a conversation with Matilde Cassani

I asked Matilde Cassani to select two places in the city of Milan where we could discuss the nature of non-places and sacred spaces today. I wanted her to identify one space considered as sacred for the majority of the local community – historically and socially recognized as such – and one “profane” space instead appropriated by a minor community and thus become a sacred place. As a first example Matilde chose the Santa Maria presso San Satiro church, built between 1472 and 1482 under commission from Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza and designed by Donato Bramante, and as the second the Chiesa di Gesù Cristo e dei Santi degli Ultimi Giorni based in a non-descript city building in the Naviglia district.

santa maria san satiroSanta Maria presso San Satiro church, Milano

MC. I brought you to the Santa Maria presso San Satiro church because I think that this is a good example of a sacred place with very traditional architectural features, even if it lacks the visibility of other places of worship located at more strategic sites in the city. San Satiro is instead based in an introverted position. But it has a whole host of features, such as the almost private gate granting access to a courtyard entrance then leading into the church itself. The fact of positioning a gradual entry into sacred space is part of the architectural rules of sacred space in the traditional sense. In this sense, this temple can be a good example in relation to those improvised places of worship such as the Chiesa di Gesù Cristo e dei Santi degli Ultimi Giorni  and others we know. What is missing in San Satiro is all the support given to social activities that some churches have, where even if they are architecturally poorer; they are better integrated in their neighborhood. I refer, for example, to the parish, sports fields, bars, the library, etc. All these things, however, are easily noticeable in makeshift places of worship, which often represent more things together, being not only places of worship but a collection of many different activities ranging from social activities to other forms of community.. .

GB. One of the first things I noticed when I was coming here is that there is a big difference between the perceived sociability outside and inside the threshold, which creates almost a prequel to entering the holy place. .. this is interesting because I think it is a phenomenon that involves several places of worship linked to our tradition and not only, a combination almost a contrast between the layered urban fabric as it is today and the classic status of the church as a place of worship; I think that in this case there is a lack of even social symbolism, that usually surround such places, even for tourism, although it is a Bramante church. Nevertheless, this building has retained the architectural codes, as you well describe them, that define it as a traditional place of worship. In this case, I’d like to ask what is your idea of the threshold, the preparation for accession to the sacred, which actually is the transition from the profane to the sacred, and vice versa … how important is the symbolism of the threshold in accessing the sacred place, and how is it understood today?

Gurdwara Singh Sabha, Sikh Temple, Via Bandini, Novellara, RE, Italy. novellara

MC. I think that today the idea of threshold is still very present, even in buildings that are not exactly sacred from an architectural point of view, those covered for example in the project Sacred Interiors in Profane Buildings. There is no preparatory access, there is no square any longer, there is no prospect or visibility of the holy place, but there is a time when crossing a simple door, seen as a filter, you can enter the holy place. So although it may seem that the threshold does not exist at all, because getting into an apartment can be completely devoid of sanctity, on the other hand the individual crossing the threshold – which is a port of the daily – tests a feeling of sacredness, charged by its individuality. It is something more, taken from the person and not from the space.

GB. As in the case of the San Satiro church, lot of architectural presences/traces of the past remain today, in some cases ruins, retaining their architectural symbolism but losing their associated meaning because religious acts are no longer performed, as happens in these other and new “sacred places”.

MC. Yes, probably because there people feel freer to renew their faith, treating it as a tool for discussion. In a place that does not carry the weighted memory of centuries people feel freer to build their own religion, almost as if they were adapting it to their needs.

GB. How do you think this need is linked to the fact that today we suffer from an excessive visual stimulation of images, and that it is easier to deal with an almost visually neutral place rather than with one that has already been charged with history?

chiesadelcristo Chiesa di Gesù Cristo e dei Santi degli Ultimi Giorni, Milano

MC. I believe that this is more of a feeling of community, (another question to ask would then be what is a community today?) in the sense that all these places of worship, rather than having an established presence in their neighborhood, have very active Facebook pages, profiles with many followers, photos, and testimonials, which are not found anywhere else, in any other register or in another encoded form of belonging. In this sense, the community exists in Facebook because it choose itself, because, for example, comes from the same country of origin or has the same age, or have common problems, or live in that densely populated neighborhood. So the community stems from a desire, not something given but something spontaneous.

GB. Besides, as you were already telling me about, introducing your research, many times this need arises because of an absence or a ban on using certain places.

MC. In this sense the city of Milan is a special case, as all Italy is, although there are many countries that have very similar stories. Italy does not have legislation ready to encode, to standardize new places of worship; thus everything is resolved in ad hoc operations, temporary solutions or illegal forms of resistance. What happens very often is that the communities find a place that they do not even call place of worship but cultural center; a form of protection against the legislature and a form of agreement to the multiculturalism to which they belong; it is a dual strategy in order to prevent problems that the community is not able to solve, both from the point of view of the culture because of the law and from the community perspective which can use a new space. The places of worship are then improvised in hastily found spaces.

GB. As you know, recto / verso is looking at the subject of ruins, what historically, both physically and culturally, remains. We referred to the thoughts of Marc Augé and his concept of non-places, places that are not identifiable, for example train stations or shopping centers, places that seem almost neutral and aseptic, and that paradoxically have not yet been codified, both in terms of relationships and identity, and are therefore potential sacred places. What is a sacred place today and how does it relate to the idea of the non place?

holybook_226x320_DS_lowres 14Baisakhi feast, 18 April 2009, Novellara, RE, Italy

MC. A first argument I think has to do with the concept of public space, according to the definition we use here in Europe, bearing in mind that a precise definition of public space is almost impossible … however, today public space is gaining increasing importance because it has a higher degree of freedom than the already built up places, in hosting different types of activities, from protest to public prayers. In that sense it is very easy to think of a public space that people use improperly or not according to the function for which it was conceived, but also that public space thus used is the ideal space to do such things. The example of the Sick in Novellara is fitting here: spaces both historical and newer are used by the community, even in an improper manner, and are perfect for what they do. These non-places area frequent current issues, because most of these are starting to add a worship room. Hospitals, prisons, resorts, cruise ships etc. which could all be considered types of non-places, often host a place of worship. Those assume the vague shape that the non places have, often confessional where symbolism is set to a minimum, without crosses, or other symbols, a neutral room that is not even called a place of worship but “room of silence” or “meditation room”.

GB. This discussion refers to a need for and a secular spiritual quest, not necessarily coded by a religious system; just to mention two examples, Sloterdijk, in the book You Must Change Your Life (2009), spoke of a ” vertical tension” and Foucault in several of his last texts wrote about “spiritual exercises”; in both cases there is a need to identify a dimension of spirituality, a sort of individual meditation, not necessarily religious, to get in relationship with what is not temporal and free from what we carry with us. The examples that you do leads me almost to think of a need for liberation from memory, history, it is something intriguing and difficult to understand and accept at the same time.

MC. On the one hand this is a freeing from memory and a individual-based spirituality. In this case, we talk about the “supermarket of religions”, where a bit of Catholicism, a bit of yoga and other forms of spirituality merge and create a personal credo. On the other hand, there are also forms of renewing of our collective memory. In reality, these places of worship, those that I searched for in several Western cities, all respond to the need for collective memory. In lots of cases, those groups were trying to rebuilding their community in the new country by buying things on the internet, changing the space according to their needs and culture. This form of spirituality becomes stronger when you are in a host country and nothing is given, memory has been erased and you rebuild it.

GB. What kind of temporality is then transmitted and protected in these places? In our Western societies, we almost all live in a time marked by the present. Koselleck speaks in this regard of presentism, where time suffers from a sort of accumulation, a reduction of experience where everything is consumed and shared immediately, quickly … what kind of temporality do these places convey?

MC. These places carry both a fast time, because they have a short life in their steps, the store becomes an apartment and then a place of worship etc. moving constantly; they open and close at the same speed that all the things in our life open and close at in this historic moment. But they also carry a long time because following a plan that is almost infinite, the process of inclusion of new religions in a stable and monocultural can last many years. The freedom of these places is therefore necessary, as they are a process; it is a necessity not a choice.

L’histoire qui menace ce monde crépusculaire est aussi la force qui peut soumettre l’espace au temps vécu. La révolution prolétarienne est cette critique de la géographie humaine à travers laquelle les individus et les communautés ont à construire les sites et les événements correspondant à l’appropriation, non plus seulement de leur travail, mais de leur historie totale. Dans cet espace mouvant du jeu, et des variations librement choisies des règles du jeu, l’autonomie du lieu peut se retrouver, sans réintroduire un attachement exclusif au sol, et par là ramener la réalité du voyage, et de la vie comprise comme un voyage ayant en lui-même tous son sens. (Guy Debord, La Société du Specatcle, Editions Gallimard, Paris 1992. p.172)

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