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How will migration influence architecture and the city?

Photo: Compilation of images courtesy of Jonathan Sergison

Jonathan Sergison

Changing hands


Contemporary cities are the rich and complex sum of the work of the many generations of citizens who contributed to their creation and subsequent adjustments over an extended period of time: they are our shared material and cultural patrimony and shape the lives of the people who live there as well as of those who visit. Today, many of the residents of European cities were born elsewhere but have, for one reason or another, made them their home. 


Halfway down Brick Lane, a well-known street in the East End of London, one encounters an imposing building that at first glance appears to have been designed for public use. Its appearance is reminiscent of buildings of the eighteenth or nineteenth century and suggests that it was built at that time. In the 1680s, Huguenot weavers settled in London, having fled religious persecution in France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes that had granted them freedom of worship for almost a century. Here, they commissioned Thomas Stibbs to design a church to serve the religious needs of the community.


In time, as these immigrants assimilated and moved out of the neighbourhood to areas that offered better living conditions, the church that had been erected for them became redundant. For a time, it served as a church for an organisation dedicated to converting Jews to Christianity – the Church Ministry Amongst Jewish People. This was not a great success, as the Jewish community had no interest in changing faith, and from 1819 it was used as a Methodist Chapel.  


At the end of the nineteenth century, the many Ashkenazi Jews that fled pogroms and persecution in Russia and eastern Europe adopted it as a place of worship. What had been a church was therefore transformed into a synagogue for a new community of immigrants. The fact that the building does not look explicitly like a church proved an advantage in its repurposing. 


Over the years the Jewish community gradually left the dense and overcrowded streets of Whitechapel and moved to north London, further east and to other areas of the city. A synagogue was no longer needed in this part of London, and the building stood empty once again. 


Available for reinvention, the building has more recently been adapted to the needs of the most recent group of immigrants who have replaced the Jewish community that once lived around Brick Lane. First built as a church and later used as a synagogue, it now serves the Bangladeshi community as a mosque. In the space of three centuries, this single building has served all three Abrahamic faiths. 


I find reason for optimism in this story of how successive migrant communities have adopted and adapted what they found in their new surroundings. European cities bear the imprint immigrant people have left on the places they have made their home. Societies that have welcomed ‘others’ have benefitted from layers of cultural accretions that make the host communities richer. This is by no means a contemporary phenomenon: human history has always been about the movement of people, a mosaic of contributions that shape both hosts and guests. In urban centres this is evident in buildings – how they are arranged, the expression they are given. No contemporary society can lay claim to a ‘pure’ culture uninfluenced by the contribution of migrants, and this is in fact what makes them so rich and particular.

Jonathan Sergison graduated from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in 1989 and gained professional experience working for David Chipperfield and Tony Fretton
Jonathan Sergison and Stephen Bates founded Sergison Bates architects in London in 1996, and in 2010 a second studio was opened in Zurich Switzerland. Sergison Bates architects have built numerous projects worldwide and the practice has received many prizes and awards. The work of Sergison Bates architects has been extensively published.
Jonathan Sergison taught at a number of schools of architecture, including the University of North London, the Architectural Association in London, was Visiting Professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne (EPFL) , the Oslo School of Architecture and Design and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Since 2008 he has been Professor of Design and Construction at the Accademia di Mendrisio, Switzerland. In 2018 he was made Director of the Institute of Urban and Landscape Studies in Mendrisio. He is particularly interested in urban questions and the conditions of the contemporary European city. More specifically he has addressed through writing, teaching and practice the role housing might play in this changing context.
He regularly writes and lectures, attends reviews in schools of architecture and is actively involved in commissions and competition juries.

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