Sylvia Grace Borda's 'Churches'
Self-help philosopher Alain de Botton recently opined that 'ugly neighbourhoods are generally not ugly because they are poor, they are poor because they are ugly'. This statement is the most abject nonsense, but interesting in giving voice to a common assumption. The notion of what is ugly and what isn't, in architecture and town planning, changes radically every few decades, or less. Ornament-encrusted red brick and terracotta Victorian town halls, grand hotels and commercial palaces were considered hideously ugly, now they're 'beautiful'. For the Victorians, regimented, stock-brick Georgian squares, with their near-total lack of ornament, their disinterest in the picturesque and their machine-like right angles were the epitome of ugliness. When they could, they slathered these squares in decoration and imposed the irregular skylines they lacked. For Nikolaus Pevsner, the opulent neo-Egyptian/Hollywood aesthetics of the Hoover Factory in West London was a 'modernistic atrocity'; later volumes of his Guides have had to reverse his judgement, although the building is identical, but for the Tescos slotted into the back entrance. This applies in urban and suburban space as much as it does in mere aesthetics. Islington was ugly and is now beautiful, as with the stuccoed speculative squares of Pimlico or Notting Hill. The Victorian terrace has gone from being mass-produced to being 'special'. The Trellick Tower is now beautiful, as is the Brunswick Centre, largely because of the amount of the beautiful people that live there, or want to live there.
In architecture, judgement on ugliness, beauty, social ethics or elegance is an exceptionally moveable feast. That's something especially obvious on perusal of the Northern Irish chapels, churches, lodges and other religious buildings assembled in Sylvia Grace Borda's 'Churches'. What she does here is strip any possible extraneous source of judgement from these buildings. You are not told where they are, save that they are somewhere in Northern Ireland; you are not told who designed them, when they were built, or, rather crucially, what denomination they were built for. Instead, you're just presented with some buildings. Of course, the process of stripping any information from the architectural image can only go so far. The photographs themselves are very much aesthetic objects in their own right, with many of them centred or framed to expel anything extraneous from the picture – people, contextualising buildings, much else other than grass verges – although even then, sometimes something else has crept in. However, anyone looking at them will have their own preconceptions about this sort of architecture and where it might be located. Modernism, especially of the strident, sculptural kind showcased here, is still a controversial matter, and usually sparks off a customary, learned chain of association – modernism equals 60s equals concrete equals ugly, or modernism equals council estates equals poor people equals ugly; or some combination of these. The photographs go about as far as it's possible to go into just making you look at a building without any overarching prejudice.
What are we looking at, then, if we pretend that we're looking at something that isn't loaded? Sometimes we're looking at very dramatic architecture indeed, as where we see several triangular canopies with verdigris roofs, topped by spires. Sometimes we're looking at a more dour, boxy modernism, detailed sometimes in concrete, sometimes in rubble stone, and sometimes even in pebbledash. Sometimes we're looking at staggeringly nondescript sheds, functional in the most basic manner. Sometimes these are combined – in one photograph, we see a mundane pitch-roof shed suddenly erupt into a practically geological, expressionistic vertical feature. You often see similar things – crosses, obviously, but also a certain parsimony about the materials, a sense that some of these buildings were realised on the hop, with whatever could be thrown into making them thrown in; the architecture often seems to reflect a similar spirit of accident and improvisation. However, the nagging questions still itch at you. What? Where? Who? The photographer refuses to offer such details, and mentions when asked that usually, when people have tried to guess which churches are Catholic and which are Protestant, they've been mistaken; some of those which would seem to reflect the favouring of modern architecture by Vatican Two might, in fact, be Presbyterian.
When looking at the photographs, I thought of an experience I'd often had in Poland, where my partner was born and grew up. We'd walk round prefab concrete estates, and find within them extraordinary expressionist-baroque churches, with a real violence and power. Being foreign, I'd take them as pure architectural objects, as the most spatially imaginative and tectonically fearless things in sight – smashed glass polygons in the outskirts of Radom, raw brick and concrete temples in suburban Warsaw. My partner saw them as the places she'd had her communion and confirmation, as products of a church that became a property developer post-89; and was hence deeply hostile to them. They never featured in glossy architectural books or magazines, and were excluded from the canons of the Polish architectural avant-garde. That's not because young Polish aesthetes couldn't see the architectural qualities of these buildings, but because they were overdetermined by a very real and very present power to which they were hostile. The same would be true anywhere that religion or another form of power becomes overbearing.
These churches are similar, sometimes even strikingly similar as architecture to these Polish, Catholic examples; but you still cannot discover which is actually ecclesiastically similar. In the end, they start to look like one coherent movement, an archive of an architecture that is sometimes very ambitious, sometimes very cheap, a document almost of a vernacular modernism, of what modernism became when far from the metropolitan centre; both alien and utterly ordinary. The central part of 'Churches' finally domesticates the 'ugly' and alien, casting the images into ceramic plates, as if to mime the various faiths sitting around the table at Stormont; in the process, these churches-as-modernist-monuments become both more ostensibly friendly – homely tokens, souvenirs, no longer aloof or avant-garde - but also even more inescapable.
Chapter “Imaging, imagination, and the role of contemporary arts in Northern Ireland” published in the European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies Anthology
Absorbing Modernity, British Council for Venice Biennale for Architecture, Northern Ireland (catalogue)
Graham, Colin. Project review for “Churches: Coming to the Table” in the book Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography Publisher Belfast Exposed Photography Gallery and the MAC
Hatherley, Owen. 'Sylvia Grace Borda's Churches.' Belfast Exposed catalog (see top page for full text)
Magarrey, Paige. “Photographs of postwar religious buildings in Northern Ireland constitute a thought-provoking exhibition at the Belfast Exposed Gallery,” Canadian Architect, April 2012
Hunter, Dorothy. “Sylvia Grace Borda: Churches” in Photomonitor, UK April 2012
Fullam, Fiona. “CHURCHES” Exhibition Review in Visual Arts Ireland Newsletter, February 2012
Richardson, Vicky. “My Kind of Town: Guest column by Director of the British Council Design, Architecture & Fashion Programme” in Architecture Today February 2012
Laurence, Robin. ‘Churches’ Exhibition catalogue. Belfast Exposed Gallery, Northern Ireland 2012
Interview with critic Anne-Marie McAleese, BBC Northern Ireland: Arts Extra Programme – Broadcast: January 19, 2012
Absorbing Modernity, Panelist, British Council for Venice Biennale for Architecture, Northern Ireland (October 25, 2014)
Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography Artist panelist and discussion between Sylvia Grace Borda, John Duncan Mary McIntyre, and Donovan Wylie
For Sylvia's discussion about the development of CHURCHES listen to audio clips at https://soundcloud.com/mrulster/20130517-belfast-exposed-06
For a full audio record of the panelists in discussion visit
A paper on the development of this large-scale photographic project was presented by the artist as part of the inaugural Visual Arts Panel at the International European Irish Studies Conference in October 2012, University of Salford-Manchester.
Paper was peer reviewed by Dr Claire Nally, University of Northumbria.
The Ulster Museum in 2013 acquired a number of ceramic plates (artist proofs) directly from Sylvia to complement their own visual art collection. An edition of Coming to the table: Churches (a dinner set of 16 plates) was purchased separately by Belfast Exposed Gallery and the Northern Ireland Arts Council to add their own contemporary art holdings in 2012. The purchase of an edition by the Northern Ireland Arts Council illustrated the significance and support from within the country for the artist's endeavour.