The metropolitan rhythm of a “majestic religion”

I am pleased to announce the forthcoming publication of a chapter in a volume celebrating the legacy of Professor Bill Fishman, author of East End 1888, amongst several essential volumes of ‘history from below’ on London’s East End:

Vaughan L., and Sailer K. (2017) The Metropolitan Rhythm of a “Majestic Religion”: An Analysis of the Socio-Spatial Configuration of Synagogues in Nineteenth Century Whitechapel, in: Colin Holmes and Kershen A. eds An East End Legacy: Essays in Memory of William J Fishman. Routledge: London.^

The chapter was written with my colleague Dr Kerstin Sailer, an expert in buildings and organisations and using space syntax methods of analysis. It considers the streets, alleys, courtyards and buildings that shaped and mirrored Jewish life in London’s nineteenth century East End. It uses a multi-layered history of place to provide an understanding of how life was lived on the streets at the time. Against this background, the chapter will compare and contrast the building/street relationships between synagogues and churches in order to address the way in which the Jewish inhabitants of the district shaped their social-cultural relationships with their surroundings.

Focusing on a large area around Whitechapel the study uses Goad Fire Insurance Plans as well as other contemporary accounts (including the notebooks and maps of Charles Booth) to carry out a spatial analysis of the synagogues, chapels and churches of an area of Whitechapel to consider the way in which building interiors and public space exteriors interrelate. By distinguishing between ad hoc Jewish prayer spaces, more formalised (typically back yard) structures and other synagogues which are conversions from chapels and comparing these with the various church buildings, it will be argued that the East End provided a particular street setting which brought private, communal and public life into a nuanced balance.

Four types of synagogue found in Whitechapel, 1899 from top-left to bottom-right, examples of prominent, converted, passage and hidden types, highlighted on the Goad Plan of 1899. Image is (c) Crown copyright and Landmark Information Group

The concept of ‘metropolitan rhythm in the title comes from Simmel’s 1903 essay The Metropolis and Mental Life, whilst Judaism is referred to by Beatrice Potter (in a rather exoticising manner) as a ‘majestic religion’ –

“From behind the trellis of the ‘ladies gallery’ you see at the far end of the room the richly curtained Ark of the Covenant you may imagine yourself in a far-off Eastern land … At last you step out, stifled by the heat and dazed by the strange contrast of the old-world memories of a majestic religion and the squalid vulgarity of an East End slum” [In Booth (ed.), Life and Labour of the People in London, vol. I (1889), p. 170.]

The interior of Princelet Street Synagogue
^ Note 30/8/17 – this book is now published and available here. The chapter can be downloaded here.

Author: (sub)urbanite

Professor of Urban Form and Society and Director of the Space Syntax Lab, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Online in a personal capacity.

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