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Multi-Faith Spaces - Symptoms and Agents of Religious and Social Change

Research Background

Beliefs, rituals and religious practices are remain routine anchors of identity in modern multi-cultural societies. Taking this 'social fact' as a starting point, this project documents how religious diversity (or belief, ritual and practice) might be accommodated via the provision of multi-faith spaces (MFS). These spaces come in all shapes and sizes, and at a basic level can be positioned along several spectra;

This typology would therefore incorporate (amongst other styles):

Within the United Kingdom, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) was supportive of such spaces, explicitly acknowledging the importance of ‘shared spaces for interaction’ within the report Face to Face and Side by Side: A Framework for Partnership in our Multi Faith Society (2008). Additional support could also be found within the final report of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, entitled Our Shared Future (2007). Whilst the world-wide economic recession has seen these issues move down the political agenda, there still appear to be what might be termed 'supply side' reasons for the development of MFS. Thus, whilst some proponents appear to perceive MFS as simply ‘the right thing to do’, and as tangible manifestations of tolerance and pluralism, others are motivated by a more general desire to facilitate friendly encounters between different faiths, yet others may possess more instrumental aims (e.g. to attract ‘custom, or to mitigate ‘disquiet’).

Our conceptual framework is inspired by Science and Technology Studies, and strands in architectural theory that emphasise the inextricably recursive relationship between the material/spatial and the social/behavioural. The following three paragraphs describe the application of this framework to MFS:

 

Zorg Compass
Zorg Compass: Delfshaven Nursing Home, Rotterdam.

 

MFS are socially shaped

We suggest that a range of social, political and economic priorities impinge upon the existence and design of multi-faith space. Hence, if a range of religious representatives are involved in the design process, it will be accompanied by controversies about material detail. Moreover, where such stakeholders are not involved, this process might revert to a rather sterile, technical procedure, whilst anecdotal evidence suggests that attempts to ‘accommodate everyone’ could lead to somewhat ‘bland’ environments, whose design appears guided merely by an absence of features that might offend. Nonetheless, examples exist where designers have managed to combine authenticity with a style that rises above what might be termed ‘the lowest common denominator’. We hope to recognise and detail such spaces.

 

VU University Meditation Room
VU University Meditation Room, Amsterdam.

 

Materiality matters

We are interested in what happens within MFS: how encounters are facilitated between different norms, and how these new forms of practice might alter the visibility of religion and faith-based activity in an increasingly secularised society. We suggest that the effects produced may, to a large extent, be a function of architecture, orientation, location and appearance (décor, cleanliness, seating plans, etc). A prayer room for Jews, for example, only requires a mezuzah, and the iconography preferred by some Christians explains the existence of curtains or closets where such artefacts can be removed from view. Washing facilities are required by all Muslims, and separate entries for men and women by some. Wiccans and neo-pagans prefer worship in natural settings, and Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Jains, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Mormons and Quakers have yet other material preferences. Thus, whilst practices of worship within these spaces are of interest, we also seek to adequately capture the mundane daily activities undertaken within them, by chaplains, building managers, maintenance staff, and assorted ‘users’.

 

Burnley and Pendle Faith Centre
Burnley & Pendle Faith Centre.

 

More modest ambitions

Evidence gathered during the preparation for our project suggested that it might be extremely difficult to facilitate the full and synchronous articulation of everyone’s faith in a mono-functional, single-room MFS, an assumption that this project aims to fully test. Accordingly, this form may also be particularly unsuitable for the promotion of genuine encounters between members of different faiths. Resultantly, we are interested as to whether it would be more acceptable to share spaces if their use was not exclusively dedicated to worship, but to a range of additional activities including learning, playing, relaxing, exercising, etc. While it is a considerable challenge to design a dormitory kitchen for the preparation of both kosher and halal food, in some ways this might still be less ambitious than a shared worship space. In sum, perhaps it is more realistic to expect genuine encounters between different faith groups in places where the stakes are lower?

Related projects

This project is influenced by two others within which the Manchester Architecture Research Centre is involved:

  1. A doctoral study of Methodist Central Halls (MCH), a building type that combined worship with entertainment and social services in a non church-like building (AHRC, 2007-10–CDA07/288).
  2. The Urban Environment – Mirror and Mediator of Radicalisation? (UEMM, ESRC RES-181-25-0028), which aims at identifying the socio-material mechanisms of radicalisation in Belfast, Beirut, Berlin and Amsterdam. This project rests upon the assumption that the urban environment can either alleviate or accentuate segregation, polarisation and even radicalisation. Its focus is on political violence rather than on inter-faith dialogue. It also operates at the geographical scale of whole cities whereas the focus of the proposed project is on individual rooms or buildings up to the maximum scale of a residential neighbourhood.

Existing literature

Historically, these hybrid spaces have been subject to little systematic research. Mircea Eliade's books Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958) and Sacred and Profane (1959) are milestones for the understanding of the relationship between religions but they predate modern multi-faith spaces. Jeremy Clines' Faiths in HE Chaplaincy (2008) looks at the issues from a theological viewpoint whilst Richard Giles' Repitching the Tent (1996) investigates the impact of architecture on worship –exploring Jewish and Muslim roots and connections, but oddly making no mention of interfaith issues. More recently, Sophie Gilliat-Ray’s work has provided insight into multi-faith praxis in prisons, universities and the Millennium Dome. However, her intention to comprehensively cover all aspects of multi-faith life necessarily dilutes the focus given to the material settings within which this praxis occurs. We believe that her approach deserves to be broadened to provide lessons for designers.

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