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Reflections on the Competition

Elder Donald H. Frew
Planning Committee

Donald H. Frew's Portrait

As a practitioner of an “alternative” religion—Wicca—I have something of an outsider’s view of interfaith sacred space. For one thing, most existing spaces designated for interfaith worship are buildings, while my faith tradition prefers to meet outdoors. In my experience, current interfaith spaces are:

•  converted from other religious buildings, usually churches; or

•  so bland and sterile as to no longer be religious (i.e. most airport interfaith chapels); or

•  expressly designed to incorporate and accommodate a specific number of religions (usually “the big five”—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism).

None of these approaches are particularly welcoming to people of my faith. I serve on the board of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, housed in the Main Post Chapel. While everyone at the Center has always made me feel welcome, there is still no escaping that the building is a church. The awkwardness of this was driven home when the ICP planned an interfaith event featuring a series of religious services each by a different faith tradition in the chapel on the New Year’s Eve of the new millennium. Several members of my faith tradition made a valiant effort to do one of our typical rites—designed for a group meeting in a circle, with parts of the ceremony in each of the four cardinal directions—in a space that was rectangular, facing in one direction, and filled with fixed pews!

This got me wondering…is it possible to have an interfaith sacred space that would welcome and accommodate the needs of practitioners of all religions? A space where everyone who entered would be inspired to practice their own faith and build relationships with those of other faiths?

Out of this, the Interfaith Sacred Space Design Competition was born, and it succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. I assumed that this first competition would draw primarily from the United States and that, after the winners were exhibited in Barcelona, the next Competition would be truly global. Imagine my surprise when we suddenly found ourselves with 350 registrants in twenty-six countries!

Our intent was to start a conversation in which we would begin to discover the design principles behind interfaith sacred space. As a first effort, both the planners and the competitors were operating largely in the dark. As such, this has been a phenomenal learning experience. Here are my own observations (although my opinions are not necessarily shared by all of the Planning Committee, Jury, or Advisors).

I realize now what we actually did was explore the interface between architecture and the interfaith movement. There was a lot more disagreement than I expected, but at the same time I observed that not a single vote of the Jury split between architects and interfaith representatives—there was always crossover. However, I did note three main areas of disagreement.

I think that the architects often perceived the representatives of faiths and the interfaith groups as “fuddy-duddies” and “old-fashioned,” but this was a misperception. Most of the designs that the interfaith and faith representatives really liked were radically new designs from the perspectives of their traditions. But from the point of view of the history of architecture and its current attitudes, those designs were often dated and derivative. Both groups were looking for “the next big thing” for their communities. But the “next thing” for each group was 50 to 150 years apart. I don’t think we ever really bridged this gap.

The architects and interfaith representatives had very different approaches to symbolic geometry. The religious advisors tended to prefer spirals and circles—in a circle, everyone is equal and it can grow to invite and include ever more people. The architects felt that spirals were passe—”been there, done that.” One architect described the circle as “a complete, finished form representing perfection—absolutely the last shape you want for an inclusive space.” The interfaith representatives wanted square or circular spaces; the architects preferred rectangles.

I think that the architects focused too much on whether practitioners of a given religious tradition could use a particular design and not enough on whether they would do so. In other words, the bullet points listed under our Competition Objectives became the main criteria, while the opening paragraph about the sacred space being “welcoming” and “inspiring” was not given enough weight. I think this was partly because the “could” question was easy for the religious traditions to answer—it dealt with specific design issues like “Can I wash before the service?” The “would” question was much harder for the Jury to address since we really hadn’t articulated it—it related to the aesthetic sense of the religious traditions and relied much more on a gut feeling from individual faith practitioners.

At the same time, when the Jury agreed, we learned a lot about successful interfaith sacred space design. After hearing from the seventeen Advisors about their sacred space needs and from the Committee about the history of the interfaith movement, and after looking at all of the designs, the Jury decided that “interfaith is intimate” and so they tended to look away from designs that they considered “monumental.” This also applied to designs that were on such a large scale that sheer distance would tend to keep people apart from each other.

The Jury also decided that the interfaith encounter is grounded in community, and so they tended to reject designs that were situated too remotely—e.g. in the middle of the ocean, in orbit, or on the Moon.

The Jury considered the relation between the submitted sacred space and the environment, seeking a certain harmony between both.

Many designs were based on providing several discreet spaces designated for the twelve religious traditions described in our competition kit. However, as we had stated in the kit, we wanted the designs to create a space where all religious traditions would feel welcome.

These submissions missed the “all” part of the objectives. Any person who does not belong to one of the twelve designated faiths wouldn’t feel at home in such a design.

The Jury also rejected designs that were too compartmentalized. Forcing each tradition into its own separate space tended to keep them apart rather than bring them together.

In contrast, the Jury appreciated designs—like the winning #19—that incorporated many discreet spaces designed for different kinds of religious experiences, rather than different religions, and did so on an intimate scale.

The 160 submissions in this competition exhibit a degree of professionalism in execution that is rare for an open competition. They represent untold hours of work towards a dream of interfaith cooperation. They are the result of many more than 160 conversations all over the world about the nature of interfaith sacred space. We wanted to start a conversation. Well, the whole world has joined in. That conversation continues at

May 2004

Donald H. Frew is a Wiccan Elder and is High Priest of Coven Trismegiston in Berkeley, California. He has represented the Covenant of the Goddess in interfaith work for almost two decades and is one of its two National Interfaith Representatives. He has served in the Parliament Assembly of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and currently serves on the Global Council of the United Religions Initiative. He is on the board of directors of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, and is a member of EURIMA. Frew is active with various local, regional, national, and global interfaith groups and is the founder/director of the Lost and Endangered Religions Project, focused on preserving and restoring the religious traditions of marginal communities.

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