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The Rubric of Success

Multifaith worship spaces are a global phenomenon, with most of the examples appearing in North America and Europe. New York, Boston, London, Manchester, Zurich, and Berlin were chosen either because several examples of the typology were present or because the city housed a particularly exceptional site. Research included photographic documentation and meetings with scholars, chaplains, and architects to better understand their design methodology.

Because the multifaith worship space is a relatively new building typology, there are few well-known precedents and no guidelines to follow, leading to significant variation within existing designs. However, after visiting several sites, patterns emerged around the most thoughtful solutions, which can be broken down into the three following principles for the successful design of a multifaith worship space:

Principle 1: Programmatic Robustness 

Are all religious spatial requirements represented to the fullest extent with all ritual needs accounted for? Providing a space without specific religious symbols is not sufficient; other elements to consider include the provision of multiple orientations for prayer; the use of movable furniture to accommodate standing, sitting, kneeling, or prostration; the storage and accessibility of ritual items including prayer and study books, prayer rugs, and meditation cushions; and the methods for accommodating multiple worshipers at once through spatial arrangement and acoustic and visual barriers.

Principle 2: Potential for Encounter and Dialogue 

How does the multifaith worship space encourage people of different backgrounds to share space and create mutual respect? The spaces should make users of diverse religious beliefs feel comfortable practicing their faith, even while in the presence of others. They should invite users to acknowledge the religious others that share the space with them.

Though there are many ways this can be accomplished, two major spatial categories emerged from the research: the Multifaith Complex and the Multifaith Chamber.

The Multifaith Complex allocates separate prayer rooms for each faith so they need not share spaces with other groups. In the Multifaith Complex, multiple rooms extend from an anteroom or a courtyard or are dispersed across multiple sites on a campus. While this decreases tension between groups, it also limits interfaith exposure.

The Multifaith Chamber consists of a central gathering space shared by different faith groups. This model is more common, as it is typically less expensive and can easily be adapted from the various vacant spaces that are frequently found larger facilities. However, Multifaith Chambers require much more chaplaincy support, as various groups are competing for space to worship, which causes occasional moments of tension. Since users are forced to share space, the Multifaith Chamber’s potential for encounter is greater than that of the Multifaith Complex.

Principle 3: Spiritual Aesthetics 

Although what exactly imparts a sense of spirituality in a space is subjective to each individual, it is nonetheless clear when no effort has been made by the designer or administrator to nurture an aesthetic of contemplation and solemnity. Sadly, this aesthetic neglect is the case in most multifaith worship spaces. Since many of these sites are created with limited funding by non-designers, aesthetics are often the last thing to be considered. Even well-funded spaces are often left intentionally bland to maintain denominational neutrality. By contrast, the most successful examples achieve neutrality while also evoking spirituality through innovative design.

The following examples represent some of the most impressive precedents of multifaith architecture that successfully fulfill the three principles mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, this is a small fraction of the vast number of multifaith spaces hidden throughout the built environment, most of which are banal, underfunded, and lacking in artistry. This typology would be aided by further exposure in the public discourse and greater diversity of architects designing them. With critical projects on the horizon, such as the House of One in Berlin by Kuehn Malvezzi and the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi by David Adjaye, the typology’s profile is soon to be raised. As this nascent architectural form gains publicity, and the demand for these spaces continues to increase, we will hopefully see new and creative ways architects handle this complex and intriguing building type.

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