Sacred Architecture as Solace in an Uncertain World

Volume 50, Issue 1 :: Karla Britton

Demountable church structure that is part of a trio of ‘Pop-Up Places of Worship’

Rendering of the demountable church structure that is part of a trio of ‘Pop-Up Places of Worship’ designed by students Chad Greenlee and Lucas Boyd.

In the summer of 2016, the Chilean Pritzker Prize-winner Alejandro Aravena pressed architects to move beyond “business as usual” to address the relationship between architecture and humanitarian needs such as housing shortages, migration, and environmental disasters. Aravena claimed that universities are failing to train architects to address an imminent global housing crisis. Poverty, population growth, natural disasters, and war are combining to create demand for more than a billion homes. But architects are unable to overcome the challenges posed by politics, economics, and building codes to deliver viable solutions. “It would be great, with more than one million architects in the world,” speculated Aravena in an interview published by Dezeen, “that more solutions and more proposals try to address the issue.”¹

Model of pop-up synagogue.

Model of pop-up synagogue.

Model of pop-up mosque.

Model of pop-up mosque.

The theme of displacement and migration has now become a focus for a number of studios and independent research projects in schools of architecture, in part as a means for rethinking a normative approach to cities and dwellings. Displacement may include the tangible impacts of climate change, refugee communities, and the flow of masses of peoples across the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe. Indeed, human displacement related to environmental hazards—droughts, floods, heat waves, wild fires, and rising tides—has drawn architects and planners into interdisciplinary discussions addressing global health. In addition, the focus has also included the more intangible challenges of psychological displacement. Global attention was brought to the Olympic Refugee Team which competed in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, and which was comprised of athletes displaced from the countries of Ethiopia, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan. The design of the refugee flag, commissioned by the Refugee Nation—a bright orange banner marked with a horizontal black line, intended to evoke a lifejacket—symbolized the plights of those crossing the seas to asylum.

Children in the Kukuma Refugee Camp

Children in the Kukuma Refugee Camp make blocks for construction from local materials as part of Chi Zhang’s work in the camp. Photo: Chi Zhang

In this vein, “Pop-Up Places of Worship” was a recent research project at the Yale School of Architecture, carried out by second-year students Chad Greenlee and Lucas Boyd. The project (part of my seminar class, “Religion and Modern Architecture”) involved a deep reading in the context of displaced communities such as refugee camps of the typologies of the mosque, the chapel, and the synagogue, and a reassessment of the purpose of these typologies in current informal building settlements. The organizing premise of the project was that worship space should be treated as almost as fundamental to human existence as shelter itself. The project was also based on the belief that worship spaces have a real effect in the world, that communal gathering and ritual is still very much fully in evidence even in very informal settlements.

For Greenlee and Boyd, the religious space is a moment in which the rituals of disrupted and broken lives may in part “resume.” For them, places of worship may not necessarily define a basic need for human survival, yet these spaces do represent a fundamental aspect of many people’s lives to find and maintain places of meaning. In their words, the proposed worship spaces speak of the collective; to worship is “synonymous with being human.” While a small gesture, the pop-up religious space presents a provision for a right to worship even within the disturbed context of exodus; it represents an on-going commitment to the sense of community and to identifying and sustaining cultural traditions within the camp.²

Assembly detail

Detail of assembly sequence of the pop-up mosque.

In Greenlee and Boyd’s proposal, designs for churches, mosques, and synagogues can be rapidly assembled through a simple kit of building parts. Assuming a condition of highly limited resources, the idea of the pop-up is based on reduction, economy, and the notion of temporality. It challenges the idea that religious buildings need be monumental and permanent. In the words of Greenlee and Boyd, “the architecture of religion is inherently excessive.” What is necessary here is above all the symbolic or “iconographic.” They were guided by the question: “What are the critical formal pieces that connect a religious structure to a particular faith tradition? How many elements of a religious structure can be removed and still have the building retain its symbolic meaning?”

The project may be viewed within a variety of other proposals for transitory worship spaces and their relevance to humanitarian aid. The idea is most well known, for instance, through the Tokyo-based architect Shigeru Ban who is well recognized for his humanitarian work and cardboard-based structures. Ban, who won the Pritzker Prize in 2014, designed the Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand as a temporary replacement for the city’s former Anglican cathedral, which was destroyed by the earthquake that struck the city in 2011. As Ban said in an interview in 2014, “When I was a student everyone was working for big developers to make big buildings. And now there are many students and younger architects who are asking to join my team, to open programs in disaster areas.”³

Similarly, the key point of “Pop-Up Places of Worship” is symbolic of the needs of community, identity, and worship. It is as an experiment that asks us to think about religious structures as buildings that evoke through a rudimentary structure a sense of semi-stability. The chapel, in their scheme, resembles a basic gable roof tent with a cross-shaped support. Boyd and Greenlee’s design for a pop-up synagogue is composed of taut fabric walls over a square base with various entry points and an opening over the center, evocative of Moses’ tent of meeting in the desert. In their design for a pop-up mosque, they maintained a longitudinal axis oriented with the qibla. Based on a simple rectangular plan, Boyd and Greenlee arranged multiple modular bases for simple vaulted forms. Within a highly geometric design language, they have also adorned the floor surfaces with geometric designs.

The experience of worship, according to Greenlee and Boyd, has a universal dimension and is at the heart of what it means to be human. Multifaith centers have often been the most pragmatic solution when communities from different religious traditions require temporary spaces of worship. Yet, the importance of pluralism remained paramount in Greenlee and Boyd’s understanding of the role of culture within the temporary or informal settlement. As they explain, “the project rests on the idea that mosques, synagogues, and chapels are identifiable precisely because they look different from one another.” Displacement forces architecture to re-address its own foundations, seeking to stake a re-examination of concepts of dwelling and a sense of place. Displacement asks for how the idea of the sacred might remain fixed in time and place and yet how it can also move from place to place. As a result, a key question emerges: How in a world shattered by so much displacement can reaffirmations of an inner constancy persist or be given metaphoric form?

The form of the refugee camp itself has also become a focus for study and action. As an informal settlement, it draws the curiosity and talents of young architects seeking to improve the living conditions of migrants or displaced peoples. In a fundamental sense, the camp is an unrealized form of urbanism. In many ways, it is a placeless world, which therefore provides a ready laboratory for the rethinking of issues of the informal and formal; the transitory and the permanent; and the human necessity to define adaptability and places of identity, ritual, and tradition. The camp also represents confinement – months of waiting, years or whole lifecycles often spent in transit or living on the fringes of cities. It thereby represents both the physical and moral wounds of its inhabitants.

The Kakuma Refugee Camp, for example, which was originally established in 1991 in the semi-arid desert of Kenya and meant to house 8,000 refugees from Sudan, is now the largest refugee settlement in the world with 190,000 inhabitants from eight countries. It has become the focus for the research of a Yale College student, Chi Zhang, involving her in months of living in the camp, recording oral histories with the refugees she encounters, and documenting their music and gatherings for worship. Based on her research, she has designed a proposed community center. In Chi’s experience, Kakuma pushes into new realms not addressed by the official guidelines presented in the 600-page UNHCR Handbook for Emergencies. Chi’s work instead emphasizes a more nuanced reading of a refugee camp and its often quasi-permanence. Her work focuses on how crucial it is for architects to address the long-term impact living in the camp has on its inhabitants. Her focus is to have a real effect in the world of the camp; architecture as not something distant but fully instrumental in the lives of the Kakuma “citizens.”

As the French anthropologist Michel Agier reminds us, refugee camps and their inhabitants are emblematic of a human condition that is shaped and fixed on the margins of the world—one of its most tenacious foundations being our own ignorance of it.4 While political and geopolitical studies reveal the games of power and territory that fuel and provoke the massive transfers of populations, the camps reveal another dimension: the existential context that all inhabitants of this strange “country” share through the experience of exodus of a new kind of wandering life. The camp embodies the tangible consequences of the destruction of land, houses, and towns ravaged by war, as well as the broken trajectories of lives. As Agier writes, “By grasping human identity at the sites of its denial, we inquire more directly into its foundations: this is the revolt of life in contact with death; it is what they call in Colombia a peace built in the midst of war, a home that is imagined throughout the exodus.”5

The projects described here, where students of architecture have taken up the challenge to imagine what spiritual spaces and community shelter might look like even in the midst of radical human displacement, aim at this very task of grasping human identity within its most transient experiences.


  1. See Interview with Anna Winston, January 13, 2016 (accessed 2/1/17)
  2. First developed as a research project in Karla Britton’s “Religion and Modern Architecture” seminar at the Yale School of Architecture (2016), the project was later published by ArchDaily (accessed 2/1/17)
  4. See Mark Agier, On the Margins of the World, first published in French as Aux Bords du Monde, Les Réfugiés (Editions Flammarion, 2005), English edition (2008).
  5. Ibid. p. 5.

The author is a Lecturer at the Yale School of Architecture. The “Pop-Up Places of Worship” project was published by ArchDaily and won an award in the 2016 Faith & Form/IFRAA International Awards Program for Religious Art and Architecture.