Religion and Architecture
Perception of space in religious architecture
It is said that religion and civilisation have worked hand-in-hand to create places that we admire dotted all around the globe today. Religion, in one sense, is a system of spiritual beliefs that is primarily based around faith, which is reflected and supported through various architectural means, ranging from localised places of worship to large monuments that we deem ‘Wonders of the World’. Putting faith into an ideology is to put complete confidence or trust into that conviction. This faith is then emulated in architecture and its process, where a well-designed space is realised into a final form that benefits the client according to their specific objectives, needs and wants.
This focused, individualised belief is contrasted with our globalised civilisation merging, adapting and conversing with one another producing a series of faith-specific spaces or, as is generally the case, an absence of faith-supporting spaces in our daily lives. Our everyday architectural experiences, whether it be studying in a school, working in an office or visiting an ill friend in the hospital, could support the realities of multicultural faith better. As architects we need to be more empathetic to all faiths, especially in nations like the UK where residents live in a large multi-ethnic society given the benefits that faith is shown to have providing a disconnection from consumerism and hyper-connectivity, taking on a new role to “create a sense of wonder, a space for reflection and a glimpse into clarity”.
Considering the importance placed on the RIBAs and ARBs policies on inclusivity, diversity and equality, architects are yet again challenged - how does one bring faith into the design of spaces in a way that is suitable for all but reflects niche qualities that echo high levels of spirituality and faith? The simple answer is a multifaith space, described by a research project by the University of Manchester as “an intentional space, designed to both house a plurality of religious practices, as well as address clearly defined pragmatic purposes.”
In an age where religion and the practice of worship is on the global decline, multifaith spaces can act as a space of mutual sharing and connection in the act of faith, an aspect that is more important than ever whilst living within a diverse society. One of the common ways that architecture can infer spiritual qualities without pointing toward attributes of one specific religion is minimalism, where the idea of “a decluttered space that is kept open and simple as possible that allows one to be present in the moment.” This allows for the user to refocus one’s senses, keeping in check with internalised breathing that heightens ones’ drama and emotions, and are intentionally created to reflect the natural human rhythm of day-to-day life, avoiding discrimination between those that have different types of faiths or beliefs.
Traditional Spiritual Place of Worship, Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/22/opinion/hagia-sophia-mosque.html
Although this design principle fundamentally avoids the visibility of a single faith group, some consider minimalism to be the death of spiritual space. What happens when you remove the iconic dramatic vault ceiling from Westminster Abbey or replace the magnificent screen carvings with solid block walls from the Hagia Sophia? These elements add to the charm and belonging of a user, whilst providing the necessary spirituality one is searching for. One can argue that no matter the religion or the culture, it’s the use of light and scale that evokes a sense of admiration and reverence. To neglect the ideology of behind these god-like ethereal elements are to neglect original architectural methods that personify the narrative of spiritual ascension and actually distance the user from their faith.
It is crucial that multifaith spaces, and indeed faith itself, are not afterthoughts when designing a scheme. A timber cladded box in an office with a label on the front door is not good enough. As designers, these spaces must possess architectural qualities that reflect past places of spirituality through their form, space, scale, interaction with nature, materiality and light, and translate this into practical, comfortable and safe 21st century spaces to be used by all. This creates a new type of typology, one that could echo the eclecticism of organised religion without directly relating to them. For example, modernised ablution spaces, curtains that ensure gender divide when necessary and subtle lighting that works as kiblat signage to accommodate for the Muslim faith will could become well-integrated elements in the standard part of multifaith room design. An assortment of solutions that cater to all major religions side-by-side would be definitive signal of the importance we place on faith in society. It is said that tolerance is the key to harmony. We think design is the tool to navigate towards acceptance.
Brand R.G., (n.d.), 'Multi-faith spaces - Symptoms and agents of religious and social change'. Available at: https://gtr.ukri.org/projects?ref=AH%2FH017321%2F1#/tabOverview;
Diversity Matters, Wudumate (2018), 'Multi-Faith Room Provision in the Workplace'. Available at: https://wudumate.com/files/diversity-matters-20.pdf;
Shah S. (n.d.) 'A crossover between Architecture and Spirituality', Re-Thinking the Future. Available at: https://www.re-thinkingthefuture.com/architectural-community/a6264-a-crossover-between-architecture-and-spirituality/;
Shen Y. (12 April 2018) 'Is Religious Architecture Still Relevant?' [web article], Archdaily. Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/891984/is-religious-architecture-still-relevant.
Image© Wikimedia Commons user Chongkian licensed under CC BY SA-3.0, available at https://www.archdaily.com/891984/is-religious-architecture-still-relevant