by Jerry ElengicalDec 20, 2022
Growing up in an Orthodox Christian family, my religious foundation was built on gospel books and teachings, and never questioning what was taught. When I started studying architecture, many things from the Bible started to make lesser sense. The history of Christianity that led to the creation of worship places and the history of Christianity the gospels preached deferred at many places. Religion as a physical entity was more believable than an unknown spiritual one. However, amid the back-and-forth questions of what religion was and what religious architecture was, the one common thing in all religious beliefs and their places of worship was light. In the religious space, this belief manifested itself in the form of a guiding light, and in architecture it was the effect of natural light in creating a spiritual place. Despite the many architectural differences between a church, mosque, synagogue, temple, Buddhist monastery, and others, the way light marks a moment, always seems serene, divine and calculated. Light, in these places, is the main character, the power we hope to believe in through religion.
Therefore, when Sir David Adjaye's Adjaye Associates announced their project, The Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, UAE, I was curious to navigate the similarities and differences the three buildings hold—a mosque, a synagogue, and a church are on the same site, adjacent to each other, sharing the same landscape feature and knit in the same design language. In the current world, where social conflicts over religion, majority and power, have exponentially risen, The Abrahamic Family House, extends a radical dialogue. Though the concept of Abrahamic religions isn’t a new finding, a common space encompassing these principles together is a rather rare sighting. This interfaith complex in Abu Dhabi was inspired by the 'Document on Human Fraternity' signed by Pope Francis on behalf of the Catholic Church and Ahmed El-Tayeb on behalf of the al-Azhar Mosque on February 4, 2019.
Housing the three faiths—Imam Al-Tayeb Mosque, Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue and His Holiness Francis Church—The Abrahamic Family House connects them within a fourth secular space consisting of a Forum and raised garden. In contrast to the three identities, the architecture remains secular with the forms derived from the similarities they hold than the differences. Through the careful study of repeated features and influences in these faiths, the design emerges as a powerful plutonic form with clear geometry, structure, scale, ornamental details, and surrounded by elements of creation, water and light. Each building sits within a courtyard with triangular water features designed to cool the body. Upon entering each house of worship, light bathes the visitors, while hot air is pulled from the perimeter towards the adorned ceilings, tempering the interior. Wrapped in an off-white concrete that deflects the heat of the sun and references the sand and mountains of the Emirati, each form is oriented towards religious references whilst sitting within a unifying garden.
Imam Al-Tayeb Mosque
Traditionally, the core physical characteristics of a mosque have been associated with minarets, domes, arches and mihrab. At Abrahamic Family House, one could seldom distinguish which among the three is a mosque, mainly owing to the absence of these general entities of Islamic architecture. However, what brings the Imam Al-Tayeb Mosque closer to the conventional perception of an Islamic religious place are the arches and latticework. In a detailed look, the mosque holds many key features of religious design styles but is translated into a contemporary vocabulary. Due to the architects' careful consideration of geometry, scale, natural light, and the coming together of water and the courtyard, the divine experience of the mosque remains intact.
With its main orientation towards Mecca, the Imam Al-Tayeb Mosque adorns seven elongated arches in its exterior layer, signifying the importance of the number seven in Islam. Across the external circulation path, these arches adopt operable panels of delicate latticework, creating the mashrabiya—one of the most admired features of Islamic architecture. The intricate cutouts on the mashrabiya—resembling a jaali—also help in factors such as the circulation of air, regulating light and maintaining privacy. In the interior, a four-column grid creates nine ascending vaults, orienting the visitors toward the mihrab. The count of four columns is referenced from the Islamic notion of stability, order, and fullness that is attributed to the number four. Similar to the mosque architecture principles, the Imam Al-Tayeb Mosque too has two external ablutions—one for males shaped like an inverted pyramid and one for females shaped like an inverted sphere.
While the minimal cuboidal form with an absence of overwhelming ornamentation or architectural details might be radical for mosque architecture, the respite and calmness in the interior spaces, created through the careful play of light and shadow mend this gap. Light filters through the delicate GRP latticework of the mashrabiya screens, circulating air, shaping patterns in shadows and creating a serene movement inside, while maintaining privacy. The only fully opaque wall billows to make room for the simplistic stone mihrab, which is bathed in the patterned light from the screens.
Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue
The architecture of synagogue has seen many variations across the years, owing to changing social and cultural constructs. But an Ark at the eastern end, opposite the entrance, is repeatedly seen in synagogues across the globe. The Ark, formerly a niche in the wall was later developed with columns, a covered canopy and rich decorations, making it the main architectural feature of the interiors. At Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue—though not specified—the Ark seems to be a minimalist stone structure with unique angles crafting its form. This approach to design dives into the architects' idea to present the beliefs of the religion in 'how the user feels' rather than 'what the user sees.' The immaculate power of belief, therefore, transcends from ornamentation to monumental architectural details such as symbolic skylights, careful cutouts, and ceiling details, screening ample natural light.
Oriented towards Jerusalem, the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue anchors its main architectural language in three layers of V-shaped columns referencing the overlapping layers of palm fronds on the sukkah—a traditional shelter for prayer used during Sukkot, the Jewish festival of shelter. With seven being a representative symbol of man, and eight representing God above, the columns on each side of the building have seven points that touch the ground and eight points that touch the soffit. Symbolising both the tent-like structure of the Sukkah and the original tabernacle, in the interiors, a suspended bronze mesh tent descends from the ceiling’s central skylight and drapes above the congregation. For synagogues, a mikveh—a ritual bath designed for the Jewish rite of purification—is an important place. At the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue, the mikveh is a perfect square where one orients their way around a centralised square pool, taking each step on the mikveh journey until reaching the pool. Inside the synagogue, daylight refracting through the colonnade and suspended bronze mesh create the effect of dappled, filtered light referencing sunlight streaming through the palm fronds of the sukkah. The skylight allows stars to be seen at night and references the chuppah, a temporary structure used during Jewish marriages.
His Holiness Francis Church
Traditionally, church architecture has always followed a similar style and symbolism. The nave, aisle, bell towers, transept, chancel and atrium are a part of the structure, irrespective of the variations in the design. It is almost organic for people to connect certain features and designate it as a church, mainly elements that have been widely practised and carried forward from Gothic architecture, Renaissance and Roman Architecture, with the exaggerated ornamentation on the facade and colonnades being a few of those. While modern architecture and smaller chapels adopt alternative styles to mark the religious identities of the church, the monumental scale and hierarchy remain the same. When Adjaye Associates approached the church architecture for The Abrahamic House, they bravely steered clear of these conventional principles, very evidently noticed in the absence of a bell tower. The main reason for this extends to the architects’ initial concept that ‘all the religious buildings would be built on their similarities that their own individual elements.’ As they state, “the church is open to all and meant to be used by multiple denominations,” its design also is cumulative of that neutrality.
At the His Holiness Francis Church, the significance of light as a symbol of divinity takes the primary role. The orientation, therefore, is towards the east, facing the direction of the rising sun. Symbolising the vertical rays of the sun, a series of towering columns form the exterior identity of the church. In its interior design, the church is built on the idea of a ‘shower of ecstatic redemption.’ A sculptural formation of linear timber battens ‘showers’ down along the periphery and ascends towards the centre. More than 13,000 linear metres of timber form the church's vaulting and the pews constructed of oak are designed by Adjaye Associates, responding to the church’s external facade. While most churches have celebratory and ornamented altars, the His Holiness Francis Church opts for a minimal design, crafted in raw textures of stone and wood. In the church design, light isn’t regulated but let in, to its maximum potential. The wall behind the altar remains mostly transparent with the use of glass, thereby creating a frame where light becomes the power that the visitors look up to. However, contrasting this well-lit interior space, the octagonal baptistry has a conical form with small circular skylights. As the sun moves throughout the day, light pierces the cone to create additional shards of light in the space.
Bridging the three faiths together is the fourth pillar, a public space in community architecture principles, composed of the Forum and the garden. The common, shared single-story plinth encourages dialogue between members of the three Abrahamic faiths and stands as a sacred archetype that moves us closer to higher things. At the centre of the plinth sits the Forum, a shared secular space for gatherings and educational programming, including a library and exhibitions. The garden, located atop the plinth, connects the three houses of worship and serves as an outdoor multipurpose space for events, festivals, and community programs.
Talking about the project, Adjaye shares, “I believe architecture should work to enshrine the kind of world we want to live in, a world of acceptance, openness, and constant advancement. As an architect, I want to create a building that starts to rise above the notion of hierarchical difference and enhances the richness of human life. Our hope is that through these buildings that celebrate three distinct religions, people of all faiths and from across society can learn and engage in a mission of peaceful coexistence for generations to come."