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Creating Sacred Space for All of Us

Creating Sacred Space for All of Us

By Don Frew

REFLECTING ON THE 2004 INTERFAITH SACRED SPACE DESIGN COMPETITION

What might a space designed to accommodate the needs of all faiths look like? In 2004, an international ideas competition was held to design sacred spaces where people from all religious traditions could feel comfortable, safe, and respected. This challenge was embraced by architects, artists, scholars, students, landscapers, and many others in 17 countries, resulting in 160 visionary designs. An interreligious advisory group of 17 advised the competition Jury, half distinguished architects, half seasoned interfaith leaders, in a project the planning committee framed in an interfaith context. Don Frew had the idea and directed the project for the Interfaith Center at the Presidio. His reflections below explain what motivated the competition and what was learned in the process. A book with plates of all 160 submissions as well as a 30-minute video are available here.

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As a practitioner of an “alternative” religion – Wicca – I have something of an outsider’s view of interfaith sacred space. For one thing, most existing spaces designated for interfaith worship are buildings, while my faith tradition prefers to meet outdoors. In my experience, current interfaith spaces are:

  • converted from other religious buildings, usually churches, or
  • so bland and sterile as to no longer be religious (i.e., most airport interfaith chapels), or
  • expressly designed to incorporate and accommodate a specific number of religions (usually “the big five” – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism).
The cover of Sacred Spaces – 2004 International Interfaith Sacred Space Design Competition, edited by Donald H. Frew – Photo: Christopher Werby

The cover of Sacred Spaces – 2004 International Interfaith Sacred Space Design Competition, edited by Donald H. Frew – Photo: Christopher Werby

None of these approaches are particularly welcoming to people of my faith. I serve on the board of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, housed in the Main Post Chapel of the Presidio of San Francisco. While everyone at the Center has always made me feel welcome, there is still no escaping that the building is a church.

The awkwardness of this was driven home when the ICP planned an interfaith event featuring a series of religious services, each by a different faith tradition, in the Chapel on the New Year’s Eve of the new millennium. Several members of my faith tradition made a valiant effort to do one of our typical rites – designed for a group meeting in a circle, with parts of the ceremony in each of the four cardinal directions – in a space that was rectangular, facing in one direction, and filled with fixed pews!

This got me wondering … Is it possible to have an interfaith sacred space that would welcome and accommodate the needs of practitioners of all religions? A space where everyone who entered would be inspired to practice their own faith and build relationships with those of other faiths?

Interfaith Sacred Space Design Competition

Out of this, the Interfaith Sacred Space Design Competition was born, and it succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. I assumed that this first competition would draw primarily from the United States and that, after the winners were exhibited at the Barcelona Parliament of the World’s Religions, the next competition would be truly global. Imagine my surprise when we suddenly found ourselves with 350 registrants in 26 countries!

Our intent was to start a conversation in which we would begin to discover the design principles behind interfaith sacred space. As a first effort, both the planners and the competitors were operating largely in the dark. As such, this has been a phenomenal learning experience.

I realize now what we actually did was explore the interface between architecture and the interfaith movement. There was a lot more disagreement than I expected, but at the same time I observed that not a single vote of the Jury split between architects and interfaith representatives – there was always crossover. However, I did note three main areas of disagreement.

I think that the architects often perceived the representatives of faiths and the interfaith groups as “fuddy-duddies” and “old-fashioned,” but this was a misperception. Most of the designs that the interfaith and faith representatives really liked were radically new designs from the perspectives of their traditions. But from the point of view of the history of architecture and its current attitudes, those designs were often dated and derivative. Both groups were looking for “the next big thing” for their communities. But the “next thing” for each group was 50 to 150 years apart. I don’t think we ever really bridged this gap.

The architects and interfaith representatives had very different approaches to symbolic geometry. The religious advisors tended to prefer spirals and circles – in a circle, everyone is equal and it can grow to invite and include ever more people. The architects felt that spirals were passé – “been there, done that.” One architect described the circle as “a complete, finished form representing perfection – absolutely the last shape you want for an inclusive space.” The interfaith representatives wanted square or circular spaces; the architects preferred rectangles.

I think that the architects focused too much on whether practitioners of a given religious tradition could use a particular design and not enough on whether they would do so. In other words, the bullet points listed under our Competition Objectives became the main criteria, while the opening paragraph about the sacred space being “welcoming” and “inspiring” was not given enough weight. I think this was partly because the “could” question was easy for the religious traditions to answer – it dealt with specific design issues like “Can I wash before the service?” The “would” question was much harder for the Jury to address since we really hadn’t articulated it – it related to the aesthetic sense of the religious traditions and relied much more on a gut feeling from individual faith practitioners.

What We Learned

The design of No. 19, “Space Confluence: A Meeting Place of Mindful Spirit(s),” by Vivek Anand, one of four winners honored by the Jury. Anand’s design includes caves, an outdoor processional path, gardens, classrooms, and a theater, and a river runs through the campus. – Photo: Christopher Werby

The design of No. 19, “Space Confluence: A Meeting Place of Mindful Spirit(s),” by Vivek Anand, one of four winners honored by the Jury. Anand’s design includes caves, an outdoor processional path, gardens, classrooms, and a theater, and a river runs through the campus. – Photo: Christopher Werby

At the same time, when the Jury agreed, we learned a lot about successful interfaith sacred space design. After hearing from the 17 Advisors about their sacred space needs and from the Committee about the history of the interfaith movement; and after looking at all of the designs, the Jury decided that “interfaith is intimate.” So they tended to look away from designs they considered “monumental.” This also applied to designs that were on such a large scale that sheer distance would tend to keep people apart from each other.

The Jury also decided that the interfaith encounter is grounded in community, and so they tended to reject designs that were situated too remotely – e.g. in the middle of the ocean, in orbit, or on the Moon.

The Jury considered the relation between the submitted sacred space and the environment, seeking a certain harmony between both.

Many designs were based on providing several discreet spaces designated for the twelve religious traditions described in our competition kit. However, as we had stated in the kit, we wanted the designs to create a space where all religious traditions would feel welcome. These submissions missed the “all” part of the objectives. Any person who does not belong to one of the twelve designated faiths wouldn’t feel at home in such a design.

The Jury also rejected designs that were too compartmentalized. Forcing each tradition into its own separate space tended to keep them apart rather than bring them together.

The Sacred Space exhibit at the Presidio of San Francisco – Photo: Christopher Werby

The Sacred Space exhibit at the Presidio of San Francisco – Photo: Christopher Werby

In contrast, the Jury appreciated designs – like the winning #19 – that incorporated many discreet spaces designed for different kinds of religious experiences, rather than different religions, and did so on an intimate scale.

The 160 submissions in this competition exhibit a degree of professionalism in execution that is rare for an open competition. They represent untold hours of work towards a dream of interfaith cooperation. They are the result of many more than 160 conversations all over the world about the nature of interfaith sacred space. We wanted to start a conversation. Well, the whole world has joined in.

Header Photo: J. Trotter