Church Lady

TEXT Paige Magarrey
PHOTOS Sylvia Grace Borda

It’s a funny thing. For all the criticism that religious organizations take for their rigid, sometimes outdated attitudes, they’ve often led the pack when it comes to modern design. Across the globe, minimalist Mid-Century Modern religious buildings sit like otherworldly UFOs, nestled among both simple townships and bustling cities as monuments to the postwar building boom of the ’50s and ’60s: Frank Lloyd Wright’s pyramid-like Beth Sholom Synagogue on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Wendell E. Rossman’s curvaceous and wavy designs in Arizona, and British architects Robert Maguire and Keith Murray’s iconic Bow Common in London. 

  It’s structures like these, albeit slightly more underplayed ones, that Sylvia Grace Borda sought to capture in her latest collection. The Vancouver photographer spent three years in Northern Ireland before she decided to start a two-year traipse across the country, travelling to the most far-flung locales to photograph religious buildings far off any tourist map. The resulting installation, exhibited at the Belfast Exposed Gallery this past winter, showcased 100 images of Modernist religious buildings constructed after World War II and before the ethno-political conflict that rattled Northern Ireland until just a decade or so ago. The images were projected as a slide show on the wall with nary a title card; no indication of each building’s religious affiliation, location, or even architect. The absence of information was a deliberate and simple decision, and certainly not the first time a piece of art has been shown devoid of context. But in Borda’s case it’s a fascinating commentary on the equalizing effect of the Modernist aesthetic. Previously, the architecture of “sacred” or religious buildings was not only informed by its faith, it was defined by it–think of Christian medieval churches built with a cross-shaped footprint. Enter Modernism–and the forward-looking, innovative architects behind it–and buttresses were replaced by stark concrete shells, and bell towers by dramatic, ethereal rooflines. All of a sudden, a Greek Orthodox Church becomes relatively indiscernible from an Islamic mosque–not impossibly, mind you, but certainly compared to the ornate designs of even 50 years prior.

  Borda’s photographs are indistinguishable as religious sites, tourist hotspots or otherwise; instead, they become simple testaments to one of the most significant architectural periods in the past century. It’s a statement made all the more tongue-in-cheek by the installation’s second component, a table set for 18 with plates printed with photos from the series–an abstract take on the souvenir plates found at tourist sites across the globe. Photos and kitschy souvenirs to remember a place you haven’t been to and couldn’t find if you wanted to. What could be more modern than that? And while such a review of the equalizing effect of Modernism would be poignant anywhere, in the context of Northern Ireland, a country whose identity has been defined by religious turmoil and a sense of “otherness,” the simple slide show and dining table set-up becomes a compelling conversation-starter long after closing night. CA

Paige Magarrey is an architecture and design writer based in Toronto.