“They were found praying in the stairwells. Something had to be done. Cultural diversity was a key celebrated component of the success of the college. In fact, the college was known for its international depth and breadth, not only by the diversity of its student population, but also by its rich selection of course offerings. If it did not recognize and facilitate its Muslim students' needs to adhere to regular times of the day to pray, then how deep was the commitment of the institution to embracing and understanding other cultures? Soon, a room was found, cleared of furnishings and a cabinet for prayer rugs added, along with a sign by the door reading "Quiet Room," a place for all to worship. The story is familiar to many educational institutions.”
I wrote these words to describe the beginnings of my keen interest in the topic of providing space, sacred space for different world religions to use. To share.
I am an architect in the Boston, Massachusetts area and one afternoon, I received a call from a university vice-president asking if I would please help them figure out a way to provide worship space for the students that were not being served by the venerable old chapel at the center of the main campus. This I did, but the journey to get to that completed space was one that left me with many unanswered questions and a curiosity that continues to this day. How can the major world religions share the same worship space successfully? What are the similarities and differences in their worship space needs? What institutions are compelled to provide and maintain such spaces and why? What has been provided for shared worship space historically in this country, the United States?
In 2011, I joined with Alice Friedman, Grace Slack McNeil Professor of American Art and Professor of Art at Wellesley College (profile), and Wendy Cadge, Sociology Professor Brandeis University (website) since all three of us were asking the same questions about multi-faith spaces and finding that answers were not easily found. Together, we organized a Radcliffe Seminar titled “Sacred Space in a Secular Nation of Believers,” that was convened at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in the fall of 2012. This seminar gathered others - architects, social scientists, historians, and architectural historians - who shared our interest and were eager for a chance to focus on the topic. The background paper that Wendy, Alice, and I wrote for the Seminar participants is available here.
There are many who share our interest in multi-faith spaces. In the United Kingdom, a group at the University of Manchester researched and catalogued several multi-faith facilities. An excellent resource for information about various aspects of many world religions celebrated by residents of the United States may be found at The Pluralism Project of Harvard University. Also, not to be missed is Faith & Form, the Interfaith Journal on Religion, Art, and Architecture, a quarterly periodical that presents thoughtful articles and highlights recently constructed or renovated religious facilities.
Our website complements these others by sharing our own research and design, and showing what is possible when an architect, architectural historian and sociologist begin to work together on multi-faith spaces. Our strengths are in our collaborations, and we hope our designs and research will help this site become a place of discovery, where information and ideas can stimulate research and findings can be shared.
- Karla S. Johnson, AIA
Principal, Johnson Roberts Associates, Inc.