Throughout history, architecture has often been used as a way for powerful organizations to convey messages and buy compliance.
Religious institutions are no exception, using the power of a Gothic cathedral or a bulbous mosque to evoke a sense of awe, reverence, fear and respect.
These religious monuments often become collective heirlooms from a society they’ve long since outlasted.
They offer insight into how a particular group functioned, according to professor Barry Magrill.
“Religious architecture is not the same as civil architecture because there usually needs to be a community consult,” he said.
“So with religious monuments, you see how society agrees and disagrees, and you see human behaviour plays out.”
Magrill visits the Richmond Cultural Centre this Sunday, Feb. 24 to discuss the business of church building and the broader patterns of social and historical development in Canada, sharing research from his recently published A Commerce of Taste: Church Architecture in Canada.
Presented by Richmond Museum, and in light of its current Highway to Heaven: Richmond’s Multi-Faith Community exhibit, the talk will include examples of faith-based architecture in the city — of which Magrill said there’s plenty.
“Richmond has a good representation of historical architecture,” he said. “There are lots of new faiths coming here, so there’s a kind of resurgence in faith-based construction going on. There’s more than you would think with increasing immigration.”
Religious monuments can both take a traditional or a modern approach, depending on the message meant to be conveyed.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, newcomers, predominantly Anglican, wanted religious architecture that reflected their home countries, which resulted in a Gothic revival for Anglican churches.
“Buildings would appear grand to emulate another country’s grandness,” said Magrill. “They’d use particular styles to draw associations in people’s minds between Canada and the home country.”
Although this trend still continues with increasing immigration, some churches these days try to adapt a modern look, taking bits from a variety of architectural styles.
“They want it to be the community centre, not just the religious centre, so sometimes they look like actual community centres.”
In his latest book, Magrill focuses on the business of building religious monuments and the commodification of church imagery, which is somewhat unique to Canada.
In the early 20th century, many new architects in the country hadn’t built a cathedral before. Instead, they would publish books with images of churches either already existing, or ones they made up.
People would buy these books and flip through them like a catalogue, picking and choosing what parts they wanted for their religious monument.
“There’s a real business of building religious monuments that most people don’t clue into, which I find really interesting,” said Magrill.
Magrill’s talk this Sunday will be held at the Richmond Cultural Centre’s Performance Hall, 7700 Minoru Gate, from 2 to 3 p.m. The event is free to the public, but seating is limited. To RSVP, call 604-247-8333. For more information, visit www.richmond.ca/museum.