[Editor’s Note: This essay serves as the introduction to Courtney Bender’s portal on “The Architecture of Multi-faith Prayer.”]
When you stop to think about it, there is something sort of strange about the multi-faith chapels, buildings, and prayer rooms that form a familiar part of our contemporary institutional landscape. We find them in airports, hospitals, prisons, shopping malls, entertainment complexes, and universities. They include soaring architectural landmarks and simple rooms where design seems to be an afterthought at best. Unlike chapels, churches, synagogues, and mosques—all of which are designed for particular ritual activities and draw on or speak to specific theologies and religious histories—multi-faith spaces must make it possible for individuals or groups with diverse theologies, rituals, and symbols to pray. So, why does this not seem like an impossible task? Or rather, why does it appear to be a necessary one?
At first blush, the strangeness of multi-faith (and less common interfaith) spaces appears to be the very question of shared space. While we can point to many holy or sacred sites that multiple groups might claim or share, the modern multi-faith prayer rooms, chapels, and buildings in this portal are almost all built and designed within secular institutions. They are placed on land that is almost by definition prosaic, perfunctory, not uncommon. Indeed, many are built in the crevices and liminal spaces of modern life—that is, where people are often on the move or away from some other place called “home.” This is where we anticipate the presence of a heterogeneous, “multi-religious” public, and where we apparently also find space to accommodate or promote our visions of religious pluralism.