‘The Mosque Above The Shop’

Volume 48, Issue 3 :: By Denis Byrne • Photography by Eugene Langan

The making of new sacred space in Ireland

Al-Mustapha Islamic Centre and Mosque

Entrance to the Al-Mustapha Islamic Centre and Mosque, located northwest of central Dublin, Ireland.

“Isn’t it characteristic of religion to produce distinctive, emotionally charged places—sacred places? Yes, it is. But only one kind of religion, albeit one that most of humankind embraces.”
Yu-Fu Tuan, Religion: From Place to Placelessness

We are dealing here, firstly, with religion—that ancient, shadowy concept, notoriously shy of the light of common agreement—and secondly with place, the here that is the city of Dublin and the now that is recent, memorable, and still anecdotally rich. This period has seen extraordinary changes in Irish life; in the economic area certainly but also in the social, demographic, political, and intellectual spheres and Dublin bears the marks (or scars) of this the most dynamic era in its history. Part of this dynamism has seen the arrival of new communities, with their ways, customs, and religions, seeking a new home.

In the telling of the story of religion and place we are also cognizant—as the humanist geographer Yi-Fu Tuan points out in his meditative book on geography and religion, From Place to Placelessness—that not all religions require sacred places for their existence. For some the sacred exists, not in the “magical and concretely specific but in the rational abstract,” in the elsewhere of placelessness.

Most of the stories in the exhibition “Sacred Space,” shown at the Dublin Architecture (darc) space gallery from February to April of this year, document religions that deal with the “magical and concretely specific,” the kind generally associated with the concept of place, the kind moreover that leaves telling tracks on the landscape of the city. Religions such as these rely on the making of a significant space through the act of marking off as separate for the purposes of ritual and occasion, however informal they may appear to be to the outsider. The root sense of sacred (sacer) has the meaning of separate or set apart and it is this formal act of setting apart, by various architectural and/or mood control mechanisms that we, like the scientist, observe and annotate.
The main focus of the exhibition is concerned with the making and unmaking of sacred space in Ireland over the last decade of the century just past and the beginning of the new one. The unmaking of this type of space and its transformation to other (profane) uses is inherent in the life-cycle of the sacralized process.

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Making: The Ground 
that Receives the Figure

For recently arrived communities in Ireland, looking to pursue and continue their religious traditions and practices, it has typically meant the appropriation of the available and existing rather than the construction of new space, just as the early Christians in ancient Rome adapted existing space to their use.

The fact that similar possibilities still exist in our cities for the creation of dynamic new entities within old elements, by giving them a new spirit and function, is shown by the many religious communities that have made home here. Occasionally, the newly arrived communities in Ireland have, if sympathetic in doctrine, brokered a sharing arrangement in existing church buildings, but many have tended to search out available, cheap, functional spaces and adapted them to their needs. Very often this search has led to the light industrial/warehouse areas at the edges of Irish towns and cities or to the many unnecessarily empty rooms about the ground floors of our retail streets.

This process has been repeated in Dublin, and indeed in Ireland, during recent times. Interesting new urban hybrids have ben constituted, such as the “church in the warehouse” and the “mosque above the shop,” and the new vibrancy may be detected in the peripheral and marginal spaces of our cities and towns. Though generally not involving architects at the layout or detailed levels, the conversions reviewed here nevertheless possess an irresistible attraction due to the dynamism inherent in the urgency of the intensely felt communal act. Where engaged, professional construction consultants are generally delegated to negotiating the tricky path through planning, regulatory, and legislative requirements of these modern places of assembly.

The existential urge to create sacralized space within the homogenous expanse of profane space is well documented by Mircea Eliade in his book, The Sacred and the Profane. Eliade suggests that, for religious man, “…if the world is to be lived in, it must be founded,” and we thus, on these terms, improbably found ourselves with apparently no less a project on our hands than a cosmological study of the founding of worlds (assistance from NASA may have been indicated).

The architectural conventions normally followed in the making of sacred space are not found important here, or even desirable; natural light generally plays no part in the articulation of these spaces, which may be considered as “black boxes” or almost-theatres. The idea of threshold is minimally observed, with most layout displaying sudden abrupt transitions from profane to sacred. Iconography, at least in the traditional sense, is restricted to the minimum necessary though the main space perhaps in part-compensation tends to be highly decorated.

In this context, significance or the sacralization of space is achieved by several functional means: by artificial light, by the positioning and richness of linings, by color, by the directional placement of furniture, occasionally by stage and PA systems; but always it is accompanied by the complete understanding of the procedures of the ritual by the congregation. The intensity of the religious experience contained within is acontextual and completely independent of the architecture of the container.

The containers indeed are nondescript and generally, at the urban level, unflagged; we only need to view the photograph of the entrance to the Al-Mustapha mosque in the Masjid Community Centre to understand this. They do not seek to dominate surroundings or command vistas; they may be considered analogous to the position of the Irish non-established churches in the 18th and 19th centuries, often found hidden down side lanes and buried deep within urban blocks, seeking only to practice faith near their congregation, quietly and unobserved. The older Catholic churches bear witness to this uncertain early time, before the triumphal emergence of later days.

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The images in this part of the exhibition are inevitably people-centered, being demonstrably less to do with the buildings themselves, and the photo-essay form reveals the spirit of this quiet revolution most appropriately. The photographs are the result of long hours by the photographer, Eugene Langan, of talking with communities, of gaining trust sufficiently to allow full camera access to places of worship during worship. It is of immense credit to Langan and symptomatic of his patience, professionalism, and profound interest in the human condition that he managed to win the acceptance and trust of the various communities that are the subjects of his exceptional photographs. Great thanks are also due to the communities for their courage in accepting and welcoming the curiosity of outsiders.

In conclusion, this exhibition seeks to explore the changing landscape of faith in Dublin and the hitherto barely documented re-use, adaption, and re-appropriation of existing space to meet this need. It portrays the city as a place of dynamic change, of human ingenuity, and of tremendous community spirit, against a background of economic turmoil and uncertainty. The fundamental aim has been to document and transmit part of the message that cities carry, and have always carried—that of hope for the future.

The author is the director of Denis Byrne Architects in Dublin, and heads the darc space gallery. This article is adapted from Byrne’s Preface to the Sacred Space exhibit catalogue. A copy of the catalogue is available by contacting the darc space gallery at: info@darcspace.ie.