Can architecture achieve what humans can at best aspire to? Can it forge a dialog between religions and thus reveal common ground while also capturing the differences? In Germany, interreligious dialog has been underway for some time now. This is the country that produced Luther and thus gave birth to the Protestant Church alongside the Roman Catholic Church; it is, as the land of the Shoah linked inexorably with the Jewish faith, and is defined by the integration of Muslim immigrants and their descendants. German society today is a melting pot of religions and cultures, and respected worldwide for the peaceful coexistence here of these different cultures and religions. Not to forget that some dolts who are still stuck in a past era repeatedly manage to oppose the German culture of openness and tolerance. Now, intercultural and interreligious dialog in Germany may be emphatically underscored by a special and quite incomparable structure. An audacious experiment.
The very idea is courageous. And the fact that it is also to be realized attests to the especially strong wish to create a shared building in Berlin for all three monotheist religious communities, for the Christians, Jews and Muslims. A prayer and teaching hall, a church, a synagogue and a mosque all rolled into one. Multi-religious halls and buildings already exist elsewhere, for example at airports. In Bern, Switzerland, one is just being built to cater for six different religions. Yet none of these designs is as coherent, as poignant and perhaps as polarizing as the prayer house in Berlin – the winning proposal was presented to the public a few months back. Now there’s a book showing all 38 entries to the international architecture competition and it conveys a clear impression of how the project has been approached – and not only in German and English, but also in Hebrew, Turkish and Arabic.
The project was initiated some two years ago when the Protestant parish of St.Petri-St.Marien took up the challenge of trying to bring life back to Petriplatz in Berlin’s Mitte district. In the years 2006-9, excavation work had uncovered the foundations of a predecessor church that dated as far as the 13th century. Four churches were built here, in line with the ups and downs in the city’s fortunes. The last of them was erected in 1853 to Neo-Gothic designs by Heinrich Strack, but the structure suffered severe damage in World War II bombing raids and at the instruction of Walter Ulbricht was torn down in East German days. Since that time, Petriplatz has stood empty, until the excavations began.
Someone had the idea of building a museum, but this was rejected in favor of something more lively, something that pointed more strongly to the future. Thus it was that the idea of a prayer and teaching hall for the three monotheist religions arose – the three shape the face of Berlin today. The lavishly made picture book traces the process, with essays by Gregor Hohberg, the vicar of the Protestant parish of St.Petri-St.Marien, and his colleagues Tovia Ben-Chorin, rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin, and Imam Kadir Sanci, Muslim religious scholar and member of the “Forum für interkulturellen Dialog” – all three were invited to help structure the undertaking. After two years of planning, the not-for-profit “Petriplatz Prayer and Teaching Hall” association set up for the purpose hosted an architecture competition. The jury was chaired by Hans Kollhoff and, after studying the 38 entries (and they are all included in the book in the form of renderings or models), finally came out in favor of the proposal submitted by Berlin-based “Kuehn Malvezzi”.
Needless to say, the lack of historical precedents and the challenge of bringing three religions together under a single roof prompted a whole host of different ideas, in part submitted by renowned international offices such as Mario Botta or Jürgen Mayer H. The brief for the closed competition was carefully defined: The prayer and teaching hall was to fit on the footprint of Strack’s church and to integrate the archaeological finds into the new building. The preferred material was brick. The central aspect was on the one hand to unite the three religions in a single building while, on the other, treating them separately. To this end, the brief stipulated that there be a central hall that functioned not only as a transition to the three individual prayer rooms but also (symbolically and manifestly) expressed the co-existence of the religions. Not least, the hall was to have a certain sublime tone, and to demonstrate a special use of light.
The design submitted by Kuehn Malvezzi met all these requirements and also creates a striking landmark. At the same time, it also blends harmoniously into the urban surrounds, which consist mainly of apartment blocks. In fact, the church-like 32-meter-high powerful tower and the cube beneath it have the feel of a church about them; inside there is a central hall that rises up across several floors and culminates in a dome, thus uniting architectural typologies of all three religions. Not least, the three separate prayer rooms cite classical Christian, Jewish and Muslim places of worship in terms of the ground plans used. The entire building is suffused with light which falls through almost Oriental slits in the masonry.
If one compares Kuehn Malvzzi’s proposal with the entries that can second and third, then it actually seems to be a bit of a compromise. The design put forward by Riepl Riepl Architekten, Linz, came second and for the prayer rooms proper made less concessions to the respective architectural traditions, opting instead for three square rooms with a modern feel. The entry that came third, by Wandel Höfer Lorch, Saarbrücken, has a unique sculptural aura to it and in combination with three monumental volumes that resemble polished sections of cliffs, is also more radical – to the detriment of the central religious hall, which becomes a toned-down transitional area only.
The other designs likewise do not meet the brief quite as skillfully as the winning proposal by Kuehn Malevezzi, which is in fact quite surprising if one bears in mind that Wilfried Kuehn, Simona Malvezzi and Johannes Kuehn have essentially made a name for themselves with exhibition architecture. Indeed, the 38 submissions can essentially be divided into two groups: On the one hand there are the proposals that pay lip service to the three religions by giving each an independent look in the outer appearance of interior of the building. By contrast, there are entries that emphasize the shared, common properties and therefore focus primarily on the central religious hall as a venue for encounters and dialog. Navid Kermani, a writer and Orientalist based in Germany, writes in his essay for the volume, and he is quite right here that many of the designs are based on “Western church architecture”, which is why he does not advocate a tower derived from a church. In fact Kermani goes so far as to suggest that the Francesco Venezia proposal was ht eonly persuasive one, as it masters the interaction of the religions from an architectural and above all a theological viewpoint.
The Kuehn Malvezzi design of course raises the one or other question. For example, there’s the somewhat long-winded access to the prayer rooms – it’s a full nine meters through the central room above the ground floor, which is reached by a staircase that spirals round the reception hall and embraces it. Would not less of an obstacle course have been more advantageous? Or could the religious rooms not have been placed on the mezzanine floor which at present houses the reception and a café? And there is no place outdoors that could function as a retreat, say a garden or screened area where people can converse or contemplate under the open sky.
Nevertheless, the winning entry is a good compromise, just as the entire project of creating a building for three religions is a compromise. Some water will no doubt flow under the bridge until the edifice is realized, as the money needed for the construction work needs to be raised by donations. How the building then gets received by the respective religious communities and actually gets used is anyone’s guess. That said, what is already noticeable is that tolerance, farsightedness and the wish to broker dialog are doing a good job driving this project forward. The symbolic architecture for the interdenominational prayer and teaching hall will cause a stir, also and precisely because the idea behind it will trigger debates. Meaning that the building itself is promoting dialog and breaking ground between the religions before the first ground has been broken on site.
Das Haus der drei Religionen
Bet- und Lehrhaus Berlin
Entwürfe für einen Sakralbau von morgen
Gregor Hohberg & Roland Stolte (eds.)
Essays in German, Turkish, English, Hebrew and Arabic
Hardcover with dust jacket, over 180 illustrations, 268 pages
DOM publishers, Berlin, 2013