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Typology: Multifaith

Rothko Chapel

Religious belief systems remain powerful and distinct but, alongside the differences, comes a call for greater tolerance and cohesion. Can the worship of different gods take place under one roof?

In AD631 (or AH 10) a delegation of Christians from Najran, in present-day Yemen, arrived in Medina to negotiate a treaty with Muhammad. He received the Najrans in the mosque and, although they were unable to agree on certain doctrinal matters, invited them to pray there nonetheless, which they did – facing east.

This episode demonstrates some of the possibilities – and the problems – inherent in the idea of adherents of different faiths sharing spaces of worship. First, there is often no intrinsic impediment to taking the occasional dip. Muslims can pray anywhere, as can Christians, although Mass should only be celebrated on consecrated ground (according to Canon 933, churches of other denominations may only be used in extraordinary circumstances). Catholics aside, Christian worship is now more likely to take place in a light industrial unit or megachurch than in a cruciform building, basilica, rotunda, or any of the other forms that have been developed and disputed across the centuries. As for architectural objections to shacking up on a more permanent basis, despite there being great regional traditions in mosque design, there is no essential mosque-form. As the above list demonstrates, the same can be said for Christian churches.

Andreas Duschas

Andreas Duschas

Source: Andreas Duscha / Christine König Galerie, Vienna

The multifaith room in Franz Josef Strauss Airport, Munich

Let’s not be too indiscriminate, though: for many people the shape of a place of worship is extremely important. It’s enough to get certain forms torn down or banned – think of Swiss minarets, for instance, or the long-running battle between proponents of centralised and longitudinal plans in the Western church. The idea that a space of worship is sacred is not necessary to all faiths but it necessarily depends on the exclusion of the profane: so even though a Shinto shrine doesn’t have to display any particular feature, it occupies sacred ground on which to spill cock’s blood to Papa Legba would certainly be bad form. Strict Orthodox Jews are advised not to enter Christian spaces of worship (too idolatrous); however, a mosque will do – at a pinch – given that both mosques and synagogues are aniconic and both tend to separate the sexes. And the divergent directions of prayer adopted in the Medina episode show that fundamental differences remain even where there is an ecumenical will, albeit ones that could easily be resolved by some stackable chairs.

‘The Golden Temple in Amritsar has doors on each side to welcome worshippers from all four corners of the world’

That architectural forms are not intrinsically linked to belief systems is demonstrated by the fact that, historically, there have been many examples of places of worship being converted from one faith to another. However, this rarely occurred without vigorous modification: when the Pantheon became a church, its pagan idols were replaced with Christian ones, and the great mosque at Córdoba, which itself swallowed an earlier Visigothic cathedral, had a cathedral dumped in its centre following the Reconquista. There have been vanishingly few historical instances of purpose-built spaces for the use of multiple faiths: an exception is the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which has doors on each side to welcome worshippers from all four corners of the world. Its foundation stone was laid by a Muslim Sufi saint at the invitation of Arjan, the fifth Sikh guru, in 1574.

abney park

abney park

The unconsecrated chapel in Abney Park Cemetery, London, the first non-denominational funerary chapel in Europe


The problem of deistic multiple-occupancy becomes pressing only where faiths meet in a climate of mutual toleration, which is happening more than ever, even in these fractious times. But even when believers aren’t killing each other, there is little impetus to permanently cohabit – which is at the very least going to raise timetabling issues – unless it is to some polemical purpose or, more commonly, if space is at a premium.

Multifaith andreas duschas4

Multifaith andreas duschas4

Multifaith andreas duschas3

Multifaith andreas duschas3

Multifaith rooms in airports around the world featured in an exhibition bu Andreas Duscha at Kunsthaus Zürich, 2015

Examples of the former tendency occur in temporary circumstances such as at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, when a ‘Temple of Religion’ was erected to foster cross-cultural amity – just as Europe descended into bloodthirsty mayhem. Eccentric or visionary individuals lie behind other such efforts. Dag Hammarskjöld, second secretary general of the UN, established the meditation room in the organisation’s New York HQ in 1957. The truncated polyhedric space culminates in an abstract mural in the style of Paul Klee and has a black altar of polished iron at its centre (the room is beloved of conspiracy nuts, who regard it as the spiritual nexus of the One World Government). Oil-moneyed patrons the de Menils commissioned Mark Rothko and Philip Johnson to create a non-denominational chapel around a series of the artist’s cod-mystical paintings in Houston in 1964. Brotherly love was not much in evidence during the design process, which lasted until Rothko’s death in 1970: he quickly fell out with Johnson, who was replaced by a succession of local architects. Another, less easily parsed example of an artist-led project is the 1,500m-high ‘World Temple’ designed by Johannes Baader in 1906. Baader had trained as an architect, later became a Dadaist, founded a company called Christ Ltd and declared himself to be President of the Earth and the Universe. These qualifications evidently failed to impress Gropius, who turned him down for a teaching job at the Bauhaus. Was his World Temple a satire or a sincere ecumenical gesture – or both?

‘What defines a place of worship? Does it have to be sacrosanct? Must it display certain signs? Or is it enough that it feels ‘spiritual’?’

Multifaith andreas duschas2

Multifaith andreas duschas2

Multifaith andreas duschas

Multifaith andreas duschas

Source: Andreas Duscha

Multifaith rooms in airports around the world

The second reason for sharing space – exigency – accounts for the most common form of non-denominational worship-space, which is to be found in places such as airports, shopping malls, prisons and universities. This nearly invisible typology has been intensively studied by Andrew Crompton of Liverpool University, who has ventured into airless, windowless, carpet- and ceiling-tiled rooms in airports around the world to analyse this curiously modern phenomenon. It represents nothing, and yet it does represent something: the survival of belief in a demystified world, growing like weeds through cracks in concrete. The inadequacy of the architectural expression speaks of the contradiction between technological rationality and its opposite; nevertheless, it will do for one last prayer before hurtling into the emptied void (meanwhile, unbelievers imbibe their sacrament of choice in Wetherspoons).

Ironically for a typology that appears alien to the mainstream of Modernist discourse, Crompton’s object of enquiry raises some pretty fundamental questions about architectural form and functionality – what defines a place of worship, anyway? Does it have to be sacrosanct? Must it display certain signs, iconographic or architectural? Or is it enough that it feels ‘spiritual’? This nebulous idea usually entails round spaces, which in themselves are functional – they fudge the problem of orientation – and formally significant, since they can be claimed to symbolise globality or community or some other almost entirely empty concept.

Multifaith andreas duschas5

Multifaith andreas duschas5

Multifaith andreas duschas6

Multifaith andreas duschas6

Source: Andreas Duscha

Multifaith rooms in airports around the world

Crompton argues that these spaces are in fact impossible to design: since ‘being unspecific does not come easily to architects … Saying nothing might actually be impossible.’ He concludes that, on the whole, banal vernacular spaces do it better than architectural gestures. ‘Having visited many of them I would say that, in general, the larger the budget the worse they turn out, and that the UK, through its amateur and parsimonious approach, is the accidental world leader in this field.’ Not just in terms of design, but also in number: 2,000 have been opened here since the millennium – 13 of them at Heathrow alone. What does this say about the UK – about its tradition of grudging toleration of imported faiths, always holding them at arm’s length, never quite welcoming, but too polite (or too two-faced) to explicitly tell them to shove off?

MIT Chapel Cambridge

MIT Chapel Cambridge

Source: Gabriel Jorby / Flickr

MIT Chapel, Cambridge, MA, United States, Eero Saarinen, 1955

Perhaps the only successfully designed examples of the type are not multifaith spaces at all, but multifaith spatial ensembles. The now-demolished ‘Tri-Faith Plaza’ at Idlewild (now JFK) Airport in New York aligned three separate buildings for Jews, Protestants and Catholics along a reflecting pool outside the terminal, allowing for proximity and intermingling, while avoiding toe-treading superimposition; the proposed House of One in Berlin will bring together around a central courtyard three distinct spaces for Jews, Muslims and Christians. Perhaps this is the most sensible approach but it is also a recognition of the fundamental irreconcilability of religions – which are, after all, based on belief and not openness to new ideas. Like the porcupines in Schopenhauer’s fable, they huddle together – they have more in common with each other than with the demystified world outside – but their spines forever prevent an embrace.

House of One, Berlin, Germany, Kühn Malvezzi, ongoing

Berlin has an unhappy history when it comes to accommodating non-Christian religions, and the rest of Europe is treating synagogues and mosques in a way that balefully echoes this past. So what better place to set an example of a more positive interaction between adherents of different faiths than on the site of a church that was burnt by the SS and demolished following the Second World War – and which, itself, stood on the site of Berlin’s first medieval church? The idea of replacing it with a more-inclusive facility was first dreamt up by the church authorities in 2008; Kühn Malvezzi won an international design competition in 2012. The projected building consists of three separate spaces grouped around a towering central volume, which permits ‘unity in diversity’: the Jewish element is a lozenge, the Islamic element square and the Christian rectangular. The first two are equipped with galleries to permit gender segregation; the Islamic space has ablution facilities and the Christian space an organ. Rather than simply expressing a hope that proximity will breed amity, the central zone will be used to host events that encourage interaction. Funds are being raised to begin construction.

House of one Kuhn Malvezzi 2

House of one Kuhn Malvezzi 2

Houseofone 3 jpg

Houseofone 3 jpg

Houseofoneplan jpg

Houseofoneplan jpg

Setre Chapel, Kobe, Japan Ryuichi Ashizawa Architects, 2005

Japanese religion is syncretic, being composed of Shinto, Buddhist and Christian elements. And although only 1-2 per cent of the Japanese population is Christian, around 80 per cent of Japanese weddings are celebrated in a Christian style – that is to say, they have some of the trappings of a Christian wedding but are without any sacramental status and are not conducted by ordained ministers. Instead, Westerners are often hired from specialist agencies to play the part of the priest, and the ceremony commonly takes place in chapels that are likewise confected from ersatz elements of Western-style culture. The gleaming white Cristea Church on Okinawa is particularly splendid, with its gothic pinnacles and Corinthian columns, but there are some rather less-kitsch examples of the type – a case in point is Setre Chapel, constructed for a hotel in Kobe. Here there is no overt symbolism; instead, the dramatic site provides a sense of the ineffable, and hints at the Shinto element of Japanese syncretism. The concrete structure is cantilevered over the lobby and terminates with a glazed wall looking west over the sea to where the sun sets behind Akashi Bridge.

Setre Chapel  Kobe  japan

Setre Chapel Kobe japan

Setre Chapel Kobe japan2

Setre Chapel Kobe japan2

Abney park cemetery chapel, London, UK, William Hosking, 1840

Victorian London overflowed with bodies both living and dead, with the overcrowding of parish graveyards by the latter causing almost as much disquiet among the middle classes as the slum-dwellers. Contamination was feared and so a network of suburban necropolises – since dubbed the ‘magnificent seven’ – was built to accommodate the posthumous populace. These offered a resting place for various Christians, and two buildings were provided for the use of mourners of each confession. Abney Park  Cemetery was established in north-east London as an entirely non-denominational facility and, rather than constructing two buildings, its unconsecrated chapel was intended for all comers. The result was the first non-denominational funerary chapel in Europe, described in a 1903 brochure of the Abney Park Cemetery Company as the ‘Campo Santo of the English non-conformists’. The building’s designer, William Hosking, later became the first professor of architecture at King’s College London, and his antiquarian interests are reflected in both the chapel’s curious mixture of historical idioms and the splendid Egyptian cemetery gates. The cemetery company eventually went bankrupt, leading to the decay of the grounds and the chapel. This was attacked by arsonists in the 1970s and is now a semi-ruin, while the cemetery is famously haunted by cruisers and – according to one British newspaper – the scene of drug-fuelled tramp orgies. Non-conformist indeed.

abney park  cemetery chapel

abney park cemetery chapel

Abney park jpg

Abney park jpg

Abraham Ecumenical Centre, Barcelona, Spain Josep Benedito and Agustí Mateos, 1992

The Olympic Games brings together people from all over the world and, hence, adherents of many different faiths. This raises a challenge for host nations, which must find ways of accommodating a wide range of religious demands on site. For the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, a dedicated building was constructed for this purpose for the first time in the history of the Games. It was named after the ‘father’ of three religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – and comprised separate spaces to allow for simultaneous use by multiple groups. The project was administered by the local diocese, rather than the Olympic administration and, as such, since the Games ended it has been converted to exclusively Christian use – a change signified by the installation of crosses on the facade. The plan of the building is vaguely piscine in character, a response to Gehry’s famous sculpture but also, of course, a Christian symbol.

Abraham  Ecumenical Centre  Barcelona  spain3

Abraham Ecumenical Centre Barcelona spain3

Abraham  Ecumenical Centre  Barcelona  spain

Abraham Ecumenical Centre Barcelona spain

Haus der Stille, Frankfurt, Germany, Karl + Probst, 2009

Universities across the West are enrolling increasing numbers of international students, many of whom have religious requirements that have not hitherto been met on campus. In order to remedy this, some institutions opt for portakabins; others, such as Goethe University in Frankfurt, choose instead to make more-permanent accommodations, to be shared in this instance by adherents of every faith. The university hoped that, by doing this, it could foster dialogue, making the name chosen for the project – House of Silence – initially seem somewhat inappropriate but, on second glance, inadvertently apt. The building thus designated appears to be silent itself, devoid of explicit religious symbols. But that is not to say it doesn’t murmur certain aspirations. Its indeterminate plan is vaguely oval – an ‘inclusive’ form favoured by designers of non-denominational spaces – and the exterior is clad in timber. Ablution facilities and religious accoutrements are kept in adjoining rooms.

Haus der stille frankfurt germany3

Haus der stille frankfurt germany3

Haus der Stille  Frankfurt  germany plans

Haus der Stille Frankfurt germany plans