final conversation, which happens at the end of the day on Saturday. It will be a conversation between Paul Goldberger, who is the writer or rather the architecture critic for New Yorker Magazine, and Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil who is a prominent Egyptian architect as well as a leading authority on Islamic arch. Mr Wakil has designed more than 15 mosques.

Q But all three Abrahamic traditions will be discussed this weekend. Will they have distinct roles and separate lectures in the symposium, or will it be a unified and intellectual exploration of the topic? How will you address the crossover and dialogue between the three religions?

A The event is very much intended to be ecumenical in nature and in sponsorship, so it will certainly address all three traditions.

Over the course of the symposium we are going to hear about how religious sites and urban contexts can be described in a whole variety of ways. Some individuals may talk about this moment reflecting almost a modern medievalism. Others might talk about the importance of the cult model of the layering of these cities representing a religious tradition. Others will discuss the political and social means territorial occupation.

Q In the past you have written about a “hidden cultural synthesis” — do you believe that religious architecture holds clues about the fundamental character of a society?

A I don’t think that this appreciation is without precedent. I think of someone like Vincent Scully, who for generations has demonstrated time and again to his students that since the ancients, cities have been shaped precincts, and that these precincts served as anchors around which all else revolved. These could be represented by pyramids, by temples, by spires, by minarets. I think that there are many other historians and thinkers who have had a deep appreciation for public open space and conspicuous institutions in cities. Often they represent symbolic patterns based on belief and ritual. I don’t think that there is, in a sense, anything particularly new about my readings.

Q You are a scholar of modernism, and are now focusing on contemporary religious architecture. Do you find that architecture or art modernize and change at a different pace than religion does?

A I think that by talking about spiritually motivated urban forms, one immediately addresses the fact that cities often represent the sedimentation of traditions. The topic immediately talks about a more historical dimension in which contemporary events must occur. I think it’s addressing this tension, if you will, between modernization and tradition, and that a characteristic of religious conviction is a strong sense of indebtedness to a reality that actually precedes individual. Trying to address how that might shape our current understandings of cities is important — particularly in this day and age, when one might speak of a resurgence of religious expression.

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